WASHINGTON — The leading Republican candidates for president want to unleash military strikes inside Mexico against the cartels — with or without Mexico’s permission — and have not voiced concern about the likely blowback.
Donald Trump has promised a naval blockade in a second term. At the debate he skipped last week, rivals promised to counter the border “invasion” with assets shifted from Ukraine. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis vowed to send special forces into Mexico “on day one.”
Across the border, where memories of U.S. bullying are long, talk about SEAL teams hunting drug kingpins or drone strikes on fentanyl labs is not going over well.
Current and former officials on both sides say if it’s only campaign-season bluster that’s bad enough, but if they really mean it, the consequences could be dire.
Cooperation on law enforcement, security, drug trafficking and migration from Central and South America could be scaled back dramatically. Mexico could cut staff at ports of entry, throttling cross-border trade — despite the fact that each country is the other’s biggest trading partner.
The biggest backlash would stem from unilateral U.S. operations.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador called the growing calls for military action “offensive” and disrespectful. On Monday, he accused the candidates of pandering as they try to outdo frontrunner Donald Trump with “extreme anti-immigrant policy.”
“Since we are in election season, they talk about intervening in Mexico’s affairs, about not respecting our sovereignty,” he said, simultaneously downplaying the threats as campaign posturing and making clear such moves would not go unanswered.
Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs — the top U.S. military official — has called any uninvited use of force a terrible idea “that would just lead to something worse than what you already have.”
Mexico is poised for a boom as U.S. manufacturers shift production from Asia after pandemic-era supply chain disruptions. Over three-quarters of Mexico’s exports go to the United States.
But “the issue of military intervention is so sensitive that any president in Mexico would have to respond incredibly forcefully. Even if it hurt the country’s economy,” said Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute.
“It worries me when people talk about this,” he said, “because it creates a resistance in Mexico to cooperating with the U.S. on organized crime. These are international businesses. You have to go at them in multiple places, on both sides of the U.S. and Mexican border. You can’t do that if you lose cooperation.”
Polling shows just over half of Americans overall, and a large majority of Republicans, consider the border crisis an “invasion.”
That’s the backdrop for these calls for military engagement in Mexico.
It’s not just rhetoric. The Constitution allows states to defend themselves in case of invasion.
Gov. Greg Abbott has asserted to the White House and in court that because Texas is under “invasion,” it has the right to install an anti-migrant barrier in the Rio Grande and take measures it deems necessary without federal permission.
Depicting problems at the border as an invasion, and using that to justify a military counterpunch, angers Mexicans.
Martha Bárcena, Mexico’s ambassador in Washington for the second half of Trump’s term, views with alarm the rapid escalation of anti-Mexican sentiment, from demands for a border wall to open discussion of invading her country.
It “risks poisoning the goodwill and cooperation with Mexico,” she said.
She lauded López Obrador for “being clear” on the matter but said if anything, he’s being too restrained: “Our government should send that message more explicitly.”
Last week’s GOP debate made clear the consensus about the use of force in Mexico to address the twin crises of migration and drugs.
When it comes to drug smugglers, DeSantis said, “We’re going to use force and we’re going to leave them stone-cold dead.”
He and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy said they’d divert U.S. military resources from Ukraine to the Southern border — implying that concerns related to Mexico aren’t diplomatic and law enforcement challenges so much as threats akin to Russia’s military invasion of its own neighbor.
Ramaswamy, who also invoked the term “invasion” about the border, has promised to eradicate Mexican cartels “Osama bin Laden-style, Soleimani-style” in his first six months — referring to the al Qaeda mastermind killed in a raid ordered by then-President Barack Obama, and the Iranian commander killed in an airstrike ordered by Trump.
Trump has asked advisers to draw up “battle plans” for a second term “that include unilateral military strikes and troop deployments” into Mexico, according to Rolling Stone. In a recent campaign video, he vowed to “impose a full naval embargo on the drug cartels and deploy military assets to inflict maximum damage on cartel operations.”
His former defense secretary, Mark Esper, revealed in a memoir that he’d once talked Trump out of an attack after the president suggested “we could just shoot some Patriot missiles and take out the labs, quietly,” adding “no one would know it was us.”
The $4 million-per-shot Patriot system is designed to intercept missiles and aircraft, not destroy ground targets.
Two other GOP contenders, both from South Carolina, echo the message.
“I will unleash our military to crush the cartels and stop these terrorists from killing our kids,” Sen. Tim Scott said in an ad taped at the border fence in Yuma, Ariz.
Nikki Haley, a former governor and Trump’s United Nations ambassador, vowed last week to “send special operations in there and eliminate them just like we eliminated ISIS. If Mexico won’t deal with it, I’ll make sure I deal with it.”
“The Republicans cheering for war with Mexico are taking the United States down a dark, dangerous path,” Rep. Joaquin Castro of San Antonio, a senior Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee, said after the GOP debate.
The GOP presidential field isn’t unanimous on sending in troops.
Mike Pence, Trump’s vice president, said he preferred to “partner with the Mexican military” to destroy the cartels. Asa Hutchinson, a former Arkansas governor who led the Drug Enforcement Administration under former President George W. Bush, said economic pressure would be more effective because “cooperation makes a difference.”
López Obrador has urged Mexican-American voters to shun politicians leveling the threats.
His underlings worry about direct rebukes.
They recall the previous president, Enrique Peña Nieto, having to smooth things over with Trump after lambasting his anti-Mexico, anti-migrant campaign rhetoric.
“2016 taught us that anything is possible in the United States,” said one top official in López Obrador’s government. “We need to walk cautiously because during presidential campaigns, Mexico represents a low hanging fruit … we have a lot to lose.”
It’s hard to overstate the cultural scar tissue from events like the Mexican-American War — taught in Mexican schools as the Insurgency from the North.
The war ended in 1848 with Mexico losing half its territory — including California, Arizona and most of what’s now the American West.
The opening line of the U.S. Marines’ Hymn — “From the halls of Montezuma” — refers to a battle remembered very differently south of the border. Six cadets died defending a military academy in Mexico City on Sept. 13, 1847, from an invasion force ordered by President James Polk.
Sept. 13 is a national holiday in Mexico in honor of the boy heroes’ sacrifice. The youngest was 13.
The U.S. invaded Veracruz in 1914 and occupied the port city for seven months. In March 1916, when revolutionary Pancho Villa’s forces killed 10 Americans in a New Mexico border town, President Woodrow Wilson sent an invasion force of 14,000 men that hunted him across northern Mexico for the next 11 months. They pushed 350 miles into the interior before giving up.
“There’s this deep sense that you can’t really trust the United States because they’re going to come in, and just do what they want, and they don’t respect our sovereignty and they don’t respect us,” said Earl Anthony Wayne, a retired career diplomat who served four years as ambassador to Mexico.
It’s not just the presidential contenders.
Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and John Kennedy, R-La., are pushing a bill to authorize force in Mexico, vowing to “unleash the fury” of the U.S. military against drug cartels “wherever they exist.”
A similar bill from Houston-area Rep. Dan Crenshaw has 21 Republican co-sponsors, including nine Texans — though not the one who chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Michael McCaul of Austin.
“You’re essentially declaring war against Mexico, and it would have widespread ramifications,” McCaul warned in June. “There are ways to deal with the cartels, including other operations not quite so public.”
Such measures imperil the collaboration that began to blossom after the 1994 North American trade deal.
Mexico also was eager to be seen as a reliable partner on counterterrorism after Sept. 11, 2001, minding that any terror attack linked to Mexico would trigger a costly border shutdown.
Under Bush, who’d seen the value of trade as Texas governor, Mexican distrust eased. The U.S. began sending billions in security aid, providing police training to fend off corruption and improve effectiveness, and stepping up efforts to intercept guns flowing south to the cartels.
A rupture began when Trump took office, and deepened with the election of López Obrador in 2018, at least publicly.
Mexicans were deeply insulted at Trump’s promise to force them to pay for a border wall they viewed as an affront.
He threatened tariffs and other measures that never materialized — though he did manage to prod Mexico to deploy 28,000 troops to its borders with Central America and the United States to deter migration north, spinning that as a better deal than a $15 billion check for wall construction.
Mexicans say the deployments sapped the military’s capacity to fight organized crime.
U.S. officials say the DEA, FBI and other agencies routinely work behind the scenes with Mexican counterparts, sharing intelligence. Together they nab high-value narcos and take down drug labs, even as López Obrador railed about insults to Mexican “sovereignty.”
Two weeks ago, Mexico handed over one of the DEA’s most wanted fugitives, a leader of the Sinaloa cartel.
Tony Payan, director of the Center for the U.S. and Mexico at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, sees a delicate moment in U.S.-Mexico relations, with “quite serious” ramifications as DeSantis and others try “to out-Trump Trump.”
The flow of fentanyl is a major challenge, he said, but Mexico’s own “security breakdown” is far too grave for such casual discussion of invasion and military force.
“It’s just ridiculous,” he said. “You don’t talk about that, especially in a public setting. This is a time for diplomacy, not theatrics.”