The American family gunned down Monday in northern Mexico should be a wake-up call for U.S. policymakers that the spiraling cartel violence in Mexico is not going to remain south of the Rio Grande, and that the time has come to fight back against the cartels—unilaterally, if need be.
The brazen daylight ambush, in which at least six children and three women from a Mormon community near the U.S.-Mexico border were killed, is the latest flashpoint in the growing instability of the Mexican state and the country’s descent into warlordism.
Simply put, some areas of Mexico are under the de facto control of drug cartels. Last month, hundreds of gunmen with the Sinaloa cartel besieged the city of Culiacan after Mexican National Guard troops arrested one of the sons of the infamous drug kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera. In a stunning display of coordination and overwhelming force, cartel gunmen eventually forced the military to release El Chapo’s son and surrender, a decision Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador later defended.
Monday’s attack, in the northern Mexican state of Sonora, targeted the LeBarón family, members of a Mormon community of dual Mexican and American citizens who have lived in the border region for decades. It was unclear why the caravan of three vehicles came under fire, but gruesome news reports detailed the intentional slaughter of defenseless women and children, some of whom were burned to death inside their vehicles. Family members told The New York Times that one child was gunned down while running away.
Mexico Is Refusing to Fight the Cartels
President Trump on Tuesday called on President López Obrador to wage war on the cartels, “wipe them off the face of the earth,” and offered America’s assistance, saying it sometimes takes “an army to defeat an army.”
López Obrador was quick to decline the offer. “It’s not in agreement with our convictions. The worst thing is war,” he said, echoing slogans he often repeats about cartel violence and ending the drug war like, “Hugs, not gunshots,” and “You can’t fight fire with fire.”
Upon winning the presidency last year, López Obrador all but declared an end to the drug war, saying he would instead tackle the “root causes” of cartel violence, which he claims are poverty and lack of opportunity. His main security policy has been the creation of the National Guard, a 60,000-strong force largely comprised of military and naval police, as well as former officers from Mexico’s famously corrupt federal police. It was a contingent of National Guard troops that was defeated by Sinaloa gunmen in Culiacan, and to date the force has mostly been used to patrol the northern and southern borders in effort to crack down on illegal immigration from Central America.
But in the aftermath of the battle of Culiacan and this week’s massacre of American women and children in Sonora, López Obrador’s left-wing platitudes and lackluster policies ring hollow. Mexico is now facing record-breaking levels of violence as the cartels grow more assertive in the face of government inaction. It should be clear by now that no matter how bad the violence gets, López Obrador is not going to do anything about the cartels.
It’s Time to Sanction Mexican Elites
That means the United States is going to have to act. For America, this is a matter of national security, and should be approached as such. One way or another, order must be imposed on northern Mexico, and if Mexico City will not do it, then Washington will have to.
What would that look like, practically speaking? An invasion and occupation of northern Mexico by the U.S. Army, like the Pershing Expedition a hundred years ago? In Trump’s phrase, an army to defeat an army? Not quite—or at least not yet.
In the near-term, U.S. policymakers must understand that while the cartels to some extent exist as a kind of parallel state alongside the Mexican state, they are also to a large degree intertwined with the Mexican state. Many Mexican elites, whether state governors or federal officials in Mexico City, are caught up in cartel activities by virtue of the cartels’ involvement in a wide array of commercial activities that go well beyond drug trafficking. Over the past decade, the cartels have branched out into oil and gas theft, industrial agriculture, offshore commercial fishing, and most recently, the mass smuggling of Central American migrants to the southwest U.S. border, an enterprise that generates billions annually.
These activities don’t take place without some collusion with at least part of Mexican officialdom. Evidence abounds. In 2017, for example, four state governors, all of them members of then-President Enrique Pena Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, were arrested on drug trafficking charges. Indeed, Pena Nieto’s PRI party was plagued with scandal and corruption throughout his tenure in office.
No wonder then, that upon assuming office in 2012 Pena Nieto ended the practice of vetting senior officials with the United States, a crucial part of his predecessor Felipe Calderon’s war on the cartels. Also no wonder that during the criminal trial of El Chapo last year there was testimony about large bribes paid directly to Pena Nieto and senior military officers.
Corruption, in other words, is rotting the Mexican state from within. Cartel gun battles, ambushes, and a skyrocketing murder rate are simply the outward manifestations of this rot. Given the complicity of Mexican elites with the cartel underworld, the proper U.S. response is to target those elites with sanctions.
We already impose such sanctions on regime-connected individuals in places like Iran and Venezuela, and there’s similar precedent in elements of Plan Columbia in the 1990s. In these cases, the point of sanctions is to weaken the regime. In Mexico, the point would be to strengthen the regime by targeting elements within it that undermine state sovereignty.
There are plenty of pressure points the United States could apply to these individuals, who are vulnerable to the same kinds of pressures we exert on rogue states all the time—sanctions, confiscation of property, barring access to American institutions. Make no mistake, members of the Mexican elite enjoy and to some extent rely upon American banks and financial institutions to manage their wealth. They send their children to elite American universities, they own real estate in America, and often travel here for health care.
Cut off access to all of that—exile corrupt elites from American territory and institutions, and thus take the fight directly the cartels’ patrons and accomplices.
There’s no need to limit our policy options to drug interdiction at the border and intelligence sharing with Mexican authorities. By targeting, publicly naming, and sanctioning individual Mexicans known to be complicit in cartel activities, the United States would be putting the government of President López Obrador on notice that ignoring the cartels isn’t going to cut it. Not anymore.