Oct 11, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Trump-aligned group declares "war on cartels"

Ken Cuccinelli speaks during a House Homeland Security Subcommittee hearing in Washington, D.C.

Former Trump DHS official Ken Cuccinelli. Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A conservative group run by former top Trump officials is proposing a formal U.S. declaration of war on Mexican cartels and a mechanism to shut down legal ports of entry based on estimates of undocumented crossings.

Why it matters: The controversial proposal — which would have major military, diplomatic and human rights implications — is being unveiled in a policy paper by the Center for Renewing America one month before the midterm elections, as Republicans seek to put President Biden on the spot and steer voters' focus from abortion rights to immigration and crime.

Don't forget: The Biden administration already works with foreign governments including in Guatemala and Mexico to crack down on criminal networks. But the U.S. does not have jurisdiction to make arrests in other countries.

Details: The group's leadership includes Russ Vought, Trump's former director of the Office of Management and Budget; Ken Cuccinelli, who held the second-highest position at DHS under Trump; lawyer Mark Paoletta and Kash Patel, a former Pentagon official. Their organization is a key policy shop that would likely play a major role in a potential second Trump administration.

  • The plan calls for a formal declaration of war and coordination with the Mexican government and branches of the U.S. military.
  • It asks Congress to consider passing a trigger mechanism shutting down legal ports of entry at the border based on the number of migrants and asylum seekers crossing illegally. It also looks to the Navy to interdict drug smuggling vessels and Treasury to sanction specific cartel leaders.

The backdrop: While president, Trump floated similar ideas for cracking down on cartels, something foreign policy and Mexico experts criticized at the time.

What they're saying: "The chaos playing out along the US southern border is almost exclusively driven by the cartels and their sophisticated trafficking of drugs, people, and criminals," Cuccinelli writes in the policy paper.

The other side: "It’s a dumb idea. Not least because the U.S. has been sanctioning cartel leaders, money launderers etc under the Kingpin act for decades. And declaring war how? By mobilizing US military to act in Mexico? Never gonna happen," Roberta Jacobson, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico from May 2016 to May 2018 and Biden's former border czar told Axios.

  • "Sounds like someone saw Gov. Abbott’s stunt in declaring drug traffickers foreign terrorist organizations and decided to go 'one better.' Without recognizing that such actions bring out all the anti-American DNA in Mexico and would likely DECREASE rather than increase, Mexican cooperation," Jacobson added.
  • "The Biden-Harris Administration has been leading an unprecedented effort to target transnational criminal organizations, including Mexican drug cartels and human smugglers," a White House spokesperson told Axios.
  • "Our actions have resulted in degrading these cartels, seizing a record amount of illicit drugs before they even cross our borders, and taking thousands of traffickers off the streets," the spokesperson added.

Between the lines: The same group is responsible for pushing a plan for states to declare an invasion at the border to unlock additional state resources to target criminal networks involved in human and drug smuggling — a plan embraced by GOP gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake in Arizona.

Editor's note: The story has been updated to add comment from a White House spokesperson.

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