PoliticsForeign Policy


How cartels are changing the U.S.-Mexico political landscape

Cartel issues, once confined to our southern neighbors, have now become a concern for the United States as well.
Posted at 3:29 PM, Dec 24, 2023

Border encounters hit record highs this week, and according to U.N. data, more migrants are citing violence as the reason for leaving their home country.

This is a shift, as migrants from Mexico would often cite economic opportunity as the reason.

This data comes amid a spike in violence last weekend in central Mexico, where at least three mass shootings took place, including one at a Christmas party, leaving at least 11 dead and many more wounded. The shootings are all linked to cartels. 

A nearly 2,000-mile border separates Mexico and the U.S., but a bilateral relationship unites the countries.

Mexico is a top travel destination for Americans and is our second biggest trade partner, according to the U.S. State Department.

“We trade $1.5 million a minute with Mexico,” said Earl Anthony Wayne, a former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico.

But the partnership has a cartel cloud lingering over it, as Mexico’s cartel activity has been on the rise since the 2000s, but only recently have U.S. lawmakers had the groups in their crosshairs.

“We’re gonna designate these groups and others, if appropriate, terror organizations under U.S. law," said Sen. Lindsey Graham.

The increased spotlight came on the heels of an incident resulting in the deaths of two Americans in Mexico. The American response gained a harsh reaction from Mexican President Andres Manuel López Obrado, who called Mexico safer than the U.S.

However, the numbers don’t support his claim, as 2020 data from the Mexican government showed that Mexico's murder rate was four times higher than that of the United States. 

The friction came only months after Obrador met with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and President Joe Biden, vowing to work together to curb drug activity and violence.

But what is powering the growth of Mexican cartels? Experts say financially, the drug trade will meet the supply of America’s drug demands.

“The abilities of the cartels to get to the point that they’re at today is really because of the amount of drugs that we consume here in the United States,” said Jerry Robinette, a retired special agent for Homeland Security Investigations.

Robinette says the cartels fostered corruption by bribing Mexican police, judges, and elected officials.

“There used to be a time when the cartels had to work with the law enforcement, and had to coordinate with law enforcement, had to get permission, had to have some sort of coordination. It’s just the opposite. Now, the governments have to coordinate with these cartels as to what they can or can’t do in this region,” said Robinette.

Now, the growth of the organization has made its way into the U.S.

Will US sanctions on Mexican cartels make a difference?
Senators Graham,  Mike Lee discuss bill addressing Mexico drug cartels and foreign terrorist organizations.

Will US sanctions on Mexican cartels make a difference?

Taking a look at how U.S.-Mexico relations have deteriorated this year and how the new imposed sanctions factor in.


A 2020 DEA map shows where different Mexican cartels have influence on American soil.

“We are literally under siege,” said Sheriff Kieran Donahue of the Canyon County Sheriff’s Office. “This is an incredibly dynamic, fluid, and terrifying situation in the United States. It is. And I mean, across the United States, not any particular state.”

Donahue says his small Idaho jurisdiction is seeing cartel chaos.

“We're dealing with the overdose deaths. We're dealing with the violence that the drug trade promotes and creates. And we're dealing with the cartels themselves, the stash houses, the laundering of money through different businesses,” said Donahue.

Many of those deaths are a result of cartel-produced fentanyl. The synthetic drugs are made by so-called cooks in Mexico, then smuggled into the U.S., where American-based cartel groups proceed to distribute them to big cities and rural towns.

“My local team just took off last week: 19,900 fentanyl pills in one search and three and a half pounds of methamphetamine. That's one guy, one gang member,” said Donahue.

The issue is exacerbated by breaches along the northern border.  

“What we’ve also seen in what's become incredibly significant and seen it in media stories most recently is our northern border. The longest border in the world is our northern border with Canada. Incredibly porous. We do not have the resources. They do not have the resources,” said Donahue.

The sheriff suggests responding with military-style action.

“These are powerful, powerful people. And they have military intelligence. They have military weapons. They have military equipment. They operate as a paramilitary organization,” said Donahue.

That rhetoric is gaining support. Last March, the drug cartel terrorist designation act was introduced. It was referred to the committee on foreign relations, and Senator Lindsay Graham sponsored the Narcotics Act, which was referred to the Select Committee on Intelligence.

“We’re gonna introduce an authorization to use military force where the United States military can go in and destroy these labs and destroy these wonderful networks if possible,” said Sen. Graham.

The Mexican president has dismissed the calls by U.S. lawmakers, saying, “We are not going to permit any foreign government to intervene in our territory, much less a foreign government’s armed forces."

Leaving a lot of lingering questions, what was once a problem for our neighbors to the south is now a U.S. problem too.