The secret is out: America's war on drugs is now more like a real war than ever before. This week, the New York Times reported that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's paramilitary capabilities include "five commando-style squads," mixing law enforcement and armed conflict across Latin America.
It's an operation that hasn't spread to Mexico -- yet. But as the expense of the status quo in that country mounts, with no end in sight to what over the past five years has become the world's most disastrous narco-conflict, U.S. policymakers are feeling growing pressure to take the fight south of the border. Mexico's pivotal position in the drug trade has grown so vexing -- despite unprecedented international cooperation -- that national political figures in the United States are pushing publicly to make Mexico the next step in indulging the military temptation.
The paramount concern is that Mexico will become a magnet for America's enemies abroad. In October, the U.S. Justice Department alleged that Iranian operatives -- one a U.S. citizen -- had plotted to work with a Mexican drug cartel to assassinate the Saudi ambassador by bombing a Washington restaurant. Texas Republican Rep. Michael McCaul, chairman of Congress's Homeland Security Oversight, Investigations, and Management Subcommittee, urged in response that "every tool available" must be used "to stop the advancement of Mexican drug cartels inside the U.S."
What, specifically, does that mean? Fresh light has been shed by eye-opening developments elsewhere in politics. As Paul McLeary of Defense Technology International reported in October, Republican Rep. Connie Mack of Florida used an Oct. 4 hearing on the Merida Initiative -- the security agreement between the United States, Mexico, and other Latin American countries on combating the drug trade -- to promote an "ink spot" counterinsurgency campaign in Mexico. On the presidential campaign trail, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who had previously called for deploying drone aircraft to patrol the U.S.-Mexico border, opined on Oct. 1, "It may require our military in Mexico working in concert" with Mexican troops "to kill these drug cartels and to keep them off of our border and to destroy their networks." U.S. defense secretary and former CIA chief Leon Panetta recently announced that President Barack Obama has nominated Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV to be commanding general of U.S. Army North, headquartered at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. Caldwell's current assignment? Combined Security Transition Command, Afghanistan.
Remarks and actions like these -- by key members of both parties -- suggest that the encroachment of military rhetoric and thinking on the situation across the border is the inevitable logical consequence of the costly and manifestly unsuccessful drug policy the United States has pursued for decades. In declaring the war on drugs in 1971, President Richard Nixon advertised the policy as a "total war" on "public enemy number one." Instead, the war on drugs has settled -- along with the drug trade it seeks to combat -- into something that far exceeds the ambit of mere law enforcement, yet falls far short of necessitating the mobilization, intensity, and mission clarity found in a proper war. It has long blurred the distinction between police action and armed conflict. The same drones patrolling the Pakistani frontier cruise the Mexican border. Domestic SWAT teams now frequently conduct no-knock raids in American hometowns reminiscent of U.S. tactics during the worst days of the Iraq war.
Psychologically and politically, Americans are particularly uncomfortable with current anti-drug operations. This month, for the first time, half of those polled by Gallup favored the legalization of marijuana. Videos of brutal and misbegotten SWAT raids -- such as last year's now-infamous raid in Columbia, Missouri -- rack up millions of views on YouTube and amplify outrage across the Internet. Americans perceive significant variances in the threat to public health and public order -- if any -- posed by marijuana, methamphetamines, and other prohibited substances. Recognition is increasing that the U.S. demand for drugs, which none less than Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called "insatiable," is to blame in significant part for the volume and profitability of the international drug trade.