Foreign Affairs Foreign Affairs
Credit: The U.S. Army via Wikimedia Commons


The Mexican drug cartels have long been associated with violence not only in their main areas of operation, but also along their pipelines near the U.S.-Mexico border. Recently, four Americans and one Mexican woman were kidnapped in Matamoros, a border town in Mexico. Sadly, two Americans and the Mexican woman were killed. The latest incident, however, came with a peculiar development: an apology. It is speculated that the apology may have come after talks about mobilizing American forces into Mexico began to make their way through Congress.


On March 3, 2023, four Americans Latavia “Tay” McGee, Eric James Williams, Zindell Brown, and Shaeed Woodard were kidnapped in an ambush in Matamoros shortly after crossing the border from Brownsville, Texas. A Mexican woman, Arely Servando, was also kidnapped in the ambush as she happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. On March 7, the bodies of Brown, Woodard, and Servando were found dead in Matamoros, while Williams and McGee were found alive but in need of medical attention. Following this, on March 9 several members of Congress called for the U.S. to declare Mexican drug cartels as terrorist organizations and to mobilize U.S. troops to deal with them.

On March 10, the Gulf Coast cartel, the suspected perpetrators of the kidnapping and killings, handed over five of their members and left a handwritten apology claiming that these men acted outside of whatever directive they were given. The letter reads, “The [Gulf Cartel] apologizes to the society of Matamoros, the relatives of Ms. Areli, and the affected American people and families. The Gulf Cartel, Scorpion Group, strongly condemns the events of last Friday. For this reason, we decided to hand over those directly involved and responsible for the acts, who at all times acted under their own determination and indiscipline and against the rules in which the [Gulf Cartel] always operates.”


Cartel operations have always been accompanied by violence, as demonstrated by previous incidents. For instance, in 2017 one Border Patrol agent was killed and another was wounded in a drug trafficking-related shoot-out, while in 2019 three women and six children were killed by cartel gunmen in the Chihuahua area of Mexico. Interestingly, the Mexican government claimed that the convoy of women and children was attacked only because La Línea, a rival cartel to the Sonora cartel, mistook their convoy for the Sonora convoy, yet no apology was issued by La Línea. The critical difference here is that there was no threat of U.S. mobilization into Mexico after this incident.


However, it is important to note that the U.S. has been trying to help Mexico quell its cartel problem for several years now. In 2007 the U.S. and Mexican governments signed the Merida Initiative, which created a framework for the U.S. to help Mexico train its federal, state, and local law enforcement, increase the Mexican government’s surveillance and intelligence capabilities, as well as implement social programs to prevent minors from being recruited into cartels. To date, the U.S. has given over $1.7 billion to this initiative and has provided 22 aircrafts.


On March 9, Senator Lindsey Graham (R) from South Carolina, the state where the American victims were from, stated that “the blood of Americans fuels the drug cartels. I want to blow them up. Whatever it takes for as long as it takes. I don’t want to be attacked again.” Graham also called for labeling all Mexican cartels as terrorist organizations, a move that is typically done in anticipation of military conflict with non-state actors, as was done with ISIS, Boko Haram, Al Qaeda, and others. Within 24 hours of this and similar sentiments from other Republican members of Congress, the Gulf Coast Cartel issued their apology and turned in the members they claimed were responsible for the kidnappings and killings.


Credit: Hasselbladswc via Wikimedia Commons

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has called out U.S. Congress members who called for mobilization, stating, “We are not going to permit any foreign government to intervene in our territory, much less that a government’s armed forces intervene.” Obrador even went so far as to claim that he would begin a public information campaign aimed at Mexicans in the U.S. to avoid voting for that party should the Republican-led proposal to intervene gain more traction.


The reality is that if the U.S. were to declare war on the cartels and send troops into Mexico, it would not have the support of NATO or the UN Security Council. The cartels are sophisticated organizations with both attack and intelligence capabilities, but they are ultimately criminal enterprises that rely on drug trafficking to maintain their power and wealth. There are multiple cartels operating internationally, including the powerful Sinaloa, Tijuana New Generation, and Gulf Coast cartels, as well as many smaller local organizations in rural areas of Mexico. If the U.S. were to mobilize, questions would arise about their mandate and the duration of the occupation. From a geopolitical standpoint, it would be more feasible for the U.S. to seek the participation of other NATO or UN Security Council members in an initiative like the Merida Initiative. Invading an isolationist country like Mexico over a drug war could have serious international consequences, potentially making other nations feel that the U.S. would be willing to invade any country for something that affects the U.S.