The constant infiltration of illicit drugs from south of the border and the devastation it has wrought on American cities and sizable portions of the population do not seem to have been enough for the U.S. to move against the drug cartels. However, the shocking, brutal massacre by cartel thugs some days ago of the group of American Mormons—all of whom were women and children—living in their ancestral home in northern Mexico should drive home the urgent need to take decisive action.
While the motive for the attack has not been conclusively determined, it is likely that the cartel in control of much of that part of Mexico, just south of the New Mexico and Arizona border, thought the Mormon community was in their way, as for some time its leaders have been outspoken against the actions of the cartels. A decade ago, the cartels kidnapped and murdered members of one of the Mormon families.
Anyone who thinks this couldn’t happen here in the United States should note that many people living near the border as well as members of the Border Patrol have often spoken about the ongoing lawlessness and turmoil. There is no reason to think that something like this might not happen on the American side.
It appears that the Mexican government is almost impotent to deal with the cartels. The Sinaloa cartel, once led by the infamous Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, recently used armored vehicles and military-grade assault rifles to rout the Mexican army from the state capital of Culiacán and take control of the city. They’re beginning to look less like mafiosos and more like militants.
It hasn’t helped that Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador says he won’t war with the cartels anymore, doubling down on his “hugs, not bullets” approach to narcoterrorism. Since the attack on the Mormons, Mr. Obrador has rebuffed an offer by President Trump to help the Mexican government deal with the cartels.
Perhaps, then, it is time for the U.S. to do what it did a hundred years ago, when it sent a military force into Mexico—despite the opposition of the Mexican government—to hunt down Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa after his forces attacked the town of Columbus, New Mexico. Perhaps the only solution is an American military incursion into Mexico—even without the agreement of the Mexican government—to rout out and eliminate the cartels. We might ask if international law and Catholic teaching permit such an action.
From the standpoint of Catholic teaching, the principles of just war and the rights of nations would be pertinent. The teaching on just war requires just cause for military action. This would involve a violation or imminent threat to a nation’s rights, independence, or possession of vital national resources. The cartels don’t represent a threat to American independence, but they undoubtedly threaten our rights to be free of a range of criminal activity—from funneling illegal drugs into the country to human trafficking to murdering American citizens. If violence were directed against Americans in northern Mexico not far from the border, there is every reason to believe that the cartels wouldn’t hesitate to do this on American soil since they are regularly moving back and forth across the border to bring their contraband into this country and engage in illegal action.
Would they hesitate to attack an American town, as Villa did, if it posed a serious obstacle to their operations?
Spreading illicit, dangerous drugs throughout the country is a threat to the most vital of a nation’s resources: its people. Illicit drugs are sickening, permanently harming, damaging the lives and families of, and even killing many Americans, as well as causing disorder and turmoil in communities.
In Catholic teaching, war can be resorted to only if it is a last resort, after all means of peaceful resolution have been attempted. Negotiation must be seriously undertaken to attempt to resolve differences. While the argument could be made that the U.S. should intensify its efforts to negotiate a joint solution to the cartel problem with the Mexicans, Mr. Obrador’s response isn’t promising. Moreover, the point could be made that an American military incursion would not be a full-fledged war but a much more limited action. It could be seen almost as a large-scale police action. Also, it would not be directed against the Mexican government but against a group of highly sophisticated bandits within that country’s borders.
Right intention is also a criterion for just war. There would certainly be no question about America’s intent. We would be aiming to bring the cartels to bay, and not, say, to topple the Mexican government.
Catholic just war teaching also requires that there be a proportion between the foreseen evils of a military action and the hoped-for benefits. It does not seem disproportionate to have a limited military action when one considers the benefits that both the U.S. and Mexico would derive from eliminating the cartels.
It is true that in Catholic social teaching nations have a right to non-intervention and, in general, to conduct their own affairs without interference. These rights like all rights, however, are not absolute. As the encyclical Pacem in Terris says, a state may not unjustly involve itself in another’s affairs. It is not interference per se, then, in another nation’s affairs that is morally rejected, but unjust interference. Acting to suppress the cartels operating from Mexican territory that are threatening the common good and well-being of the U.S. in many ways, when the Mexican authorities can’t or won’t suppress them, hardly seems to be unjust interference.
Some have described the cartels as narcoterrorist groups. The Church, of course, has condemned terrorism. Nations clearly have a right to protect themselves from terrorism, whether originating within or outside of their borders.
As far as international law is concerned, there has been much dispute and debate about the military efforts the U.S. has undertaken in the Middle East and Central Asia to defeat terrorist networks. Michael P. Scharf, a prominent international law scholar, says that while the use of force in self-defense has traditionally not been viewed as lawful against non-state actors in a third state and that American claims in international forums to the contrary when dealing with terrorists were initially opposed, the U.N. Security Council ultimately sanctioned the use of force by outside powers against ISIS in Syria. Therefore, it might be said that international law is evolving on this and that a good case can be made that an American military intervention against the Mexican cartels would not offend it.
Perhaps it is time then to consider a military response to the cartels. This would not seem to be objectionable from the standpoint of either Catholic social teaching or international law.