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Sorry, Donald Trump and GOP: Invading Mexico Will Not Win the Drug War

A curious element of this year’s Republican primary is the growing debate over US military action against Mexican drug cartels. It won’t stop the drug problem.

Donald Trump speaking with supporters at a campaign rally at Fountain Park in Fountain Hills, Arizona. Image Credit: Gage Skidmore.
Donald Trump speaking with supporters at a campaign rally at Fountain Park in Fountain Hills, Arizona.

Attack Mexico? A curious element of this year’s Republican primary is the growing debate over US military action against Mexican drug cartels.

The idea seems to have originated from Donald Trump and probably would not work – US demand for narcotics will incentivize new importers – and could well lead to accidents and mishaps igniting an actual conflict with Mexico.

This would be disastrous for America’s relations with a neighbor – whether Americans like it or not, Mexico is our neighbor – and it would set back US relations with Latin America more generally for decades.

US Drug Demand is the Real Problem

The ‘war on drugs’ has deeply frustrating for the United States. Since the 1970s, the US has used martial language – and increasingly policy – to target illegal narcotics.

Over fifty years later, it is not an exaggeration to say the war has failed. Americans’ interest in using drugs has not abated, and there is little to suggest that all the police action and mass incarceration did much to alter American usage. We still have large, organized crime organizations moving drugs into the country.

We still have waves of intense drug addiction. The crack cocaine of yesterday is the methamphetamines of today. 

Targeting drug cartels in Mexico is not an obvious solution to this problem. US demand is what drives foreign groups – in Latin America, Russia, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia – to export narcotics to the US.

If Americans did not want drugs, these cartels and gangs would do something else. The refusal to admit that the US itself is the driver of the drug war is one of the most bizarre elements of the discourse around narcotics. 

The US should have learned this lesson in the 1920s of course. Then, alcohol was prohibited, and the outcome was not a reduction in alcohol consumption but an explosion in organized crime. Everyone knows this story, if only from the movies. The cartels of today are successors of Al Capone and company back then.

Just as Prohibition eventually ended in defeat, the drug war too will likely end in a partial surrender. Europe is experimenting with decriminalization, as are some US states.  Regulation, control, and containment of hard substances, not military conflict, is likely the best outcome available. Even if US force in Mexico somehow defeated the cartels, other players would soon step in to meet ongoing US demand.

Mexico is Our Neighbor Whether We Like It or Not

Drone striking the cartels or using special forces against them would not end the driver of the drug trade – US demand. But they might well destroy America’s relationship with Mexico, which would be a disaster for US foreign policy. A curious and disturbing part of the GOP is the disinterest in the fallout of such a hawkish policy.

Mexico is our neighbor – whether we like it or not. It is in our interest to have functional, if not cordial and friendly, relations with it. This should be blatantly obvious

Republican recklessness on Mexico seems to reject this reality. Even otherwise grounded candidates like Nikki Haley have embraced this idea and ignored. The reasoning is probably some mix of superpower hubris and racial disdain. America’s vast military capabilities have encouraged a general recklessness in US foreign policy for decades.

America’s use of forces in the rest of the world rarely impacts Americans directly (other than the narrow slice of military families whose loved ones are deployed). It is not hard for the US to use force against other countries now, and they rarely can hit back.

So why not drone-strike Mexico? We have been doing that all around the Middle East for decades now.

The other element is likely the deep GOP animus toward Latin America, especially Mexico, stirred up by former President Donald Trump. Trump notoriously said Mexico was sending rapists to the US and wanted to build a wall between the two countries. Opposition to immigration is a core policy plank of the trumpized GOP. A willingness to use force against Mexico, coupled to a blithe disinterest in the costs, is exactly the sort of foreign policy one would expect from the populist upsurge which has replaced previous, more internationalist GOP foreign policy elites.

Attack Mexico: Is it All Just Posturing?

Insouciant threats against American opponents have long been a disturbing part of the GOP primary. There are no domestic costs for such talk. Democracies’ elections are decided by domestic issues, so ‘out-hawking’ your opponents with outlandish foreign policy rhetoric is an easy way to communicate toughness and commitment.

But such language does lay the groundwork for such a strike later, should a reckless candidate win the presidency. Mexico would almost certainly respond with hostility, making no effort, for example, to control migration to the US border. Strikes could even lead to military conflict between the US and Mexico if things went very wrong. That, in turn, would damage US relations with its own region for decades.

In short, strikes will not fix the problem – which is US demand – and would risk massive escalation and conflict with a neighbor, who is therefore important to US foreign policy regardless of the GOP’s disdain for the country.

Dr. Robert E. Kelly ( is a professor in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University and 19FortyFive Contributing Editor.

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Written By

Dr. Robert E. Kelly (@Robert_E_Kelly; website) is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University. Dr. Kelly is now a 1945 Contributing Editor as well.