Just a week into his presidency, Donald Trump raised the specter of using U.S. military might to crush “tough hombres”: the Mexican drug cartels bedeviling the country in a historic year of gangland murders.
“We are willing to help you with that big-league. But they have to be knocked out and you have not done a good job of knocking them out,” Trump told Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto on Jan. 27, according to a transcript published Thursday by The Washington Post.
“Listen, I know how tough these guys are — our military will knock them out like you never thought of, we will work to help you knock them out because your country does not want that,” Trump said.
But can Trump actually do that?
Can Trump send forces to Mexico?
It is unlikely the Mexican government would allow small elite units, like Green Berets or Navy SEALs, to battle drug cartels in Mexico, or play an active role in advising and assisting Mexican units, said Peter DeShazo, a visiting professor in the Latin American, Latino and Caribbean Studies program at Dartmouth College.
While Colombian units have long trained alongside the U.S. Army’s 7th Special Forces Group, for instance, internal Mexican politics would likely prohibit that kind of decision.
“This is a not a unilateral issue. Organized crime is an international matter and not a Mexican domestic matter,” he told The Post.
Dispatching U.S. forces in Mexico would require host nation approval, and any military strike must fall within the broad, far-reaching authorization of use of military force powers wielded by the president, though Trump has sought to expand that power to undeclared battlefields like Yemen.
Northern Command did not respond to a question asking whether any U.S. forces are in Mexico beyond embassy duty.
DeShazo said Peña Nieto would be better served focusing on the Merida Initiative, the $2.8 billion State Department program launched in 2008 that aims to overhaul the Mexican justice system and improve Mexico’s troubling human rights record, a high-profile concern since the disappearance of 43 students linked to corrupt police and local officials in the state of Guerrero in 2014. Accusations of violence and abuses have also plagued the military and police force.
But Trump has proposed to slash the kind of foreign aid reflected in the initiative, reversing law enforcement and institutional gains it has produced. With an eye on military brass in his Cabinet and advisers in the White House, Trump appears to value military-minded solutions to problems such as destabilizing Mexico’s drug war, which has claimed at least 100,000 lives since 2006.
A fraught history
There has been historical animosity between the United States and Mexico since the Mexican American War of 1846, in which the United States received the vast expanse of land that would become part of the American West. A key battle was immortalized on both sides in vastly different ways.
The first line of the Marine Corps Hymn, “From the Halls of Montezuma,” is a reference to the victory over Mexican troops at the battle for Chapultepec castle in Mexico City in 1847.
Los Niños Héroes, a group of young cadets who fought to the death, are memorialized as martyrs across the country, taking the names of streets and schools, where children learn the name and myth of Juan Escutia — a cadet who wrapped himself in the garrison’s flag and leapt to his death so it would not fall into U.S. hands.
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Mexicans did not forget, but they did move on, said Iñigo Guevara Moyano, a director at Jane’s Defense and an expert on U.S.-Mexico military relations.
A military partnership was created in the first decade of the 2000s in response to increasing violence over drug smuggling routes to the United States and a tidal wave of arms flowing to the southern border.
The beginning of the partnership was fraught with distrust and suspicion on the Mexican side, particularly from the Army, experts have said. But working together on the common problem of drug cartel violence ravaging the border helped create trust among units.
Now the countries share intelligence over illicit smuggling networks, Mexican officer liaisons share command space at U.S. installations and units conduct a growing number of joint training missions and intelligence swapping to combat drug trafficking together, Moyano told The Washington Post.
“The relationship is closer than ever since World War II,” he said, apparent in far-reaching exercises like Amalgam Eagle, a joint Air Force training operation between the United States and Mexico that has occurred annually since at least 2015.
From 2014 to 2016, the two sides have increased joint programs by 20 percent, from cooperating on drug seizure operations on the seas to U.S. military lawyers instructing their Mexican counterparts over human rights and other legal principles, according to data from U.S. Northern Command, which oversees the partnership.
About $27 million was dedicated for units to train together at ranges and on tasks like hand-to-hand fighting and simulated beach landings. The command also recently facilitated the sale of 25 UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters and 2,250 Humvees to Mexico as of January.
Mexico’s bloody experience
Trump insisting on the United States intervening with military force is “not a nuanced approach of solving the problem,” said Duncan Wood, director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center, a Washington think tank.
“The military is a blunt instrument solution,” Wood told The Post. “You’re not going to knock out criminal gangs with military force. It has to be institutional reform.”
One of Trump’s remarks from the call particularly incensed Wood — that perhaps Mexico’s military is “afraid” of drug traffickers.
“It’s extraordinarily disrespectful to a military that has done this job reluctantly,” Wood said. The military has suffered more than 500 deaths in the drug war since 2006, according to a government report through July, many at the hands of weapons trafficked from the United States that feed the conflict in a country where most gun sales are outlawed.
While Washington works through fraught relations, military and defense officials at the lower levels are continuing to build on positive experiences, he said, though that does not mean a relationship built from political decisions will necessarily survive political attacks, Wood said.
There is “definitely a threat” of security cooperation fraying, he said. “But part of the message on the Mexican side is: there is a lot on the line here.”