President Donald Trump’s response to the massacre of an American ex-pat family by drug cartel gunmen in northwest Mexico was both emotional and suggestive of a policy response that could have far-reaching implications for both Mexico and the United States. Trump reacted to the incident with a tweet that stated “this is the time for Mexico, with the help of the United States, to wage WAR (sic) on the drug cartels and wipe them off the face of the earth. We merely await a call from your great new president!” He added: "If Mexico needs or requests help in cleaning out these monsters, the United States stands ready, willing & able to get involved and do the job quickly and effectively."
It was not exactly clear as to what Trump had in mind regarding the nature of such “help.” Perhaps it was merely an offer for enhanced sharing of information about the cartels from the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and other U.S. law enforcement agencies. Such an order from the president would be merely a modest increase in the assistance that those agencies already provide to Mexico and other drug-source countries. Also, it is possible that Trump was offering to use the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies to help the Mexican government track and disrupt the drug cartels. Even that move would not constitute a dramatic increase in Washington’s participation in Mexico’s longstanding war on drugs.
There is another possibility, though, that cannot be ruled out. Does the Trump administration now contemplate direct U.S. military participation in the worsening conflict between the Mexican government and several major drug cartels? Such a role could take two forms. One initiative would entail drone strikes and other applications of airpower against targets in areas of Mexico under the de facto control of a cartel because government security forces are ineffective or have withdrawn entirely. The other possibility is that Washington would deploy Special Forces personnel on the ground to attack armed cartel units and help the Mexican government regain control over areas in which the drug gangs have run amok. Either move would be fraught with multiple negative consequences.