Mexico’s Carnage Has No Military Solution

To curb violence and drug trafficking, Mexico needs functioning civilian police forces and court systems, not US military strikes and boots on the ground, says Shannon O’Neil

While more trusted than many institutions, Mexico’s military has faced credible accusations of unnecessary use of force, corruption, and criminal ties, says Shannon O'Neil.
By Shannon O'Neil
April 13, 2023 | 08:02 AM

Bloomberg Opinion — The recent kidnapping of four and murder of two US citizens in the border city of Matamoros is just one of the latest grisly reminders to Americans of Mexico’s inability to provide basic safety, whether for its beleaguered citizens or visitors from across the border. US legislators like Senator Lindsey Graham have said that it’s time to “get tough” and prepare to send in US troops. Former President Donald Trump has reportedly been asking advisers for “battle plans” along those lines to implement if he is re-elected.

These misguided calls are mirrored on the other side of the border by President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s militarization of the fight against Mexico’s cartels. Never mind the absurdity and illegality of the idea of US sending troops across the border. The militaristic turn of policymakers in both governments won’t make either nation more secure. Mexico is not fighting terrorists or insurgents but criminals. It needs functioning civilian police forces and court systems, not missile strikes and boots on the ground.

Murders now consistently top 30,000 a year. The disappeared number a hundred thousand more. Extortion is hitting small and medium-sized businesses, restaurants, shops, and offices the hardest, and spreading from border towns and industrial areas to tony neighborhoods in Mexico’s biggest cities.

In addition to those Americans caught up in cartel crossfires, tens of thousands of Americans die every year from Mexican-made fentanyl and other imported illegal drugs.


The violence is also sundering cross-border connections and commerce. On a recent trip to the Texan border city of Laredo, professors at the local university let me know they were no longer permitted to go into Nuevo Laredo or to drive to Monterrey just a few hours away to engage with their counterparts. A commercial real estate executive developing projects along the border told me that worries over violence have made it harder to secure funding for new industrial parks despite high demand from companies decamping from China.

How Safe Is Mexico for Travelers?

To be sure, international companies such as Tesla are moving to or expanding in Mexico. But what should be an investment tsunami so far is more of a stream, limited by the costs of trying to protect operations and employees against assaults. Without facilities based in Mexico, US-based companies and their workers won’t benefit as much as they could from decoupling from China.

Policymakers on both sides of the border are taking a harder line against criminals. Lopez Obrador’s “hugs not bullets” rhetoric aside, his administration has turned Mexican security over to the military. The civilian National Guard is now under the army’s jurisdiction. The government’s point person for public security is a general. The military has taken over ports, airports, and customs, and seen its budget expand by double digits over the last five years.


If the goal truly is to make Mexico safer, its turn to the military is a mistake. While more trusted than many institutions, Mexico’s military has faced credible accusations of unnecessary use of force, corruption, and criminal ties. Hacked military documents released by Guacamaya, Latin America’s version of Wikileaks, reveal officers illegally spied on journalists, sold weapons to cartels, and siphoned millions from government contracts. And the case of former defense chief Salvador Cienfuegos, whom a federal grand jury in New York indicted for conspiring with cartels and who was subsequently released without charges by Mexico, is just one of many that has alleged military links to criminal groups.

Even if Mexico could root out the bad apples, militaries aren’t equipped to combat domestic crime. They are taught to kill, not arrest. They lack skills and often legal authorities to investigate and build cases. And they remain outside domestic legal institutions without the ties to or oversight from civilian prosecutors, judges and other law enforcement officials that can bring transparency, accountability and bolster the rule of law.

US military strikes in Mexico similarly won’t do much to stop the movement of illegal drugs or destroy the violent gangs that sell them, even as they ignite bilateral fury over impinging on Mexico’s sovereignty. A legal escalation designating Mexico’s cartels terrorist organizations won’t provide meaningful new means to combat them. Between the Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network and Office of Foreign Asset Control, the US has strong tools to go after transnational criminal organizations, investigating money trails and seizing assets. The Justice Department too can already prosecute those who support transnational criminal organizations, such as accountants, bankers, and lawyers. It should step up such efforts.

Think Tank Warns $4 Billion of US Remittances to Mexico Could Be Linked to Crime

Moreover, where places have successfully taken on organized crime networks, militaries weren’t part of it. Fearless police, prosecutors and judges dismantled swathes of Italy’s Cosa Nostra. The US took down its own violent mafias and crime syndicates through coordinated police work and legal victories. And in the 1990s community policing was pivotal in reducing violence in cities including Boston, New Haven and San Diego.


Mexico also has its own success stories. Ciudad Juarez lost its title as the world’s most dangerous city when it brought together federal and local police, prosecutors, business leaders and civil society organizations in the fight against crime. The industrial hub of Monterrey blunted rising crime rates through a similar joint effort to professionalize local police and law enforcement.

These policymakers and societies built up functioning civilian police forces, court systems, and penal institutions to prosecute and convict the guilty and free the innocent. They created effective whistleblower and witness protection programs. They utilized legal tools and intelligence to go after financial and personal networks. And they engaged private sector and civil society organizations to combat those tearing apart the local social and economic fabric. Using the military, even as a stopgap, just delays the painstaking process of building the civilian law enforcement and justice institutions necessary to bring safety back to the streets by creating a more sustainable rule of law.

If the Mexican government decides to invest the money, time and effort in a civilian-based solution, the US can help. As each side has ratcheted up get tough approaches, cross-border security cooperation has all but collapsed. The Mexican administration has gutted joint law enforcement training and vetting programs. Intelligence-sharing too has dried up. And in the wake of the Cienfuegos affair, Lopez Obrador curtailed the ability of the Drug Enforcement Agency and other US law enforcement officers  to work in Mexico. He has responded to US pleas to attack the fentanyl problem by claiming that no fentanyl is produced in Mexico.


The recently signed Bicentennial Framework for Security, Public Health, and Safe Communities between Mexico and the US could reboot bilateral security cooperation. At least on paper, it provides a starting point to revive bilateral initiatives that made past progress. If permitted, the US can again support police academies, judge and lawyer exchanges, and civil society organizations focused on justice and safety. It can share intelligence and work with vetted counterparts to dismantle illicit financial networks. Meanwhile, the US can strive to lower demand for drugs that fill criminal coffers, curb the weapons traffic that fuels the violence, root out the corruption in its own ranks that has aided the cartels, and as economically painful and disruptive as it may be, step up inspections at the border.

More Soldiers on the Street Won’t Curb Mexico’s Rampant Violence

But if Mexico doesn’t tack away from its martial bent and recognize the nature of the threat it faces, then insecurity will fundamentally not abate. Safety will remain elusive, justice even more so. Migration north, already on the upswing, will continue to rise. And fewer of today’s promising economic possibilities will materialize, with more companies bypassing North America to relocate to Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, and other regions. Mexico will suffer. So, too, will the US.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Shannon O’Neil is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. She is a senior fellow for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of “The Globalization Myth: Why Regions Matter.”

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