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Topic / International Relations and Security

The Opioid Challenge: Rethinking US Policy for National Security

Amidst the gravest drug crisis in American history, the United States grapples with an incomprehensible death toll exceeding 100,000 fentanyl overdoses in 2021 alone.[1] In context, this is significantly more than the estimated 33,000 American soldiers who lost their lives during the Global War on Terror spanning over two decades.[2] Consequently, the US government is growing concerned about the persistently high violence in Mexico and perceived ineffectiveness of various US efforts to address the cartel illicit drug networks.[3] Given the lack of a US-Mexico security framework, persistent stronghold of these cartels, US governmental paralysis, and the mounting devastation emanating from the surge of fentanyl crossing the US-Mexico border, the United States must find another policy to quell the fentanyl crisis. A failure to embrace a more proactive stance risks an indefinite surge in American fatalities, thus underscoring the urgent need for a comprehensive policy overhaul.

Beginning in the 1960s, the drug trafficking landscape within the United States underwent an indiscernible evolution. Beginning with the cultivation of marijuana and opium, then cocaine, and now fentanyl, this evolution over time illustrates the simultaneous shift in potency.[4] Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, is fifty times more potent than heroin and a hundred times stronger than morphine.[5] This heightened potency of manufactured fentanyl is significant, with just two milligrams being lethal; yet drug trafficking organizations often distribute it by the kilogram, and one kilogram has the potential to fatally affect 500,000 people.[6] The escalating lethality of fentanyl is accompanied by the parallel growth in sophistication of the Mexican cartels responsible for its production and distribution, resulting in stronger cartels that are increasingly challenging to dismantle. This heightened strength enables these cartels to operate extensively across borders with limitless impunity.

In recent years, the Sinaloa Cartel and Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG) have emerged the dominant Mexican cartels.[7] These cartels have consolidated power violently amongst the other pre-existing syndicates. In October 2023, the Courier Journal reported some of the more recent violence between the Sinaloa Cartel and CJNG in Tijuana spanning from decapitated bodies, minors being slain, kidnappings, and extortions.[8] Tijuana is only a microcosm of the cartel carnage in Mexico. Mexico’s murder rate has tripled since the war on drugs in 2006 with more than 420,000 Mexicans murdered.[9] In 2020, the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) assessed that US-based Mexican cartel members generally refrain from inter-cartel violence on US soil to avoid detection, safeguard their fentanyl consumers base, and obfuscate increased scrutiny by US law enforcement on their operations.[10]

However, in 2023, former advisor to the Department of Homeland Security, Charles Marino, stated that there is going to be an increase in cartel violence spillover into the US as a record number of migrants cross the southern border.[11] In their violent and dominant rise, the cartels have developed a more efficient sourcing model of fentanyl where the chemical precursors to the drug are now derived in China and then synthesized in Mexico for distribution to the United States.[12] They operate with unlimited impunity as the Mexican government has failed to combat their initiatives evident in their discontinuation of the US security assistance program, the Merida Initiative.

Navigating Setbacks: Assessing Failures in Countering the Illicit Fentanyl Trade from the Merida Initiative to US Domestic Measures

The complex history of Mexico’s security challenges with the cartels are mired with violence, corruption, and failure. The Merida Initiative, a joint US-Mexico security aid package initiated by President Bush during the Calderon administration in 2007, had positive prospects for cooperation by bolstering the Mexican police force and judicial enforcement agencies.[13] The Merida Initiative was expanded by President Obama with the implementation of the four-pillar approach: strengthening institutions, modernizing the US-Mexico border security, targeting cartel leadership, and developing community-level programs that would prevent youths from joining gangs.[14] The US invested approximately $3 billion of security funding over the last decade.[15] Unfortunately, the initiative proved unsuccessful, exhibiting no reduction in opioid-related fatalities within the United States; rather, it inadvertently catalyzed a substantial upsurge.[16]

The implementation of the Merida Initiative inadvertently precipitated the fragmentation of the preexisting cartels, giving rise to increasingly aggressive factions and intensifying the violent competition for supremacy in the fentanyl market.[17] In the face of the Mexican government’s recent withdrawal efforts beginning from the Merida Initiative in 2019 and President Obrador’s adoption of a notably more passive stance toward the Mexican cartels, the absence of a coherent security arrangement poses a profound challenge to the Mexican government’s ability to curtail the cartel’s rampant influence.[18] Moreover, this impasse exacerbates the US government’s limitations in effectively deterring the infiltration of Mexican cartel influence within the nation’s illicit drug trade, amplifying the urgency for a comprehensive reassessment of cross-border security cooperation and strategic policy recalibration.

Much different than his predecessors, President Obrador has signaled a cooperation with the cartels. The failure of Mexican President Obrador’s cartel policy is representative by the Sinaloa Cartel’s complete takeover of the Sinaloa capital city, Culiacan, and Obrador’s multiple public appearances with cartel families.  These indications lead to the Mexican government’s apparent reluctance for a new US-Mexican security framework to counter the cartel’s activities now and in the foreseeable future.[19]

The absence of an effective collaborative approach with the Mexican authorities left President Trump in 2016 to pivot toward an alternative, more domestic approach. During his tenure, the US adopted a more aggressive domestic policy paradigm that accentuated domestic preventative measures instead of strategies contingent upon Mexico’s collaboration. Ultimately, Trump’s method proved ineffective in slowing the opioid fatality rate or dissuading cartel operations.[20] First, President Trump prioritized the construction of the border wall as a mitigation tactic for illicit fentanyl drug trade.[21] Additionally, his administration emphasized reclassification of Mexican cartels as terrorist entities, thereby authorizing targeted intervention against cartel personnel.[22] Notably, President Trump implemented a temporary suspension of Mexican immigration, controversially leveraging COVID-19 quarantine restrictions as an indirect means to mitigate the impact of the Mexican cartel’s fentanyl distribution network.[23] Despite US prevention methods at the forefront of his security policy, various Mexican cartels were not labeled terrorists,[24] only 170 miles of border wall was constructed,[25] and ultimately the reversal of halting legal immigration at the southern border due to COVID quarantine.[26] US domestic preventive measures failed as opioid deaths surged again to new highs in the subsequent years, culminating with opioid overdoses tripling from 2016 to 2020.[27] In the end, the US policy of prevention was not enough to slow the rate of the opioid-related overdoses or even limiting the Mexican cartel’s drug sourcing model.

Currently, the Biden administration has also focused on a more domestic approach in countering the cartels. Despite the lack of policy on a joint US-Mexico security framework, the administration has emplaced advanced technological scanners at legal ports of entry to enhance efficiency and quantity of passenger vehicles from 40% to 70%.[28] Additionally, in November 2023, the Department of Treasury sanctioned 13 Sinaloa cartel members and 3 cartel-affiliated business entities.[29] However, the cartel’s diverse network allows them to avoid these scanners by utilizing other smuggling methods, such as tunnels, maritime boats, and drones. The lack of any further Mexican commitments to a revitalized version of the Merida Initiative has resulted in failure, in that the Mexican government’s strategy does not support US interests of counternarcotics and law enforcement cooperation.[30] Analysis from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) indicates that sanctions imposed against the cartels were not sufficiently large enough to provide an effective deterrent against cartel operations.[31] By 2022, the Biden Administration witnessed the highest amount of fentanyl deaths in United States history, rising from 56,516 deaths in 2020 to 73,654 deaths. Regrettably, fentanyl is the underlying cause of nearly 70% of American drug overdose deaths, highlighting President Biden’s failure in even curbing the death rate.[32]

Charting the Course: A Kinetic Response to Mexican Cartel Operations.

To face the relentless persistence of the expansive cartel empire and a continued rise in fentanyl deaths, the US government grapples with the stark reality of a significant shortage in effective policy measures. Acknowledging the imperative to halt the proliferation of fentanyl distribution, the US confronts the undeniable truth that they must act with the necessity of a more proactive stance against the cartels. The US must drastically alter its current posture of dependency on the Mexican government to address the Mexican cartel’s pervasive influence. As such, the prospect of resorting to targeted US military intervention arises, envisaging strategic operations directed at critical Mexican cartel personnel, primary manufacturing facilities, and critical distribution nodes along the US border.

In 2023, the Authorization for the Use Military Force (AUMF) was a drafted legislative proposal for this very purpose. Although this Congressional bill does not declare war in the traditional sense, AUMF would grant authorization for the use of military force against cartel personnel and their drug distribution networks. An AUMF against the Mexican cartels modeled after the successful military tactics used to defeat ISIS would prioritize use of U.S. Special Forces integrated amongst the local population to maneuver discretely in contested areas, actively engaged to better understand the battlefield and adapt strategies as they change on the ground. Similar applied methods such as the use of airpower played a crucial role in the swift defeat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria by providing aerial drones for U.S. Special Forces, which supported the intelligence gathering and targeting of key enemy vulnerabilities.[33] Furthermore, the ability to utilize electronic and cyber warfare military component units significantly aided in determining weak points in command-and-control, finances, and essential supplies.[34] This strategy positively addressed the sizeable challenge of reducing civilian casualties in densely, urban terrain like Mosul, Iraq – an important and valid consideration for the use of similar operations to navigate the complexities of assumed conflict in some of the heavily populated cities occupied by the cartels in Mexico.[35]

This policy represents the most promising prospect for effecting actual change resulting in a substantial reduction in opioid-related illicit trade into the US while concurrently mitigating the cartels’ overall capacity to cultivate, produce, and disseminate illicit drugs.[36] The AUMF is not as radical as many would believe as evidenced in its current usage against ISIL and would equally garner substantial public endorsement, due to the dire opioid crisis gripping the nation.[37] If the US persists in adhering to its current policy, or the lack thereof, it may potentially face the loss of 1.22 million Americans over the next decade.[38]

The US endorsement of the AUMF legislation targeting the Mexican cartels alone is not enough, although the US government can and should make efforts to support this imperative. The US must direct the Department of Defense – primarily the US Northern and Southern Command to formulate detailed military plans for strategically targeting Mexican cartels in a sustained military campaign while integrating key agencies within the Department of Homeland Security, Central Intelligence Agency, and other key inter-governmental agencies. Preparation is key when formulating a hybrid military campaign stratagem that aligns intelligence efforts to better mitigate the potential for collateral damage.

Furthermore, the US military should target the source by utilizing the US Pacific Command naval assets in maritime interdiction operations on merchant vessels that carry Chinese manufactured materials en-route to cartel organizations. This would mitigate the overseas supply to the cartel’s manufacturing and further aim at dissembling China’s role in distributing fentanyl precursors to the cartels. The disruption of this supply chain is critical, and the US must demonstrate a robust show of force in challenging Chinese collaboration with the Mexican cartels. 

Previous US policy failures in addressing the fentanyl crisis and the influence of Mexican cartels demands a fundamental recalibration towards a more proactive national security policy. The successful military operations against ISIL should be applied against Mexican cartel networks to protect the nation from the ongoing fentanyl epidemic that is killing a vast number of Americans. Finally, the need for direct military planning and integration with the aid of relevant government agencies and maritime interdiction operations is vital to disrupt the vast supply chain of the cartels. These efforts can best calibrate the lethality of US forces required to prevent further fentanyl distribution escalation. Time is of the essence, and US military action, specifically through AUMF, is all that is left for effectively countering Mexican cartels who represent a clear and present danger, threatening US national security and public health.

[1] Michael Hardy, “Texas Has Declared War on Fentanyl. Drug Experts Say It’s Making the Same Old Mistakes.” Texas Monthly, April 4, 2023,

[2] Department of Defense, “U.S. Active Duty Military Deaths by Year and Manner,” Defense Casualty Analysis System, August 2023,

[3] June S. Beittel, “Mexico: Organized Crime and Drug Trafficking Organizations,” Congressional Research Service, June 7, 2022,

[4] James O. Finckenauer, Joseph R. Fuentes, and George L. Ward, “Mexico and the United States: Neighbors Confront Drug Trafficking,” National Institute of Justice, December 6, 2007,

[5] Hardy, “Texas Has Declared War on Fentanyl.”

[6] Drug Enforcement Administration, “Facts about Fentanyl,” April 29, 2021,

[7] Karol Suárez, “Tijuana turf war: CJNG, Sinaloa Cartel battle for control of US/Mexico border city,” Courier Journal, October 30, 2023,

[8] Suárez, “Tijuana turf war.”

[9] “Wave of Mexico attacks kills 22, including a dozen police, in one day,” Al Jazeera, October 24, 2023,

[10] Drug Enforcement Agency, “2020 Drug Enforcement Administration National Drug Threat Assessment,” March 2021,

[11] Andrew Dorn, “Are Mexican cartels carrying out more violence on US soil? NewsNation, January 20, 2023,

[12] Beittel, “Mexico.”

[13] Vanda Felbab-Brown, “US-Mexico security collaboration won’t be easily resurrected,” Brookings, July 30, 2021,

[14] Felbab-Brown, “US-Mexico security collaboration.”

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Bill Weinberg, “Mexico’s President to the U.S.: We Don’t Want Your Armed Helicopters,” Freedom Leaf, May 23, 2019,

[19] Felbab-Brown, “US-Mexico security collaboration.”

[20] Brian Mann, “Opioid Crisis: Critics Say Trump Fumbled Response to Another Deadly Epidemic,” NPR, October 29, 2020,

[21] White House, “President Donald J. Trump Is Strengthening Efforts To Combat Drug Trafficking and Protect Our Communities,” July 10, 2020,

[22] Bobby Allyn, “Trump Floating Terrorist Label for Mexican Cartels Brings Fears of Drone Strikes,” NPR, November 27, 2019,

[23] Libby Cathey, “Government response updates: Trump invokes Defense Production Act, closes southern border citing ‘viral spread,’” ABC News, March 20, 2020,

[24] Allyn, “Trump Floating Terrorist Label for Mexican Cartels.”

[25] Vanda Felbab-Brown, “The Damage Trump’s Wall Causes in Mexico,” Brookings, July 20, 2020,

[26] Ted Hesson, “How would Trump crack down on immigration in a second term?” Reuters, January 8, 2024,

[27] Mann, “Opioid Crisis.”

[28] Vanda Felbab-Brown, “Addressing Mexico’s role in the US fentanyl epidemic,” Brookings, July 19, 2023,

[29] Department of the Treasury, “Treasury Sanctions Sinaloa Cartel Network Flush with Illicit Fentanyl on Southwest Border,” November 7, 2023,

[30] Felbab-Brown, “Addressing Mexico’s role in the US fentanyl epidemic.”

[31] OECD, “Hard Core Cartels – Harm and Effective Sanctions,” Policy Brief, May 2002,

[32] USAFacts Team, “Are fentanyl overdose deaths rising in the US?” USAFacts, September 27, 2023,

[33] Michael Gordon, “Explainer: U.S. Strategy to Defeat ISIS,” Wilson Center, September 30, 2022,

[34] Gordon, “Explainer.”

[35] Ibid.

[36] Brian Finucane, “Dangerous Words: The Risky Rhetoric of U.S. War on Mexican Cartels,” International Crisis Group, July 17, 2023,

[37] Tess Bridgeman, “When Does the Legal Basis for U.S. Forces in Syria Expire?” Just Security, March 14, 2018,

[38] Tracie White, “Stanford-Lancet report calls for sweeping reforms to mitigate opioid crisis,” Stanford Medicine News, February 2, 2022,