LENS Essay Series: “Bomb Thy Neighbor: How U.S. Military Force Against Mexican Drug Cartels in Self-Defense Would Violate International Law”

With tens of thousands of Americans being killed each year by illegal drugs, some respected authorities have suggested using military force against the Mexican drug cartels pouring their deadly poison into the U.S.. While the political wisdom of doing so is complex–and many would say extremely problematic–the key threshold question is (or ought to be) whether such action would comply with international law.

In the latest addition to the LENS Essay Series, Bomb Thy Neighbor: How U.S. Military Force Against Mexican Drug Cartels in Self-Defense Would Violate International Law, Duke Law 2L Cole Horton does a deep dive into this issue. 

Cole unpacks thorny issues such as whether fentanyl smuggling could equate to an “armed attack” as used in Article 51 of the UN Charter so as to trigger a right to forceful self-defense actions.  He also examines whether the “Unwilling or Unable Doctrine” provides a lawful basis to use force in another country.  The dissection of these and other controversial issues are what makes Bomb Thy Neighbor such an intellectual tour de force.

Here’s the abstract of Cole’s fascinating article:

In response to the increasing frequency of opioid-related fatalities in the United States, some American political leaders have suggested using military force against drug cartels on Mexican soil. This proposal is invariably described as a use of military force in self-defense as permitted by the oft-cited Article 51 of the United Nations Charter. This paper evaluates the claim that Article 51’s scope could encompass such a use of American military force by assessing the legal status of Article 51, as interpreted by the International Court of Justice and as articulated in recent instances of opinio juris, and applying it to the context of drug cartels in Mexico. Even more importantly, though, this paper demonstrates the shortcomings of international law’s concept of the “armed attack” for purposes of distinguishing permissible and impermissible uses of force under Article 51. As the nature of conflict continues to evolve, the existing concept of the “armed attack” in international law must adapt or risk irrelevance.

Again, you can find his essay here, and you really do want to read the entire piece.  You’ll also want to take a look at the other articles in the full Essay Series found here.

About the author

Cole Horton (J.D. 2025) is a second-year student at Duke University School of Law. He is originally from Scottsdale, AZ, and graduated from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in 2018. During his 1L summer, Cole worked with Morrison Foerster’s Technology Transactions Group in San Diego, CA. He will spend the upcoming summer with Optimal Counsel’s startups and emerging companies practice, working remotely from the Pacific Northwest. At Duke Law, Cole is a VP of the Duke Law and Technology Society and the Duke Transactional Law Society, as well as a teaching assistant for the Legal Analysis, Research, and Writing course.

Remember what we like to say on Lawfire®: gather the facts, examine the law, evaluate the arguments – and then decide for yourself!

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