Majority of Mexicans Want International Help to Fight Drug Violence, but Oppose Sending In Foreign Troops

While some U.S. conservatives say to send in the troops, only 1 in 4 Mexicans say deploying foreign military may be necessary to fight the drug cartels
Photograph of soldiers stand guard next to an Army vehicle in Mexico
Soldiers stand guard next to an Army vehicle destroyed during an operation to arrest the son of jailed drug trafficker Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman in Mexico on Jan. 7. (JUAN CARLOS CRUZ/AFP via Getty Images)
March 30, 2023 at 5:00 am UTC

Key Takeaways

  • Roughly a quarter of Mexicans have been personally affected by cartel violence in the past year.

  • Only 36% of Mexicans approve of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s handling of drug violence, making it his least popular issue among his constituents.

  • López Obrador’s failure to control the drug trade could open the door for Washington to re-establish more cooperation on controlling narcotics, experts say.

For the latest news and analysis on how business, politics and economics intersect around the world, sign up for our daily global news briefing here.

The recent kidnapping of four Americans in Mexico cast a global spotlight on the drug war plaguing the country, and new Morning Consult survey data shows that amid the ongoing violence, a majority of Mexicans support help from other countries to tackle the problem. 

The abduction, which left two of the four kidnapped Americans dead, reignited questions about whether foreign intervention is needed to fight drug cartel violence, with some Republican legislators calling for U.S. troops to be deployed to Mexico. While just 24% of Mexican adults agree that deploying foreign troops may be necessary to fight drug cartels, 54% do think the government should work with foreign countries, including the United States, to tackle the problem.

Many Mexicans Support Outside Help to Fight Drug Cartels, but Few Want to See Foreign Troops Brought In

Mexicans’ views on whether Mexico needs help from other countries, including the United States, to tackle drugs and cartel violence
Morning Consult Logo
Survey conducted March 17-20, 2023, among a representative sample of 1,002 adults in Mexico, with an unweighted margin of error of +/-3 percentage points. Figures may not add up to 100% due to rounding.

The kidnapping incident was politically painful for Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, commonly known as AMLO, because it highlighted two issues where he’s most out of step with his constituents: combating drug violence and souring relations with the United States, said Alejandro Moreno Álvarez, a political science professor at the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México and a consultant/director of public opinion surveys at Mexican newspaper El Financiero. 

A 53% majority of Mexicans disapprove of AMLO’s handling of drug violence, while 64% views the United States favorably. 

“When we survey about whether AMLO’s ‘hugs not bullets’ policy has worked at El Financiero, the majority answer negatively because insecurity persists,” Moreno said. He added that AMLO’s attempt to leverage nationalist sentiment following calls for an armed intervention by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) created “an interesting dilemma because the majority in Mexico is for fighting the drug cartels and cooperating with the United States in that effort.”

Lack of U.S.-Mexico cooperation has worsened the drug trade

For more than a decade, the United States and Mexico did cooperate closely on drug enforcement under the 2008 Mérida Initiative. But that all changed when the United States arrested Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, a former Mexican defense secretary, on drug trafficking charges in October 2020, said Mariana Campero, former CEO of the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations and senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Americas program. 

“AMLO halted all cooperation with the United States on drug issues,” she said. “Combined with the endless ‘hugs not bullets’ rhetoric, the lack of cooperation and the lack of trust between U.S. and Mexican law enforcement, the fact is that cartels are being allowed to do whatever they want.”

1 in 4 Mexicans Were Personally Affected by Narco Violence or Trafficking in 2022

Mexicans’ responses on whether they were personally affected by drug violence or trafficking in the past year
Morning Consult Logo
Survey conducted March 17-20, 2023, among a representative sample of 1,002 adults in Mexico, with an unweighted margin of error of +/-3 percentage points.

In fact, cartel impunity is so widespread that roughly 1 in 4 Mexicans (26%) say they have been personally affected by drug trafficking or violence in the past year. In the border state of Nuevo Leon and the city of Monterrey, that figure rises to 30% — 11 percentage points higher than in Mexico City, which is relatively insulated from drug violence.  

Mexicans rate AMLO’s handling of narco violence worst among 10 issues surveyed by Morning Consult, and more broadly, his handling of national security is ranked second to last. For many Mexicans, the nexus of insecurity and corruption was laid bare when the kidnapped Americans were located within days of their abduction — while over 100,000 Mexicans remain missing.

Slim Majority of Mexicans Disapprove of AMLO’s Handling of Drug Violence

Share of Mexicans who approve or disapprove of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s handling of…
Morning Consult Logo
Survey conducted March 17-20, 2023 among a representative sample of 1,002 adults in Mexico, with an unweighted margin of error of +/-3 percentage points.

“The reason the Americans were found is that the State Department called the foreign secretariat, who called the governor of Tamaulipas and said ‘this has to be solved,’” said Campero. “You have to ask the question, does the state even have the capacity to move on its own?” 

How AMLO’s lackluster approval on drug violence could precipitate more U.S. coordination on drug trafficking

And yet, despite relatively poor reviews on drug violence, AMLO enjoys one of the highest leader approval ratings among more than 40 countries that Morning Consult tracks daily. The president himself has highlighted Morning Consult data to demonstrate his popularity, but Moreno says there’s more than meets the eye. 

“It’s not AMLO, it’s Mexican political culture,” Moreno said. “Mexicans tend to be supportive of leadership; if you look at the approval for previous Mexican presidents — other than Enrique Peña Nieto — they’re roughly as popular as AMLO.”

A high approval rating didn’t prevent then-Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s PAN party from getting crushed in the 2012 elections. That means there could be dangers for AMLO’s Morena party hidden behind the term-limited incumbent’s 62% job approval rating — particularly given its downward trajectory since December.  

Maximo Zaldivar, regional director for the Americas at the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, recently pointed out that AMLO demonstrated his awareness that his personal popularity may not translate to his party by scheduling a recall vote he was sure he would win simultaneous to legislative elections. In other words, he quite literally put himself on the ballot to buoy other candidates. 

“The party was uncertain about running without him,” Zaldivar said during a panel discussion at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He added that because Mexican presidents are limited to a single six-year term, “everything is at stake” for Morena in 2024 because they’ll “have to solve the dilemma of how to win an election without him.”

That political pressure may open a window for the Biden administration, which suffers from a poor perception on immigration and border policy at home, to kick drug enforcement cooperation with Mexico back into high gear, and indeed both sides are reportedly mulling an agreement to control guns and fentanyl crossing the border. However, for real results, Campero said Washington must take off the kid gloves. 

“When Trump threatened to impose tariffs on Mexico over migration, AMLO did what Trump asked because AMLO responds to power,” she said.

A headshot photograph of Matthew Kendrick
Matthew Kendrick
Data Reporter

Matthew Kendrick previously worked at Morning Consult as a data reporter covering geopolitics and foreign affairs.

We want to hear from you. Reach out to this author or your Morning Consult team with any questions or comments.Contact Us