Some GOP Candidates Propose Acts of War Against Mexico to Stop Fentanyl. Experts Say That Won't Work

MIAMI (AP) -- Ron DeSantis wants suspected drug smugglers at the U.S.-Mexico border to be shot dead. Nikki Haley promises to send American special forces into Mexico. Vivek Ramaswamy has accused Mexico's leader of treating drug cartels as his "sugar daddy" and says that if he is elected president, "there will be a new daddy in town."

Donald Trump, the Republican front-runner for the 2024 nomination and long the person who has shaped his party's rhetoric on the border, has often blamed Mexico for problems in the United States and promises new uses of military force and covert action if he returns to the White House.

Many of the GOP presidential candidates say they would carry out potential acts of war against Mexico in response to the trafficking of fentanyl and other synthetic opioids. More than 75,000 people in the U.S. died last year from overdoses of synthetic opioids, an annual figure more than 20 times higher than a decade ago.

The candidates' antagonism toward Mexico is welcomed by some families who have lost loved ones to fentanyl and have argued that Washington has not done enough to address the worst drug crisis in U.S. history. But analysts and nonpartisan experts warn that military force is not the answer and instead fuels the racism and xenophobia that undermine efforts to stop drug trafficking.

"You've got politicking on this side. And then on the Mexican side of the border, you've got a president who is turning a blind eye to what's going on in Mexico and who has completely gutted bilateral collaboration with the United States," said Arturo Sarukhan, Mexico's ambassador to the U.S. from 2007 to 2013. "That's a very combustible mixture."

Andrea Thomas' daughter died at age 32 after taking half of a counterfeit pill laced with fentanyl that looked like her prescription pills for abdominal pain. Thomas started the foundation Voices for Awareness in Grand Junction, Colorado, to raise the alarm about fentanyl.

Thomas says people she knows are interested in what the candidates are proposing and feel that President Joe Biden's administration has not properly responded to the crisis. In a letter to the presidential candidates, Thomas and an assembly of other groups urge the politicians to do "all that can be done" to stop the manufacturing and smuggling of the drug.

"This drug is like no drug we have ever seen before," she said. "We need some strong measures. We have no more time to waste."

Democrats also face i mmense political pressure on border issues heading into next year's election. The White House has funded national programs to reduce fentanyl overdoses and sanctioned Chinese companies blamed for importing the chemicals used to make the drug.

Mexico has failed to address its problem with fentanyl production and trafficking. Mexican President Andres Manuel López Obrador repeatedly denies his country is producing the synthetic opioid despite enormous evidence to the contrary.

Border agents seized nearly 13 tons (12,000 kilograms) of fentanyl at the U.S.-Mexico border between September 2022 and August, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

At the second GOP primary debate late last month, candidates reiterated that they would use military forces to go after drug gangs in Mexico.

"As commander in chief, I'm going to use the U.S. military to go after the Mexican drug cartels," said DeSantis, the Florida governor. He has promised that people suspected of smuggling drugs across the southern border would end up "stone cold dead." That raises the prospect of border agents being authorized to shoot people on sight before any investigation into whether those people were carrying drugs.

U.S. government data undercuts the claim that people seeking asylum and other border crossers are responsible for drug trafficking. About 90% of fentanyl seizures were made at official land crossings, not between crossings where people entered illegally. At a hearing in July, James Mandryck, a CBP deputy assistant commissioner, said 73% of fentanyl seizures at the border since the previous October were smuggling attempts carried out by U.S. citizens, with the rest being done by Mexican citizens.

A study published last year from U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies called Mexico the "principal source" of fentanyl, with cartels manufacturing the drug using precursor chemicals largely smuggled from China. But it noted that the crisis could not be resolved without curbing addiction in the U.S. that creates overwhelming demand for illegal opioids.

"The supply of illicit fentanyl cannot be permanently stopped through enforcement alone -- only temporarily disrupted before another cartel, trafficking method, or analogue steps in to fill the market that addiction creates," said the report from the U.S. Commission on Combating Synthetic Opioid Trafficking.

Lopez Obrador took office in December 2018 campaigning with a motto of "hugs, not bullets," and for four years has shredded his predecessors' prosecution of the drug war. Experts agree that wide swaths of Mexico are under the de facto control of drug cartels. Lopez Obrador is already sensitive to what he considers U.S. "interference" in Mexico, suggesting that foreign agents were "spying" as they built a fentanyl smuggling case against members of the Sinaloa drug cartel announced earlier this year.

Lopez Obrador is defensive about U.S. criticism of his government's failure to stop the flow of fentanyl.

"There is a kind of competition to see who is the most ridiculous, who is most brazen to threaten Mexico, to blame Mexico," he said at a recent news conference. "They are nonsense."

Mexico will elect a new president next year, and the opposition candidate recently told Univision that she would accept more U.S. agents and help. But when asked about military operations, Xóchitl Gálvez said, "We have to get serious. We have to be smart with proposals that are clear and strong and not just to get votes."

Mexico today is also the top trading partner of the U.S. It has agreed to host agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration and other federal agents and to keep thousands of migrants rejected at the U.S. border under both the Trump and Biden administrations.

But the U.S. has invaded Mexican territory before and tried to overthrow governments through Latin America for its own policy goals.

In 1846, seeking to expand U.S. borders after supporting the annexation of Texas, President James K. Polk called on Congress to declare war with Mexico. The war ended with Mexico agreeing to cede 55% of its territory, including present-day states California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, most of Arizona and Colorado, and parts of Oklahoma, Kansas, and Wyoming.

In 1914, the U.S. invaded the port of Veracruz after the arrest of U.S. soldiers. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson deployed tens of thousands of troops in response to an attack by Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa in Columbus, New Mexico.

More recently, Trump promised to build a southern border wall to stop illegal immigration -- and make Mexico pay for it. While he was president, the U.S. would build or refurbish about 500 miles of wall on the more than 2,000-mile border.

Mexico never paid for any sections of wall. And border crossings would repeatedly hit record highs throughout Trump's presidency and during Biden's term.

"We have to take what they say seriously," Tony Payan, director of the Center for the United States and Mexico at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy said about the Republican candidates. "But they are pretty much going off the rails. They are engaged in political theater, and they find Mexico an easy target."