Editor’s Note: Sen. Joni Ernst is a Republican from Iowa. Sen. Tim Kaine is a Democrat from Virginia. The opinions expressed in this commentary are their own. View more opinion on CNN.
Illicit fentanyl that originates abroad is one of the most damaging weapons employed against our homeland, destroying lives and families across our country.
The drug is the leading cause of death for Americans ages 18 to 49, according to a Washington Post analysis. And based on figures released by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an average of 195 Americans died every single day in 2021 due to this lethal drug, which is primarily smuggled into the US from Mexico. To put that in perspective, that is about the equivalent of the death total on 9/11 about every 15 days.
Although they are a thousand miles away from the border, Iowa and Virginia – the states we represent – are feeling the impact. Among Iowans under the age of 25, drug overdose deaths have increased 120% in the last five years, according to the Iowa Department of Health. In 2012, there were 50 fentanyl overdose deaths in Virginia, according to the Virginia Department of Health; in 2022, that number skyrocketed, taking the lives of nearly 2,000 people.
The culprit is clear. Mexican transnational criminal organizations are sprawling enterprises that have diversified their illicit activities, which now range from drug smuggling to human smuggling, black market tobacco products and petty retail theft. Cartels’ fentanyl trafficking far surpasses the US government’s response. We must scale our efforts immediately to combat this national security threat.
To truly end the fentanyl epidemic, the response must be proportionate to the problem. That is going to take a coordinated, whole-of-government approach that begins with prioritizing the issue, followed by strong interagency coordination. That’s why we introduced the Disrupt Fentanyl Trafficking Act of 2023 this week to direct more federal attention and coordination to deter the criminal networks responsible for trafficking.
The national security challenge of dismantling the cartels is daunting. US Northern Command estimates drug cartels operate widely in about a third of Mexico’s territory, and the International Crisis Group estimates that over 500 armed groups operated in Mexico between 2009 and 2020.
Fentanyl can be churned out quickly and cheaply, with precursor chemicals coming mainly from Chinese companies and the use of pill presses to create individual tablets. Cartels manufacturing fentanyl in Mexico then smuggle this deadly substance across the border into America.
Mexico’s leadership has not scaled military and law enforcement to respond, despite thousands of homicides linked to cartel violence in Mexico last year. In fact, the joint effort between the US and Mexico to fight drug trafficking has faced significant challenges since Andrés Manuel López Obrador became president in 2018. López Obrador has refused to acknowledge Mexico’s role in the crisis, insisting illegal fentanyl is not produced in the country despite ample evidence to the contrary.
This denial has only exacerbated the situation. Between 2017 and 2021, the number of fentanyl trafficking offenders increased 950%, from 146 to 1,533 in the US. And there is no question as to who is trafficking these illicit drugs to our communities. Over the course of one year, investigators in the US Drug Enforcement Agency’s Omaha office linked 26 cases of drug and fentanyl trafficking in five states in our nation’s heartland directly to cartels. Curbing fentanyl trafficking and breaking up cartel networks demands an aggressive and clear approach.
As members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, we know the US Department of Defense plays a crucial role in the nation’s counter-drug intelligence and monitoring operations, and these operations are meant to provide federal law enforcement with actionable intelligence to further investigations. However, a lack of interagency cooperation has hampered our government’s counter-fentanyl efforts. And the ripple effects of failure are being felt in every single state.
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To solve this problem, our bipartisan legislation would classify fentanyl trafficking as a national security threat to the US, encouraging the DoD to use resources like training and up-to-date information sharing to support counter-fentanyl efforts more actively, improve coordination efforts between Defense, State, Treasury and federal law enforcement agencies to address this crisis, and direct the Pentagon to develop a fentanyl-specific counterdrug strategy that includes enhanced cooperation with Mexican defense officials.
While recent talks with Mexican officials have been productive, more needs to be done. Mexico and the US need to be active partners in combating criminal organizations and curtailing illicit drug trafficking. Increased coordination between our countries will expand awareness of the problem and ultimately help ensure that cartels can no longer hide from justice. The more we coordinate with Mexico, the more the US can scale counter-cartel operations and build a more credible deterrent.
The DoD has a role to play in curbing the crisis. It’s time to put the Pentagon’s tools to use and save lives.