Mexico has been one of the closest allies of the United States for years, both during the Democratic and Republican governments, and even during the term of Donald Trump.
This could be changing. Republican officials and voters have not only expressed criticism of Mexico, but also open hostility against America’s southern neighbor.
The most extreme example is the various calls by Republican presidential candidates to bomb Mexico, or the requests to send soldiers as a unilateral measure to stop the illegal drug trade, which would be an act of war.
Trump led the way: during his presidency he consulted with defense officials about the possibility of a missile attack on Mexico and in the 2024 presidential campaign he has supported military action. Ron DeSantis has called for the use of deadly force and a naval blockade of Mexican ports to stop drug traffickers. Other more moderate candidates, such as Tim Scott and Nikki Haley, have also backed the military’s action against drug cartels in Mexico.
“Do you know what you say to the Mexican president? ‘Either you do it or we do it,’” Haley declared in March. “But we are not going to allow all this illegality to continue.”
These appeals have not become a major focus of national attention because the Republican campaign is still in its early stages. However, as the action begins — the first debate is on August 23 — it is likely that more will be heard on this matter.
Following Trump’s 2016 campaign manual and his presidency, other Republicans have already translated their contempt for Mexicans and other Latinos into policy, especially on immigration. In Texas, Governor Greg Abbott has placed barbed wire, floating barriers and state troopers along the US-Mexico border to deter illegal entry into the country. Last week, the federal government sued the state of Texas to try to stop it.
What’s going on? This stance represents a genuine shift within Republican politics. For most of the past few decades, Republicans have supported a closer relationship with Mexico. (The free trade agreement of the 1990s, NAFTA, had bipartisan support.) And in the early days of the Trump presidency, the majority of Republican voters pointed to Mexico as an ally of the United States in the polls. Now, Republican voters are split nearly down the middle on whether Mexico is an ally or an enemy.
Republicans often cast the idea of a full militarization of the drug war as an evolution of public policy: treating the Mexican cartels like the Islamic State or other terrorist groups. However, unilaterally deploying military forces in Mexico would be a significant intensification of US policies.
I spoke to half a dozen experts on drug policy and counterterrorism. All of them, analysts of very different political ideologies, consider this position as extreme, ineffective and self-destructive. “In 35 years, this takes the prize for the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard,” said Jonathan Caulkins of Carnegie Mellon University.
In addition to the likely humanitarian cost and damage to America’s standing in the world, any incursion into Mexico could worsen the very problems that the Republicans are trying to solve. US gains in curbing illegal immigration and drugs in recent years have hinged on close cooperation with Mexico. Both Trump and President Joe Biden have worked with Mexican authorities to prevent people from Central and South America from crossing Mexico to reach the United States.
It is almost certain that Mexico would stop cooperating if the United States sent troops or fired missiles. The president of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, declared that talking about sending US military forces south of the border is “irresponsible” and “an offense to the people of Mexico, a lack of respect for our independence, our sovereignty.”
Representatives of the Trump, DeSantis and Haley campaigns did not respond to questions about the use of military force against the Mexican cartels. A spokeswoman for Scott reaffirmed her support for the idea but did not respond to questions about whether she would seek Mexico’s approval before a military deployment to the country.
Some of the rhetoric may be due to the presidential primaries, a time when that politicians tend to take more extreme positions on all sorts of issues before they moderate in general elections. That is what could be happening.
Politicians are also desperate to give the impression that they are doing something about the illegal immigration and drug overdose crisis, often with misleading promises of quick fixes and decisive action. Yet lasting solutions to these problems have eluded the United States for years.