WASHINGTON — House Republicans are trying to give U.S. Southern Command authority over military relations with Mexico, which currently lies within the jurisdiction of U.S. Northern Command.

The $826 billion Pentagon funding bill, which the House defense spending panel advanced along party lines on Thursday, contains a provision that would give SOUTHCOM authority over all military activities related to Mexico within six months after the bill becomes law. Republicans hope that doing so will enable the Defense Department to play a more active role in cracking down on fentanyl trafficking.

“No threat in the world today is claiming more American lives than the fentanyl crisis,” House defense appropriations Chairman Ken Calvert, R-Calif., told Defense News in a statement. “To prioritize combatting the trafficking of fentanyl by Mexican drug cartels, we are transferring Mexico from the jurisdiction of NORTHCOM to SOUTHCOM, which has a long history of successful international and interagency counter drug operations.”

Fentanyl is the leading cause of drug overdose deaths in the United States. Nearly 71,000 Americans died from fentanyl and opioid-related overdoses in 2021 — comprising about 67% of all overdoses — according to data compiled by the National Institutes of Health.

A January 2020 report by the Drug Enforcement Agency identified Mexico and China as primary sources for fentanyl trafficked into the United States, and said India is emerging as a source for related chemicals.

“Within the whole of government approach to this epidemic, this bill advances the Defense Department’s role in a historic way,” Calvert said. “The subcommittee is providing record-high investments in Defense Department drug interdiction and counter-drug activities.”

A Republican summary accompanying the Pentagon spending bill touts $1.2 billion in funding for drug interdictions and counter-drug activities. The summary also touts an unspecified funding increase for the National Guard’s counter-drug program as well as train and equip programs to help Latin American countries crack down on cartels, “particularly the Sinaloa and Jalisco drug cartels.”

The Pentagon last moved a country to a different combatant command in 2021, when it transferred Israel from U.S. European Command to U.S. Central Command to more effectively coordinate against Iran with Arab security partners.

Still, it’s unclear whether transferring Mexico to SOUTHCOM will get buy-in from Democrats when the full Appropriations Committee takes up the defense spending bill before a full House floor vote and final negotiations with the Senate.

“That’s not the kind of thing the Appropriations Committee is supposed to be doing,” Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, told Defense News. “They don’t know what they’re doing ... and they shouldn’t be doing it.”

Smith said there had been no discussion on moving Mexico to SOUTHCOM, even with the House Armed Services Committee preparing to mark up the fiscal 2024 National Defense Authorization Act next week. Policy issues are usually debated in that authorization bill, while appropriations bills typically remain more focused on spending levels and funding specifics.

The draft FY24 defense spending bill also contains several contentious partisan policy riders that Democrats strongly oppose, including an end to the Pentagon’s abortion leave policy, an end to transgender medical care for troops, and a ban on diversity and extremism training.

But on fentanyl, some lawmakers have sought to come to a bipartisan consensus regarding the military’s role in counter-drug operations in Mexico and elsewhere.

Sens. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, and Tim Kaine, D-Va., have teamed up to introduce legislation that would require the Pentagon to deepen security cooperation with the Mexican military to combat fentanyl trafficking. Reps. Stephanie Bice, R-Okla., and Salud Carbajal, D-Calif., have introduced the same bill in the House.

They introduced the legislation in May after a growing chorus of Republican lawmakers and presidential candidates called for Congress to pass military authorization for the president to strike drug cartels in Mexico.

Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, introduced the bill that would authorize military force in Mexico in January. It currently has 20 Republican co-sponsors, including two who lead panels on the House Armed Services Committee: Reps. Mike Waltz of Florida and Jack Bergman of Michigan.

All the leading Republican presidential candidates have advocated using military force in Mexico against drug cartels, including former President Donald Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence, former Gov. Nikki Haley and Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C.

Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered U.S. foreign policy, national security, international affairs and politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.

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