Tension between the United States and Mexico has exploded into anger. If we don’t want Chinese warships docking at Manzanillo, it’s time to pay attention.
On March 3, members of a drug gang abducted four American tourists in the border city of Matamoros. Two were later found dead. That set off a burst of indignation in Washington. It came amid rising charges that Mexico is fueling the deadly epidemic of fentanyl poisoning in the United States.
Some in Washington instinctively respond to trouble abroad by threatening to bomb or invade. Usually they aim their threats at “rogue states” far away. In recent weeks they have begun urging armed action against Mexico, our neighbor.
Senator Lindsey Graham announced that he will file legislation classifying Mexican drug gangs as terrorist organizations so they can become legal targets for US attack. “I want to break the backs of these cartels, using military force if necessary,” he said. “I would tell the Mexican government: If you don’t clean up your act, we’re going to clean it up for you.”
A chorus of Republicans is singing from the same hymnal. The chairman of the House Oversight Committee, Representative James Comer, said President Trump had made “a mistake” by not bombing Mexican labs. A Republican presidential candidate and former biotech executive, Vivek Ramaswamy, said that if elected, he would use “military force to decimate the cartels, Osama bin Laden-style.” Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene told Donald Trump Jr. on his podcast that she could not understand why “we’re not bombing the Mexican cartels who are poisoning Americans every single day.”
Mexican leaders were quick to react. They indelicately pointed out that fentanyl is distributed in the United States by American gangs and that most of the weapons that Mexican cartels use were bought in the United States.
“We will not allow ourselves to be pushed around,” Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard said after hearing the threats from Washington. He added that fentanyl has killed many Mexicans, and that many Mexican police officers have been gunned down while fighting drug gangs. “With this cost in human lives,” he asked, “how is it that these men dare to question our commitment or, even worse, to call for intervention in our country?”
As indignation rose in Mexico, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said he shared it. “We’re very sorry about what’s going on in the United States, but why don’t they address their problem?” he mused. “Why don’t they combat the distribution of fentanyl in the United States, the US cartels that distribute fentanyl? And beyond that, why don’t they care for their youth?”
López Obrador sounded angrier when he addressed a rally in Mexico City’s main square on March 18.
“We remind those hypocritical and irresponsible politicians that Mexico is a free and independent country!” he thundered. “They can threaten us with any kind of outrage, but never, never will we allow them to violate our sovereignty or trample on our nation’s dignity.”
Because of history, Mexican nationalism is inevitably entwined with resentment toward the United States.
In the 1840s, the US Army captured nearly half of Mexico, which became California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, and parts of New Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming. Marines seized the Caribbean port of Veracruz in 1915, facing heavy resistance and setting off anti-American protests across the continent. A year later, General John J. Pershing set out on what became a fruitless nine-month chase across northern Mexico aimed at capturing the revolutionary leader Pancho Villa.
These episodes are at best vague memories to Americans. To many Mexicans, they are vivid history. When Mexicans hear threats of invasion from the north, their collective memory naturally leads them to see a pattern.
Anti-Mexico sentiment bursts out periodically in Washington, often after an act of violence against American travelers. This time is different, for two reasons. First, there is talk of military attack. Second, the argument is new: We need to destroy clandestine fentanyl factories.
Fentanyl is a potent opioid that killed more than 100,000 Americans last year. Much of it comes from Mexico, where cartels brew it with chemicals smuggled from China. For several years, China and the United States worked together to control this illicit trade, but last year China ended its cooperation. This was among the steps China took to hit back at the United States after then-speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in July.
Sending US troops into Mexico, even for a limited purpose like commando raids on bases used by drug gangs, would set off an Iraq-style cascade of disastrous consequences. Firing missiles into what we think are fentanyl factories would have little effect so long as demand remains high in the United States. Yet because we have devoted so little thought to the long-term project of partnership with Mexico, those are the first ideas that pop into angry demagogues’ heads.
The United States is too involved with too many countries around the world. In Mexico, the opposite is true. This relationship is more important to our long-term future than almost anything that happens across oceans. If Mexico feels truly threatened by the United States, it will logically seek to shore up its defenses. It could seek help from other powers. This month’s angry words should be a wake-up call.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.