At the Republican primary debate on Wednesday, Ron DeSantis eagerly waited for his turn to answer a question about whether he would use U.S. special operations forces to go after drug cartels on Mexican territory. “Yes, and I will do it on day one,” he said. He’s not the only one calling for unilateral intervention in response to the spiraling number of fentanyl overdose deaths. Former President Donald Trump is reportedly considering declaring the cartels as “enemy combatants” if he returns to the White House. But the suggested course of action comes with obvious and severe drawbacks, and ignores an existing but under-resourced military solution: maritime narcotics interdiction.
Annual drug overdose deaths in the U.S. rose to 106,000 in 2021, perhaps 71,000 of them from fentanyl, and this is likely an undercount. 2022 will likely be worse. Rural medical examiners’ offices struggle to fully autopsy the flood of victims, and some families prefer not to publicly attribute loved ones’ deaths to narcotics. Loss of American lives on this massive scale calls for a whole-of-government response, including the Department of Defense.
Former Attorney General Bill Barr holds up the successful fight against ISIS as an example of how special operations could work. For 20 years after 9/11, special operators honed their expertise at raids to capture or kill high-value terrorist targets in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. There is no gainsaying their skill or derring-do, as I learned when providing them targets as a military intelligence and CIA officer. The understandable temptation is to use successful special operations tactics against narcotics traffickers, who are no less dangerous nor more deserving of quarter than terrorists. Yet it would be a tremendous strategic mistake to order such strikes in allied countries like Mexico.
Units such as the Green Berets of the Army’s 7th Special Forces Group provide invaluable services in helping train and assist partner forces in Latin America, and the U.S. can accomplish important counternarcotics objectives “by, with and through” our allies. And no one doubts the ability of a Tier One Special Mission Unit to get in and out of Mexico with the “jackpot” of a drug lord in tow. If a U.S. federal law enforcement officer joins them, there are no posse comitatus issues in that agent executing a lawful arrest. And, of course, killing the objective of the raid would be even easier. But if cartel leaders start being arraigned in U.S. courts pursuant to extraordinary rendition instead of extradition, or if infamous traffickers simply start disappearing, Mexico’s government will know its sovereignty is being violated.