On September 11, 2001, nineteen terrorists slammed commercial airliners into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania. This unprecedented attack against the United States killed 3,000 Americans. The United States responded with a complete reorganization of our nation’s approach to homeland security and counterterrorism.
Since 9/11, enterprises in China and cartels in Mexico have produced and exported thousands of pounds of a lethal chemical that has killed over 100,000 Americans. Despite this deadly assault on America, there has been no decisive whole-of-government reaction by the United States to solve this problem. In fact, there has been almost no coordinated reaction at all.
That lethal chemical is fentanyl, and it is high time for the Biden administration to declare it a weapon of mass destruction (WMD), treat the Mexican cartels that push it into the United States as foreign terrorist organizations (FTO), identify Communist China as the source of the problem and make it pay for it, and bring order to our southern border, the main gateway for this deadly drug.
The Fentanyl Scourge
The numbers are staggering. Fentanyl can be up to 50 times stronger than heroin and up to 100 times stronger than morphine, and as little as two milligrams can be fatal. Federal data indicates that of the almost 1 million drug overdose fatalities since 1999, most of which were from fentanyl. And the loss of life is growing rapidly: Fentanyl overdoses caused 57,832 deaths in 2020 and 71,238 in 2021, a 23 percent increase. Fentanyl overdoses are the number one cause of death for Americans between the ages of eighteen and forty-five. In 2021, fentanyl killed almost twice as many Americans in this age group than the second-place killer, motor vehicle accidents.
Last year, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol seized 11,201 pounds of fentanyl and noted that this quantity could kill every American citizen seven times over. In July, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Director Anne Milgram stated that fentanyl was “the deadliest threat [the DEA] ha[s] ever seen” and that the Mexican cartels who were pushing fentanyl into the United States were “poisoning Americans at record rates.”
For those responsible, the misery and death they ship into our communities is very lucrative. Fentanyl’s ease of manufacture and potency in very small amounts makes it incredibly profitable for interests in both the source country, the People’s Republic of China, and in the delivering country, Mexico.
None of this may be new to you but what may be new is that fentanyl—which is essentially a nerve agent—has even been used as a chemical weapon in the past. In 2002, when fifty Chechen terrorists took 800 hostages in a Moscow theater, Russian authorities pumped an aerosol containing fentanyl into the theater. Most of the terrorists and 120 hostages died. Given the widespread availability of illicit fentanyl in the United States, one could easily imagine a terrorist attack on our homeland using this substance.
Fentanyl Is a WMD
President Joe Biden has declared the deaths caused by illicit fentanyl smuggled into the United States a national emergency but has not followed up with decisive action.
According to a February 2022 report from the bipartisan Commission on Combating Synthetic Opioid Trafficking, “in terms of loss of life and damage to the economy, illicit synthetic opioids have the effect of a slow-motion weapon of mass destruction in pill form.” Biden should make this assessment official. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) defines a WMD as a “nuclear, radiological, chemical, biological, or other device that is intended to harm a large number of people.” Fentanyl meets these criteria and should be designated as such.
This idea is not new. According to a leaked memo, the DHS proposed labeling fentanyl a WMD in 2019. In 2022, Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO) and several co-sponsors introduced a bill asking for the same, and so did Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) in separate legislation. More recently, a bipartisan group of eighteen attorneys general urged Biden to classify illegal fentanyl as a WMD or urge Congress to do so if he concluded the president lacked the authority.
The attorneys general argued for the designation because it would require the DHS and DEA to coordinate with other government agencies on the crisis, which would in turn lead to policies to detect or prevent the transport of fentanyl. Moreover, it would allocate additional resources to this fight.
Mexican Cartels Are Terrorist Organizations
The latest National Drug Threat Assessment explicitly warns that Mexican drug cartels control most of the U.S. drug market and “are the greatest drug trafficking threat to the United States.” Nearly all of the illicit fentanyl flowing into the United States was smuggled from Mexico, especially by the Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation cartels.
Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump all considered designating Mexican cartels as FTOs under Section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act. Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX) introduced legislation proposing this in 2011, as well as Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA) and Rep. Anthony Brindisi (D-NY) in 2019. In September, Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R-TX) issued an executive order to this effect and urged Biden to do the same at the federal level.
Also in September, Sens. Roger Marshall (R-KS) and Rick Scott (R-FL) introduced the Drug Cartel Terrorist Designation Act. The intent of the act is to make it illegal for individuals to knowingly provide “material support or resources” to the cartel to enter the United States. The act would make possible longer prison sentences, often for life, and would also ban cartel members from entering the United States and empower the Treasury Department to freeze their assets.
Some are also calling for armed action against the cartels in partnership with Mexico. The U.S. and Colombian governments partnered together in the 1990s to defeat the mighty Medellín Cartel, which had been designated an FTO. The FTO designation could empower the U.S. government to use the same decisive means against cartels used to degrade Al Qaeda, namely, drone surveillance and attacks, undercover action, and facility destruction.
The current Mexican government has rejected any unilateral interventions by the United States on its territory as an infringement of its sovereignty and is unenthusiastic regarding U.S. - Mexican anti-narcotics cooperation, especially when it comes to joint enforcement. A recent high-level meeting of the U.S.-Mexico security dialogue highlighted a few successes and consultations regarding drug trafficking but much more needs to be done given the gravity of the situation. If faced with insistent demands from the U.S. government as the fentanyl situation deteriorates further, the Mexican government may agree to joint enforcement action against the cartels, inspired by the success of the U.S.-Colombia partnership.
An FTO designation would send an unambiguous message to the cartels: Justice will be delivered.
Holding Communist China Accountable
According to the DEA, the main source of raw materials for fentanyl production is the People’s Republic of China. The Beijing regime is only making half-hearted efforts to stop fentanyl ingredient exports to Mexico and it recently stopped cooperation with the United States in retaliation for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-CA) visit to Taiwan.
There are bipartisan initiatives in Congress to push the People’s Republic of China to do more.
In 2019, Sens. Charles E. Schumer (D-NY) and Tom Cotton (R-AR) included their Fentanyl Sanctions Act in the next year’s National Defense Authorization Act. The act was meant to hold China and other countries accountable for their commitments to enforce laws that stop the production and trafficking of fentanyl. The act imposes sanctions on Chinese drug manufacturers who knowingly provide opioids to traffickers and authorizes additional funding for U.S. law enforcement agencies that combat foreign trafficking of synthetic opioids.
This year, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee unanimously passed the Fighting Emerging Narcotics Through Additional Nations Lasting (FENTANYL) Results Act, the brainchild of Sens. Rob Portman (R-OH) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH). The act aims to increase international cooperation to stop trafficking in fentanyl and other opioids. The act includes a provision authored by Sens. Ben Cardin (D-MD), Bill Hagerty (R-TN), and John Cornyn (R-TX) regarding the “major illicit drug producing country” definition. The provision rewrites the definition to include countries like China that manufacture precursor chemicals needed for the production of narcotics, an improvement over the definition in the Foreign Assistance Act that only includes countries that cultivate and produce illicit drugs.
Stopping Chaos at the Southern Border
The Biden administration has reversed almost all of the Trump administration’s policies aimed at reducing illegal immigration, resulting in record numbers of people entering the United States illegally through the southern border.
U.S. border agents are overwhelmed and are no longer on the front lines to stop illegal immigration and drug smuggling. Instead, they drive migrants to processing centers and handle paperwork related to asylum and refugee claims.
This is an untenable situation that demands immediate attention. And there should be no taboos when considering solutions. The Biden administration wants to use modern technology to control the border but it should also reinstate the Trump administration’s policy of making asylum seekers wait in Mexico while their application is being considered. In an about-face, the Biden administration recently started doing just this regarding Venezuelan migrants but more is needed.