Mark Esper has written about his stint as secretary of defense during the last year of President Donald Trump’s administration in A SACRED OATH. Before the book came out this month, excerpts published in the New York Times revealed that President Trump, frustrated by the constant flow of drugs across the US-Mexican border and convinced that Mexican authorities were losing control, reportedly asked Esper about the possibility of launching missiles to destroy Mexican drug cartel labs.
Esper dismissed the notion out of hand, saying that if he had not been face to face with the president, he would have thought the question was a joke.
I can well believe that reaction. The overwhelming bureaucratic response to the flood of illicit drugs coming into the United States is to rely on a limited suite of options which has neither stemmed the flow of drugs nor the rising number of drug-related deaths.
Related: Hard truths from the drug war from an intel professional
An outsider looking at the situation dispassionately might say: “The substances the cartels are pumping into my country are killing people at an unprecedented rate. What resources do I have to impact this problem?”
According to the CDC, 93,331 people died from a drug overdose death in the United States during 2020, a 30% increase over the previous year. The upward trajectory continued, with 108,000 deaths in 2021. Two-thirds were due to the synthetic opioid fentanyl, which can be produced in a laboratory–no swaths of poppies needed–and pressed into pills that are easy to conceal/disguise/transport. Availability and increased demand have risen together.
The last big effort to stem the drug tide was the Mérida Initiative, a bilateral security cooperation agreement between Mexico and the United States negotiated between presidents George W. Bush and Felipe Calderón. Mexico received nearly $3 billion for military equipment and training, as well as to strengthen a relatively weak judiciary system.
This package and Mexico’s quasi-military approach established a framework for action against the cartels that remains, by and large, the shape of US policy. Meanwhile, we are seeing record highs for US drug deaths, drug gang related crime, deaths in Mexico attributable to organized drug crime, numbers of missing persons in Mexico, and the availability of lab-produced drugs.
A missile strike without the consent of the Mexican government is a non-starter IMHO, but is it any wonder that a US president would be trying to find an outside-the-box solution? What if the proposal was put to Mexico? A partnership to take out the drug labs? No doubt Mexico City would have refused to cooperate but I’ll bet the idea would be crazy enough to provoke a new discussion instead of more of the same.
When I published the first Detective Emilia Cruz mystery, CLIFF DIVER, fentanyl was not yet the scourge it is now. Cocaine was king and bundles of marijuana were still being muled across the US-Mexico border. Drugs weren’t so cheap and the growing season meant seasonal eradication operations. Fentanyl is a new plot twist, but some things never change.
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I am in awe of Amato for being brave and shedding light on many home truths.
Read an excerpt of CLIFF DIVER here.
Carmen Amato is the author of the Detective Emilia Cruz police series set in Acapulco and the upcoming Galliano Club historical thrillers. A 30-year veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency, her personal experiences occasionally make their way into her fiction.
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But an outsider looking at the situation dispassionately might say: One country launching missiles at a target in another country is an act of war.
Yes, such an action was never really on the table. But just raising the notion with Mexico would have changed the way the two countries address the issue.