For too long Washington has ignored an evil that threatens every American community. This evil is not sown in secluded soil, it emanates across all 2,000 miles of our southern border from a sprawling network of cartelized criminal organizations that have industrialized misery, monetized terror, and revived slavery in the hemisphere. The Mexican drug cartels pose a dire threat to our nation’s health, safety, and security.
It’s past time that we wage war against the cartels. Not a Washington “war” of tough-sounding rhetoric and stern press releases, but a true war that seeks out and destroys our nation’s enemies to the south.
Mexico has now deployed over 200,000 federal troops to fight the cartels, which have forced our neighbor into a worsening civil war. Yet, even with this massive military presence, the death-squad massacres, kidnappings, and decapitations continue. Just last month, the State Department issued a “do not travel” advisory for a half dozen states in Mexico due to growing anarchy and violence.
This is far from just a Mexican problem. The Mexican drug cartels have killed more Americans than any terrorist group in history—and the death toll is rising every day.
In the last three years alone, a quarter of a million Americans have lost their lives in the deadliest drug crisis in history. More Americans die each year from drugs than were killed in the entire Vietnam War. The cartels are directly responsible for these deaths. Fentanyl, fentanyl analogues, meth, and heroin are all primarily produced and smuggled by the Mexican cartels and account for the overwhelming majority of drug-overdose deaths. Cocaine, the fourth-deadliest drug brought into the United States, is also primarily smuggled by the cartels.
Fentanyl is an especially dangerous drug. Just two milligrams—the equivalent of a few grains of sand—can kill an adult male. The Mexican cartels have built super labs to mass produce this extremely deadly drug. Last year alone, authorities seized around 2.5 billion deadly doses of fentanyl at our border. Fentanyl overdoses are now the leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of 18 and 45.
Each drug death and severe case of addiction is like a bomb going off in a community. Families are shattered, children are orphaned, promising young Americans are psychologically destroyed, and neighborhoods physically deteriorate. It’s little surprise that some parts of this country look and feel like warzones.
To distribute their poison, the cartels have established broad criminal networks within our country. In some cases, they partner with the thousands of preexisting American street, prison, and motorcycle gangs, but in other cases they send violent Latin American gang members to do their bidding. In 2020, ICE deported over 4,000 illegal-alien gang members; the Border Patrol stopped hundreds more from entering.
The cartels are also running the most extensive human trafficking networks in the world. They recruit millions of Central and South Americans to cross our border and break into our country. Along the way, cartel members rape women and children, extort and brutalize the weak, and leave helpless migrants to die in the desert or suffocate in tractor trailers. They also force young women and girls into modern slavery—usually by addicting them to drugs and forcing them into prostitution.
Imagine what we would do if ISIS or Al Qaeda set up shop on our border and committed a fraction of these atrocities. That’s exactly what we should do to the cartels. We must wage a war against the cartels that doesn’t end until every one of their criminal members is dead, imprisoned, or neutralized as a threat.
First, we should dismantle the cartel networks in our midst by empowering federal, state, and local law enforcement to get deadly drug pushers and gang members off of our streets and out of our country. Rip apart the distribution mechanisms and the drug supply will falter.
Second, we must defend the border. Joe Biden can’t be counted on to defend us, but the next Republican president should declare a state of emergency at the border, end catch-and-release, complete construction of the wall, expand the Border Patrol, retrofit every port of entry with advanced drug-detection technology, and equip our border agents with the most sophisticated surveillance technology. We must also strengthen the Coast Guard so it can cut off the cartel’s sea lanes.
Third, we must destroy and bankrupt the cartels in Mexico. We should use the same legal tools we use against terrorist organizations to freeze their assets, kick them out of the international banking system, and bar their members and families from entering the country. We can also use special operators and elite tactical units in law enforcement to capture or kill kingpins, neutralize key lieutenants, and destroy the cartel’s super labs and organizational infrastructure. We must work closely with the Mexican government and ensure its continued support in this effort—but we cannot allow it to delay or hinder this necessary campaign.
The cartels are killing Americans every day and radically destabilizing our neighbor and region. They are a clear and present danger to our people and our interests. The cartels must be destroyed.
• Tom Cotton is a United States Senator from Arkansas. He serves on the Intelligence Committee; the Judiciary Committee, where is the Ranking Member of the Criminal Justice and Counterterrorism Subcommittee; and the Armed Services Committee, where is the Ranking Member of the Air Land Power Subcommittee. He served nearly five years in the U.S. Army as an Infantry Officer with two combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.