“The United States of America is under attack.”
That was the lede of a Washington Times column these authors wrote nearly a decade ago making the case the U.S. needed to use military force against Mexican drug cartels for “exploiting the immigration crisis by recruiting gangs, transporting terrorists, distributing drugs and facilitating sex-trafficking while diversifying their businesses into oil theft, piracy and illegal mining and laundering their stolen money through commercial banks.” As such, we argued that the cartels had become a clear and present danger to the United States.
That was almost nine years ago.
Even back then, we asserted that the inevitable result of “this highly orchestrated, vicious criminal enterprise” was “the collapse of law, order and safety.” We reported that the FBI had reported the cartels were operating in more than 1,000 cities across the United States and that the Department of Homeland Security had assessed that Mexican trafficking organizations were earning between $19 billion and $29 billion a year from selling marijuana, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine.
Since then, the cartels have all but dissolved the southwestern U.S. border by orchestrating mass migration border crossings and amped up the drug war by trafficking of fentanyl — a synthetic opioid up to 100 times as powerful as morphine, causing more deaths of Americans ages 18 and 45 than COVID-19, and now the leading cause of death in that age group. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 106,000 fatal overdoses occurred in the U.S. in 2021, more than 70% of which involved opioids, including fentanyl.
Nine years after our call for action, Republican Reps. Mike Waltz and Dan Crenshaw have introduced a congressional resolution that, if passed, will empower the president for five years “to use military force against cartels based on their fentanyl trafficking [and] their use of force… to gain control of territory to use for their criminal enterprise.”
In a recent interview with Fox News, Mr. Crenshaw said the drug syndicates are now responsible for more than 360,000 deaths a year and that they are “militaristic in nature … what we’ve been dealing with for a while now … is a potentially failed narcoterrorist state at our border. And when you have 80,000 Americans a year dying from fentanyl overdose, oftentimes not even knowing they were taking fentanyl, that to me is active hostilities against the American people.”
The authors agree. In 2014, we wrote that “like al Qaeda, the cartels are operating on a level equivalent to terrorists and illegal combatants, and the time has come … to hunt cartel leaders with the same determination that America hunted Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden in the war on terrorism … we must seek and destroy their headquartered bases in Mexico just as we sought terrorist training camps in Afghanistan … anything short of wrought military force will fail to resolve this crisis.”
At that time, MS-13 membership had already reached an estimated 50,000 to 70,000 members and allied with the Sinaloa Cartel to bolster its forces in cities such as Atlanta, Los Angeles, New York and Washington. As MS-13 grows, other criminal syndicates, such as the Tijuana Cartel, continue to occupy California and Nevada while the Gulf and Juarez cartels are advancing in Texas.
According to a June 7, 2022, Congressional Research Service Report, those four cartels — the dominant U.S. enterprises — have since splintered into nine groups and “sparked greater violence.” While Mexican President Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador vowed to stop the cartels, his government “has not carried out counternarcotics operations consistently,” says the report. “Despite campaign promises … more than halfway through Mr. López Obrador’s six-year term, he arguably has achieved few of his anti-corruption and criminal justice aims.”
Undoubtedly, Mexico’s inaction is forcing the U.S. to deploy its military. For anyone doubting this reality, the report dispels such misperceptions.
“In the rural western state of Michoacán, for instance, crime groups have used explosive devices, such as improvised explosive devices, to destroy army vehicles and drones to bomb police infrastructure and rivals,” the report says. “These tactics expand beyond existing TCO tools ranging from lengthy underground tunnels, use of cartel branded armed tanks, submersible crafts, ultralights, and cryptocurrencies.”
According to the FBI, the violence arising out of the cartels has reached new levels of cruelty.
“The thing that’s most concerning is really the out-of-control violence that is on the Mexican side of the border that we’re seeing,” said FBI Associate Director Kevin Perkins in an online agency interview. “And it’s not just 7,000 murders, it’s the brutal violence, it’s torture, it’s the complete and utter disregard for human life all based upon the greed and the wealth that’s coming from drug trafficking.”
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott was rightfully concerned when he asked President Biden last year to classify the Sinaloa and Jalisco new generation cartels as terrorist organizations under Section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act.
In fiscal 2022 alone, 98 people on the terrorism watchlist were detained at the border. Thirty-eight more terror watchlist suspects were detained since October, with 17 being apprehended in December alone, a record number totaling more apprehensions for all of 2021 and more than 2017-2020 combined.
The cartels also continue to engage in human trafficking. In 2014, the Covering House reported that human trafficking was generating $9.5 billion a year in the U.S. and that 300,000 children in America were at risk of being prostituted. An October 2022 study conducted by the Justice Department says the number of people prosecuted for human trafficking charges between 2011 and 2020 rose by 84%. And while The Associated Press reported nearly a decade ago the cartels veiled their illegal activities in oil theft, piracy and illegal mining in legitimate businesses and U.S. banking institutions, the Drug Enforcement Administration reported in 2021 that the cartels now use cryptocurrency to launder drug money.
As we concluded almost a decade earlier, the cartels are a clear and present danger to the United States, and we must target them as a foreign enemy.
• Jeffrey Scott Shapiro is a former Washington prosecutor and senior U.S. official now serving on the editorial board of The Washington Times. T. Michael Andrews is a former counternarcotics official for the Department of Homeland Security who previously served as a federal, state and tribal prosecutor. He is the author of “The Border Challenge: An Insider’s View of Stopping Drugs at America’s Borders.”