War on Drugs – War on Mexico?

War on Drugs – War on Mexico?

The opioid, fentanyl and drug crisis in the USA, alongside the wave of refugees across and from Mexico, now produces calls for US military intervention in Mexico. Reagan and Bush already waged a War on drugs in the 80s and 90s, with Mexico and Colombia, Escobar and El Chapo being at the top of the list, as was the US action in Panama against Noriega against this background (along with the Panama Canal and Noriega´s political course). In the meantime, apologets for an US militrary intervention not only call for the DEA, FBI and Special Forces , but also think about cross-border boots on the ground and even rocket strikes against the Mexican drug cartels.

Americans broadly support military strikes in Mexico, Reuters/Ipsos poll finds

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has said he would send troops to Mexico on „day one“ of his administration.

By REUTERS Published: SEPTEMBER 15, 2023 02:23
Updated: SEPTEMBER 15, 2023 04:56

About half of Americans support sending US military personnel into Mexico to fight drug cartels, according to a Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll, though there is less backing for sending troops without Mexico’s approval.

The findings show broad public support for calls by most major candidates in the 2024 Republican presidential nomination contest to send special forces into Mexico, the US’s biggest trading partner, or conduct missile or drone strikes there. Some of the candidates have said they would be prepared to send military forces without first receiving permission from the Mexican government.

„As we are in election season, they talk about intervening in Mexican affairs, about not respecting our sovereignty; They insult us, but one shouldn’t take them too seriously,“

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador

With the United States experiencing a dramatic rise in overdose deaths related to the synthetic opioid fentanyl, tamping down the flow of narcotics from Mexico has become a major theme among Republicans. Almost 80,000 Americans died from opioid-related overdoses in 2022, according to the US Centers for Disease Control, with fentanyl being the primary culprit.

According to the seven-day Reuters/Ipsos poll, which closed on Thursday, 52% of respondents said they supported „sending US military personnel to Mexico to fight against drug cartels,“ while 26% were opposed and the remainder were unsure. Republicans were supportive by a 64% to 28% margin; Democrats were narrowly opposed, 47% to 44%.

When asked if the United States should do so without the permission of the Mexican government, however, the numbers changed dramatically. Some 59% of poll respondents opposed unilateral action, while 29% were supportive. Fifty-one percent of Republicans opposed unilateral action, compared to 40% who supported it.

Terry Sullivan, who managed Republican Senator Marco Rubio’s unsuccessful presidential campaign in 2016, said Americans were likely open to sending the military to Mexico because the fentanyl overdose epidemic is affecting many communities across the country. Topics such as the Ukraine war do not have the same impact on Americans‘ daily lives, he said.

In a policy video released earlier this year, former President Donald Trump said he would direct the Department of Defense „to make appropriate use of special forces, cyber warfare, and other overt and covert actions to inflict maximum damage on cartel leadership, infrastructure, and operations.“

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has said he would send troops to Mexico on „day one“ of his administration, and he has not ruled out cross-border missile strikes.

Tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, and South Carolina Tim Scott have also signaled a similar openness to a military confrontation with Mexican drug cartels.

Haley told Reuters in an interview last week she would send special operations forces over the border with or without Mexico’s permission, a policy that does not appear to have broad support among Republicans.

Only former Vice President Mike Pence, former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie have stopped short of saying they support sending US military personnel into Mexico.

Mexican government responds

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, for his part, has repeatedly made clear that Mexico would not tolerate US military action within its borders and has derided the calls as „irresponsible“ and „pure publicity.“

He has urged Mexican-Americans in the US to vote against Republicans pushing such ideas and said that Mexico would react to any incursion, without giving details. Mostly he has dismissed the threats as electioneering.

„As we are in election season, they talk about intervening in Mexican affairs, about not respecting our sovereignty; They insult us, but one shouldn’t take them too seriously,“ he said last month in one of his regular press conferences.

The Reuters/Ipsos poll was conducted online and nationwide between Sept. 8 and Sept. 14, gathering responses from 4,413 US adults. It had a credibility interval, a measure of precision, of about 2 percentage points.


Under the old PRI government, which ruled for decades, these Mexican drug cartels were tacitly tolerated in the sense of a truce, as an ineradicable evil and, especially because of corruption and electoral support, they also sometimes even served as political auxillaries. The situation escalated with President Fox, who opened the War in Drugs under pressure from the USA and terminated the truce. The current left-wing populist President Obrador, in turn, is suspected by the USA and criticized for not doing enough here. Unlike in Colombia, however, the Mexican drug cartels did not try to enter politics themselves or become a member of parliament like Escobar himself, just as in Mexico there were no left-wing guerrillas such as the FARC or ELN or right-wing radical militias and death squads along with politicians who themselves ran drug trafficking or cooperated with the drug cartels. The FARC once made the mistake of kidnapping the daughter of a drug lord in order to extort ransom and concessions, but the drug boss murdered parts of the FARC leadership.

Furthermore, China and the Chinese triads have recently been blamed for the fetanyl and drug trade towards the USA, while Beijing rejects this as US propaganda from anti-China forces, especially since it also points to the internal social conditions in the USA that lead to drug consumption .

Dr. Evan Ellis, a Latin America expert at the US Army War College focusing on China and Russia’s engagement in Latin America with Mexico describes the situation in his article „Mexico’s Engagement with China and Choices for its Future“:

“Organized Crime

Chinese organized crime activities in Mexico are an area of increasing concern, impacting the United States through drugs, immigration, and other avenues.

While most ethnically Chinese Mexicans are law abiding, Chinese triads and other organized crime groups are deeply rooted in Mexico, tied to the traditions of those communities for self-organization, self-help and self-financing.

Studies of Chinese organized crime in Mexico highlight separate groups from the provinces of Guandong and Fujian, which sometimes collaborate in areas such as human trafficking.

Mexico is a common route for human trafficking by the two groups.  Local families raise money for the international operating Chinese gangs to bring persons from China through the region to Mexico, generally with the United States as the final intended destination.  The gangs arrange transportation and documentation as required and locating them in otherwise legitimate Chinese businesses in Mexico where they work often in conditions of indentured servitude to pay off the debt incurred to move them.  Chinese migrants have been intercepted at the US-Mexico border in small but increasing numbers in recent years, including 4,366 between October 2022 and February 2023 alone.

Mexico has also become a hub for the importation of Chinese fentanyl and precursor chemicals, and their transformation into illicit drugs responsible for the overdose deaths of 106,000 US residents last year alone.  According to a 2014 report by Mexico’s Attorney General, the country’s most internationally-focused cartels, Sinaloa and Jalisco New Genration (CJNG) have worked for years with Chinese triads such as 14K and Sun Yee On to import precursors, mostly from Wuhan.  Most recently, those cartels have set up laboratories and pill presses importing Chinese precursor chemicals, transforming them, and shipping them to the United States.  In April 2023, the US Treasury Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) designated two Chinese chemical companies, Wuhan Shuokang Biological Tech Co. and Xiaoli Pharmatech Co for their roles in such activities.  In June 2023, the US Justice Department unsealed criminal indictments against Anhui Rencheng Technology Co, Anhui Moker New Material Technology Co., Shutong Wang and Shifang Ruan for conspiring to import fentanyl into the United States.

The political sensitivity of the Mexico-China network was highlighted when, in response to concerns expressed in the US, Mexico’s President AMLO, publicly asked his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping for help on the matter, although the Chinese disingenuously denied knowledge of illegal fentanyl shipments from the PRC to Mexico.

Many of those drugs and precursors are brought in through Mexican ports operated by the Chinese company Hutchison, including Manzanillo and Lazaro Cardenas, as illustrated by a high profile drug intercept  in May 2023.

Beyond fentanyl, as noted previously Chinese organized crime groups are increasingly involved in money laundering for Mexican crime groups, greatly complicating efforts by authorities to track and go after cartel financial networks. 

The expanding role of Chinese TOC in money laundering reflects the synergy between the previously noted local presence of Chinese organized crime groups in Mexico, their longstanding ties with Mexican drug cartels, and the opportunities afforded by growing PRC-Mexico trade and financial ties.  Mexican cartels have used PRC-based banks and other institutions for trade-based money laundering for more than a decade.  In 2012, for example, Mexico fined its largest Chinese bank, HSBC, for lax money laundering controls involving transactions connected to the PRC.  More recent cases highlight how such laundering activities have expanded and evolved in dangerous ways. 

Chinese triads now employ their international networks to launder  the cash earnings of Mexican cartels in the United States and elsewhere in ways that significantly decrease the risks and costs for the cartels over traditional means, while increasing the rapidity with which they can obtain their money.  In one scheme pioneered by Mexico-based Chinese criminal operative Li Xizhi referred to as “flying money,” Triad members would pick up dollars from the cartels in the United States, and deliver them the equivalent amount of pesos in Mexico, in a matter of hours, charging the cartels commissions as low as 2%.  They would sell the dollars to wealthy Chinese wanting to move their RNB out of the PRC, then provide the RNB obtained through such deals to companies in Mexico needing Chinese currency for purchasing goods in China.  Each of these steps takes advantage of the opacity of Chinese financial institutions to make the transactions almost impossible to track for Western authorities.

China is also involved in Mexican organized crime as intermediaries and purchasers for a range of illicit activites, including in the mining sector, as well as in fishing.  China is the major source of demand and purchaser of the bladder of the endangered totoaba, obtained principally in the Sea of Cortes, and Chinese criminal groups operating in the area play a key role in the illicit trade.  Although the Mexican government has attempted to clamp down on illegal totoaba fishing, its efforts have had only limited impact.  Chinese criminal groups are similarly involved in illegal wildlife trade in Mexico involving butterflies, seahorses, shark fins, and tiger teeth, among other items.  Such activities are often interconnected with drug trafficking and other illicit activities through elaborate money laundering schemes.

The question will also be how a possible US military deployment in Mexico would affect US global engagement. Would a revival of the Monroe Doctrine and US military involvement in Mexico lead to a weakening of its forces in Europe and Asia, or would an increased concentration on Mexico/LA and China lead to a weakening in Europe? Would this matter at all? Can a Mexican quagmire be expected or will it be limited and selective? Is this more election campaign noise that will die down again? Especially since it would not reach such proportions and dimensions as the Zimmermann telegram in WW1, when Germany wanted to support Mexico against the USA in order to prevent it from intervening in Europe. But General Pershing came to Europe after his Mexican campaign.
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