Leading senators on Wednesday called for the U.S. to declare a war on Mexican cartels, saying the killings of two Americans by gangs should earn a response by the full might of the U.S. military.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, and Sen. John Kennedy, Louisiana Republican, announced legislation to declare nine cartels as foreign terrorist organizations and to authorize the use of military force — the same mechanism that deployed troops to Afghanistan and Iraq — against the gangs.
“We are going to unleash the fury and might of the United States against these cartels,” said Mr. Graham, the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “We’re going to destroy their business model and their lifestyle because our national security and the security of the United States as a whole depends on us taking decisive action.”
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have sounded alarms over the amount of fentanyl flowing across the southern border. That trade, controlled by cartels, is fueling a record overdose death rate in the U.S.
The kidnapping last weekend of four Americans — two of whom were slain and the others rescued — has added urgency to the demands for action.
Mexican authorities haven’t confirmed a motive for the kidnapping but have suggested that the group of friends who drove a minivan across the border into Matamoros may have been mistaken as members of a rival gang.
Fear of the cartels was already running high, given their role in trafficking fentanyl and exploiting lax border controls to smuggle millions of migrants into the U.S.
Border specialists say it has resulted in a colossal windfall for the cartels.
The Washington Times has estimated the migrant smuggling economy across the southern border to be worth more than $20 billion.
Mr. Graham said he doesn’t see the U.S. military invading Mexico but does want troops to be able to play an active role in battling the firepower that the cartels have amassed.
Legal experts say that designating the cartels as foreign terrorist organizations could give prosecutors more tools to pursue gang leaders.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre pushed back on that idea Wednesday.
“Designating these cartels as FTOs would not grant us any additional authorities that we don’t really have at this time,” she said.
She said the Treasury Department has imposed designations that allow cartel funds to be blocked — when they can be detected.
“The United States has powerful sanctions authorities specifically designated to combat narcotics trafficking organizations and the individuals and entities that enable them, so we have not been afraid to use them,” she said.
The Pentagon has raised concerns that any proposal to deploy the military south of the border would threaten Mexico’s cooperation in efforts to hold the cartels at bay.
“I do worry, based on signals, very strong signals we’ve gotten from the Mexicans in the past — concerns about their sovereignty, concerns about potential reciprocal steps — that they might take to cut off our access if we were to take some of the steps that are in consideration,” Melissa G. Dalton, assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense and hemispheric affairs, told the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday.
President Trump vowed to issue the terrorist designation after gunmen opened fire on a caravan of Americans traveling in Mexico in 2019.
After pushback from Mexico, he put those plans on hold.
Mr. Graham last week asked Attorney General Merrick Garland about the idea. Mr. Garland said he “wouldn’t oppose it” but raised “diplomatic concerns” with Mexico.
Mr. Garland also pointed out that the cartels are on other designation lists that allow the Treasury Department to block funds.
Challenged specifically on Mexico’s handling of the fentanyl traffic, Mr. Garland said: “They are helping us, but they could do much more. There’s no question about that.”
Over the past four months, Customs and Border Protection has seized nearly 9,000 pounds of fentanyl. About 3,300 pounds were seized in the same four months of 2021 and 2022.
Border experts say that’s bad news. Only a small amount of the traffic is detected, so an increase in seizures indicates that more product is getting into the U.S.
Violence has ripped through Mexico as cartel leaders tighten their grip over the country.
In 2021, 75 Americans were killed in Mexico, according to the most recent data from the State Department. Although that remains a small percentage of the 28.8 million who traveled to the country that year, more Americans died by homicide in Mexico than in every other foreign country combined.
Warning of rampant crime and kidnapping, the State Department has issued its highest travel advisory for six Mexican states.
The State Department’s countrywide travel advisory also warns of widespread violent crime, including homicide, kidnapping, carjacking and robbery throughout Mexico.
Those risks became all too real for the four U.S. citizens who were kidnapped at a Mexican border town by a local drug cartel last week.
The four Americans entered Mexico on Friday so one of them could have cosmetic surgery.
Their minivan was caught in the crossfire from an apparent battle between rival gangs on the streets of Matamoros, just across the border from Brownsville, Texas. A 33-year-old Mexican woman was also killed in the clash, U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Ken Salazar said in a statement Monday.
“These drug cartels are dangerous,” Mr. Graham said. “They’re lawless. American law needs to change to make sure we deal with them appropriately.”
Mr. Trump is also aiming at the cartels in his 2024 presidential campaign.
In January, he outlined a plan to dismantle cartel leadership and suggested “deploying all necessary military assets,” including special forces and cyberwarfare capabilities. He said he would impose a “full naval embargo on the cartels to ensure they cannot use our region’s waters to traffic illicit drugs to the U.S.”
He said he would revive the plan to designate the cartels as foreign terrorist organizations and pledged to “get full cooperation” from neighboring countries in dismantling the cartels “or else fully expose the bribes and corruption that protect these criminal networks.”
His plan also calls on Congress to impose the death penalty for those convicted of drug trafficking.
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has assailed those pushing for U.S. military intervention in his country.
He has blamed the U.S. for the flow of guns that arm the cartels.
Mr. Graham was unfazed.
“To the president of Mexico: You have let your country slide into the hands of narco-terrorists,” he said Wednesday. “Your capability or your will doesn’t exist to stop what is, I think, the poisoning of America. You’re leaving us with no other choices.”