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Trump's big idea: Deploy assassination teams to Mexico

Trump's big idea: Deploy assassination teams to Mexico

His plan to kill drug kingpins to solve the American opioid crisis will backfire dramatically

Analysis | North America

The opioid crisis in the United States shows no sign of abating. Mexican drug cartels are making more money than ever before while fueling the deaths of more than a hundred thousand Americans every year. Overdose deaths in the United States quadrupled between 2002 and 2022. Law enforcement appears overwhelmed and helpless.

It is little wonder, then, that extreme measures are being contemplated to ease the suffering. Planning for the most extreme of measures — use of military force to combat the flow of drugs — is apparently moving forward and evolving. It is an idea that has wedged itself into former President Trump’s head, and now he’s reportedly fine-tuning the idea toward possibly sending kill teams into Mexico to take out drug lords..

Invading Mexico, which think tanks close to the former president have recommended, is a spectacularly bad idea for many reasons. Employing special forces to do the job, like Trump is apparently contemplating, may seem like a middle ground, an alternative that carries less risk and lower costs. While not as insane as an invasion, it would still be a dangerous, counterproductive and ultimately pointless endeavor.

The first problem would be tactical. While U.S. Special Forces would have little trouble killing drug kingpins, they may well have a tough time findingthem. Since Trump has telegraphed the operation, cartel leaders — who are, as a rule, ardent self-preservationists — would go underground (or, more accurately, even more underground) immediately upon his election. Gathering intelligence on their whereabouts would prove difficult, since Mexican authorities would be unlikely to help. Security services generally object to having their sovereignty trampled.

Close coordination with those security services would be rather unwise anyway, since many Mexican officials are on the cartel payroll in one form or another. Four years ago, General Salvador Cienfuegos, who was Mexico’s Secretary of National Defense, was arrested in Los Angeles on drug trafficking charges. Under intense diplomatic pressure from a humiliated Mexico City, the United States dropped the charges and released him. In October of last year, he was given an honorary military decoration by Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who himself has been the subject of much speculation about drug-related corruption.

Even if it proved possible to track down the kingpins, killing them would have little effect on the drug trade. Those proposing the special forces “solution” to the fentanyl crisis do not appear to grasp the basic economics: Supply will always find its way to high demand, and new narcotics entrepreneurs will always arise. When the Colombian cartels waned in the 1990s, one may recall, other suppliers quickly emerged in Mexico. If the current moles in Mexico are whacked, new ones will soon pop up elsewhere. Killing the middlemen of the drug trade never solves the problem.

The long, sad history of drug interdiction should teach us all a lesson: The drugs always find a way.

Sending teams of special forces southward on shoot-to-kill missions would also threaten to undo the tenuous rules by which Mexican narcotics trade operates today. The cartels, as violent and barbarous as they are to each other — and to incorruptable Mexican leaders — generally avoid targeting U.S. law enforcement. But if the United States treats this crisis like a war, then so too will the cartels, and they have non-trivial lethal capabilities. Their violence would get worse, and it might well begin targeting U.S. drug-enforcement agents.

If we stop following the law, they will stop following the rules.

There are better ways to address the fentanyl epidemic. For instance, the United States could take what might be called the “quaalude approach.” Some of us are old enough to remember that oddly named illegal depressant, which was popular in the 1970s but had essentially disappeared by the late 1980s. The United States did not militarize the issue but led an effort to eliminate, or at least control, the manufacture of the precursor chemicals for quaaludes around the world. Without those chemicals, the drug dealers could not create their poisons.

Fentanyl is also the product of complex chemical engineering, unlike cocaine or opium. Attacking its manufacturers, rather than its salesmen, contains the only possibility to control the epidemic. This would involve negotiation with China, which is the main supplier of fentanyl’s precursor chemicals today. Some progress has been made in this direction under President Biden, but not enough to make a substantial difference.

If revenge is the goal, then perhaps U.S. Special Forces are the best tool. But revenge very rarely makes for a sound basis for policy. Killing kingpins might make us feel good, and it might burnish presidential reputations, but it will not save vulnerable young people. Other options exist, ones that are far less risky, and that offer more hope for success.

Nonetheless, if Trump wins the presidency in November, deadly attacks on the cartels will be a serious possibility. It would be a perfect Trump policy, one that grabs headlines and makes him look tough yet do little good and even backfire. He has ordered assassinations before, after all. If our warriors kill cartel leaders, it will allow us to bask temporarily in the glow of national vengeance. But such actions will have no effect on the drug trade, and Americans will still die by the tens of thousands. Like so many Trump policies, targeting drug kingpins would provide distractions and illusions, all to no purpose.

We call our struggle against drugs a “war,” but it is fundamentally a law-enforcement problem. Changing that by militarizing the issue will just make the violence worse. And it will not change the fundamental fact that drugs, given high demand, will always find a way.

Soldiers stand outside the Altiplano high security prison where Mexican drug gang leader Ovidio Guzman, the 32-year-old son of jailed kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, is imprisoned in Almoloya de Juarez, State of Mexico, Mexico January 7, 2023. REUTERS/Luis Cortes

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