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Why a truce between Mexico and the drug cartels makes no sense

After the latest massacre of Mexican citizens, former President Fox said authorities should seek a truce with the gangs – a suggestion that isn't feasible, says guest blogger Patrick Corcoran.

By Patrick CorcoranGuest blogger / September 2, 2011

Former Mexican president Vicente Fox (in a 2006 file photo here) recently caused an uproar after saying that Mexican authorities should seek a truce with drug gangs.

Moises Castillo/AP

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In response to the latest massacre of Mexican citizens by criminal groups, former President Vicente Fox said the authorities should seek a truce with the drug gangs – a suggestion that simply is not feasible in today's Mexico. One reason is that Mexico truly is, for all its faults, a democracy, which couldn’t be said in the 1980s and most of the 1990s.

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The former president's statement came in response to the recent arson attack on a Monterrey casino, one of the most deadly strikes on a public place in recent years, which left 52 dead. Mr. Fox, who was quite aggressive toward Mexico drug gangs while in office from 2000 to 2006, told a gathering at the close of a course on public security that “the levels of cruelty that we are seeing and experiencing are enormous,” and that the solution is to “call the violent groups to a truce and evaluate the advantages of an amnesty law.”

This reflects a sentiment that, while still a minority opinion, seems to be growing more common in Mexico. However, it was quickly slammed by a number of political heavyweights.

IN PICTURES: Mexico's drug war

President Felipe Calderon, who once served on Fox’s cabinet as energy secretary, acidly responded that the years of truces with organized crime under previous governments are precisely the reason for Mexico's security problems today. The National Action Party (PAN), which Mr. Calderon and Fox both belong to, passed a motion censuring the former leader for his comments. Though a political rival of Calderon’s, Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard, a presidential hopeful for 2012, also rejected the truce proposal, saying it would be like “throwing in the towel.”

While the politicians’ reponses appear to be a question of ideology, there are also powerful practical reasons for rejecting the truce: It simply is not feasible.

Advocates of a truce often point to the 1980s and 1990s, when agreements between the PRI governments and the reigning drug barons supposedly kept violence to a minimum. The idea that there was an explicit deal, in which the government tolerated organized crime in exchange for relative peace, is undermined by the periodic outbursts of bloodshed seen in that period, as well as occasional arrests of even the most powerful capos. However, there is no question that there was significant interaction between high-ranking federal officials and the most powerful trafficking networks during the 1980s and 1990s, and that this played a role in limiting the violence.

There is reason to believe that a similar trade-off would simply be impossible today. In the 1980s, there were two large confederations of drug traffickers: the Guadalajara Cartel and the smaller Gulf Cartel. For the federal government, keeping two groups in line and maintaining contact with two sets of capos was a relatively simple affair.

By the early 1990s, Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo’s Guadalajara Cartel had split up, leaving behind a federation of Sinaloa and Juarez traffickers on one side, and the rival Tijuana Cartel on the other. While the leadership in the Gulf Cartel had changed by this point, the federal government was still looking at a manageable number of major actors. It was still possible to apply leverage to a small number of people and affect the industry in predictable ways.

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