Bomb Mexico: the Republican Plan to End Fentanyl Trafficking

Fentanyl and other synthetic opioids killed some 75,000 Americans last year. For leading Republicans that’s a good enough reason to send US troops to Mexico to smash the fentanyl cartels—with or without Mexican consent.

The first step on the road to war with Mexico is to label fentanyl and fentanyl-related substances (FRS) as chemical weapons. H.R. Res. 3205, the Project Precursor Act, introduced by Representative Michael T. McCaul (R-TX-10) on May 11, directs the US to “seek to amend the Chemical Weapons Convention to include each covered fentanyl substance.” If fentanyl and fentanyl-related substances (FRS) are chemical weapons then it makes sense to respond to them militarily.

To justify a military response, the cartels can’t simply be criminals. They have to be terrorists. The brainchild of Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), the Ending the NARCOS Act of 2023 (S. 1048),[1] introduced on March 29, names nine major Mexican drug cartels as Foreign Terrorist Organizations (“FTOs”).

These two bills knock on the door to war. The AUMF CARTEL Influence Resolution (H.J. Res. 18) kicks the door in.[2] H.J. 18 was introduced on January 12 by Representative Dan Crenshaw (R-TX-2). If passed, H.J. 18 would authorize the use of military force against Mexican cartels, similar to the 2002 AUMF which authorized the American invasion of Iraq. Maybe a US invasion of Mexico will be just as successful.

US Violations of Mexican Sovereignty, Past and Future

Republicans believe that fentanyl and the flood of Latin American migrants to the US are linked. Both, they say, are the result of President Biden’s failure to secure the US southern border. They believe that military intervention in Mexico would solve both problems.

The necessity for military force against the cartels has become orthodoxy among virtually all the contenders for the 2024 Republican nomination, including former President Donald Trump. During his last year in office, President Trump had toyed with the idea of conducting missile strikes on Mexico. According to then Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, Trump claimed implausibly that “No one would know it was us.” Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has promised to send US Special Forces into Mexico on “Day One” of his presidency.

Several Mexico hawks draw a parallel between the influx of fentanyl and a foreign invasion. Trump has said that the US could take down the cartels “just as we took down ISIS.” Several other Republican hawks also compare the fentanyl influx to ISIS, among them Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) who calls fentanyl a “national security threat.” (For some reason, the epidemic of mass shootings in the US has not made guns a national security threat.) The Mexico hawks are determined to meet that threat whether Mexico likes it or not. Cotton told Fox News that “If the Mexican government doesn’t want to help us stop the cartels, so be it.” Governor Nikki Haley, who has called for sending Special Forces into Mexico, says: “You tell the Mexican president, either you do it or we do it.”

Not all hawks are this blunt. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Trump Attorney General William Barr urges “a far more aggressive American effort inside Mexico than ever before…as well as select military capabilities.” Then comes the kicker: “Optimally, the Mexican government will support and participate in this effort, and it is likely to do so once they understand that the U.S. is committed to do whatever is necessary to cripple the cartels, whether or not the Mexican government participates” (emphasis added). Barr grouses that Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador “shields [the cartels] by consistently invoking Mexico’s sovereignty to block the U.S. from taking effective action. This posture should anger Americans.” I’ll say it should. How dare López Obrador put Mexican sovereignty before US demands.

Mexican sovereignty has never been a sticking point for the US. Mexicans remember and resent past US interventions. Topping the list is the Mexican War (known to Mexicans as la intervención estadounidense en México) in which the US amputated half of the country.

On the surface, Representative Crenshaw looks different. Crenshaw is chair of the predominantly Republican House Task Force to Combat Mexican Drug Cartels. Crenshaw told Politico that he might consider requiring Mexican consent for a US military intervention. The reason: Crenshaw wants to attract Democratic votes to his Authorization for the Use of Military Force. Democrats are uneasy about using force in Mexico; requiring Mexican consent could help to overcome Democrats’ reservations.

Still, nothing in the text of Crenshaw’s proposed resolution as it currently stands restricts the US to act only with Mexico’s consent. Further along in the article, Politico notes “But absent Mexican consent, he wouldn’t take ‘unilateral’ U.S. military action off the table.”

Do hawks imagine that a US intervention in Mexico would be cost-free? They might. On March 6, 2023, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA-14) tweeted: “Our military is competent and should take them [the cartels] out swiftly.” Sure, and the troops will be home by Christmas. The reality is that we can expect violent clashes between Mexican and US armed forces if US troops are in Mexico without Mexican consent, and it won’t only be Mexican troops who die.

Civilian casualties could be high. Reuters quotes former US ambassador to Mexico Earl Anthony Wayne that fentanyl labs are “hard to find…but it’s easy to hit the wrong apartment and kill a bunch of innocents.”[3] Of course, these are brown people we’re talking about, so I guess their deaths don’t matter.

Deaths would not be confined to Mexico. The cartels are fully capable of conducting reprisals within the US.

Bombing won’t end fentanyl trafficking. We need real solutions such as counseling and rehabilitation programs for opioid addicts. And we must cut off the supply of guns from the US to the cartels.

Crenshaw says that the cartels are “turning Mexico into a failed narco-state.” That’s not true. Mexico is not a failed state, but a US military intervention could turn it into one.


[1]  This is an acronym for Ending the Notorious, Aggressive, and Remorseless Criminal Organizations and Syndicates (NARCOS) Act.

[2]  This is another strained acronym. It stands for “Authorization for the Use of Military Force to Combat, Attack, Resist, Target, Eliminate, and Limit Influence Resolution.”

[3]  Historian Greg Grandin writes: “Fentanyl labs are hardly complicated operations—with a couple of plastic drums and a pill press, one cook in a hazmat suit can turn out thousands of doses in a day. Trying to eliminate them with drones and missiles would be as effective as bombing bodegas in the Bronx. Hit one lab and five more pop up, perhaps in more populated areas.”

Greg Grandin, “Could the Next Republican President Take Us to War with Mexico?” N.Y. Times, Nov. 1, 2023.


Charles Pierson is a lawyer and a member of the Pittsburgh Anti-Drone Warfare Coalition. E-mail him at