The early stretch of the 2024 presidential campaign is underway – and with it a boatload of bad ideas and policy initiatives. One of the worst but increasingly popular proposals, uttered by several politicians aspiring to the highest office in the land, is to use the military to combat the drug cartels that have smuggled gargantuan amounts of fentanyl into the United States and turned swaths of neighboring Mexico into a war zone.

“If the Mexican Government doesn’t do something about stopping the precursor chemicals for drugs going through Mexican ports into cartel hands, we’ll send in the Coast Guard and the Navy,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican presidential candidate, has written. Several other GOP White House aspirants have made similar proposals. Brandon Bell/Getty Images/TNS

Former President Donald Trump, the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, has vowed to unleash the full weight and power of the U.S. military to hit criminal organizations such as the Sinaloa and New Jalisco New Generation cartels hard. This would entail deploying U.S. military assets in full cooperation with the Mexican government to take out the infrastructure those cartels rely on to manufacture, transport and smuggle the drug across the U.S.-Mexico border.

Trump is apparently so serious about his hard-line approach that his advisers briefed him on possible military options, including airstrikes against cartel locations and the deployment of U.S. special operations forces – without the consent of the Mexican government if necessary.

Trump isn’t the only one advocating for a hard-nosed approach to the problem. In the first policy blueprint of his campaign, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis wrote that “if the Mexican Government doesn’t do something about stopping the precursor chemicals for drugs going through Mexican ports into cartel hands, we’ll send in the Coast Guard and the Navy.” U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, another Republican presidential candidate, told supporters that he would “let the world’s greatest military fight these terrorists,” referring to the cartels, “because that’s exactly what they are.”

The only problem? The use of military force is so poorly thought out that it shouldn’t be considered as a legitimate option. There is no evidence that further militarizing an already overmilitarized war on drugs will give us different results.

First, taking out fentanyl labs on Mexican territory is merely a short-term fix – and a poor one at that. Destroying the buildings, equipment and staff the cartels use could disrupt operations for a time, but the cartels would inevitably rebuild the labs somewhere else, recruit more cooks and pick up where they left off.


Second, U.S. military force is highly likely to create a bigger humanitarian crisis on the U.S.-Mexico border – one that makes the current situation, in which tens of thousands of refugees from South and Central America are seeking to get into the country, look like a minor incident. Wars – and let there be no doubt that striking foreign soil is indeed an act of war – are often hardest on the civilian population. Livelihoods are lost, homes are demolished, society is disrupted and casualties are a given.

U.S. operations in Mexico wouldn’t be any different. The Mexican cartels would respond with retaliation of their own; people suspected of passing information to the U.S. are liable to be tortured or killed. This, in turn, would create even more mass displacement, something U.S. Customs and Border Protection doesn’t have the resources to handle.

Third, U.S. military action, whether it’s in the air or on the ground, targets only the supply side of the equation. The other half of the problem, demand for the drugs, will be left unaddressed. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that nearly 110,000 people died of drug overdoses last year in the U.S. Synthetic opioids, of which fentanyl is by the far most dangerous, contributed to about 68% of those deaths. The large customer base north of the border, combined with the cheap manufacturing costs and the huge profit margin, are all reasons for the established cartels and smaller criminal groups in Mexico to continue pushing pills into the U.S.

Finally, U.S. military action against the cartels will sever whatever cooperation the Mexican government provides to U.S. law enforcement and counternarcotics agents on the fentanyl issue. While it’s true that Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s administration hasn’t exactly been an ideal security partner for Washington – having shut down an elite Mexican counternarcotics unit last year, limiting information-sharing with the Drug Enforcement Administration and basking in delusions about Mexico not being a source of fentanyl – it’s also true that U.S.-Mexico relations would get a whole lot worse if U.S. bombs started dropping on Mexican soil. López Obrador is a highly nationalistic president who wouldn’t deal with a violation of Mexican sovereignty lightly. No Mexican president would.

Politicians talking tough on the trail is nothing new, and we’re bound to hear more of it. Let’s hope common sense prevails over jingoism.

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