As reported by Mexico News Daily, former Mexican president Vicente Fox recently advocated for negotiations with Mexico’s wealthy, politically influential and unspeakably violent drug cartels.
He anticipated criticism for this position and he got it in spades.
Fox’s idea was roundly condemned by the Catholic church, state governors, legislators and even some members of the Mexican inteligencia.
Renato Sales, Mexico’s National Security Commissioner, said, “For ethical, legal and security reasons there cannot and should not be negotiation with criminals, with narco-traffickers, who lead groups of killers and kidnappers.”
Another comment from an unnamed source was, “Laws are to be obeyed, not negotiated.” (The speaker apparently being unaware of the irony that laws are routinely flouted in Mexico, from the lowliest of traffic laws to the loftiest laws prohibiting the trafficking in votes.)
Vicente somewhat reminds me of a character in Gabriel García Márquez’ novel The Autumn of the Patriarch – a once-powerful Latin American leader now out of power in the twilight of his life, playing dominoes, nursing his gout and herniated testicle, battling senility, but still longing for the relevance and power he once enjoyed.
Like Nietzsche, has Fox suddenly and inexplicably gone mad? Is he receiving mysterious injections from his personal physician at his Guanajuato ranch to keep him from drooling on his plaid shirts long enough to give provocative TV interviews?
Is this negotiation thing not the mother of all bad ideas?
Well, not exactly. It’s completely rational, and not without precedent, as Fox himself pointed out. Which is not to say of course that it is politically expedient, or even politically possible.
But the opposition, oddly, hasn’t argued that negotiations and any possible agreement would be doomed to failure, but rather negotiations shouldn’t be attempted at all, for reasons as lazy and spurious as the drug war itself.
The arguments against negotiating essentially follow the following lines: (1) it would be unethical and illegal; (2) it would worsen security, and (3) it would be admitting defeat with respect to the drug war.
In reverse order, the last objection is the easiest to refute. The war on drugs has already been lost, but successive Mexican administrations have been obsessed with fighting battles and parading captured narco-lords before the media, knowing full well that the show has long been over.
Black market narcotics, absent a biblical miracle, will never disappear, will always be wildly profitable, and the line of would-be narco-bosses waiting to ascend the throne is endlessly long. A military and law enforcement solution is no solution at all, as history amply demonstrates.
It is hard to see, too, how negotiating would worsen the already horrific security problem in Mexico. Negotiation is not a cognate of capitulation, and one must find it curious that Mexican narcotics trafficking has been a ubiquitous economic activity for a century, but it was only after 2006 and the election of Felipe Calderón that significant violence and insecurity erupted.
Under the Fox and previous administrations there was an unspoken, unwritten and uncelebrated agreement: you do what you do and we’ll do what we do. We’ll make an occasional arrest and interdict a drug shipment and you’ll factor this in as a cost of doing business. You’ll go mostly unmolested as long as violence is kept to a minimum. And of course corruption greased the wheel of cooperation (as it did with America’s failed experiment with alcohol prohibition).
Finally, it is difficult to see how negotiation is somehow unethical. Well-matched enemies negotiate – and have since recorded history – unless of course both sides are content with perpetual war, which I think lies at the heart of the present matter.
Mexico’s security apparatus is impressively vast and well-funded. And as the great historian Barbara Tuchman presciently observed, once a government commits to a policy, no matter how obviously counterproductive it turns out to be, it is very difficult and indeed sometimes impossible, to admit the mistake and change course.
There’s simply too much inertia built into the bureaucratic machine and too many political and civil service careers dependent on the status quo.
At the same time, the cartels don’t appear to be great fans of drug legalization. And why would they be? Profits are outrageously high, and the glorification of a macho, violent outlaw culture has burrowed deeply into the psyche of the poor, where for many the only way out of abject poverty is illicit activity – a puncher’s chance at least for money, and sometimes even fame.
But what if both sides sat down and talked? The ostensible government side of the conference table would of course have to swallow its pride, placate those in power who benefit from the war, buck public sentiment which is mostly against any negotiations, and admit a state-within-a-state exists.
The cartel side of the conference table would have to somehow reel in its many enormously complex and competing factions built upon the unstable lattice of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” soliloquy. As Sam Tabory of InSight Crime noted, “The vertically integrated cartels of the past have been largely replaced by a more horizontal power structure of loosely affiliated cells and chapters.”
It would be like negotiating with a jellyfish, one part of the organism kissing you and the other part, unaware of the grand plan of itself, stinging you.
Essentially, President Calderón’s 2006 offensive against the cartels destabilized what was otherwise a tolerable situation, a classic example of bad public policy having the exact opposite effect of what was intended.
And that is the real reason negotiations, even if an agreement were to be made, wouldn’t work: a lack of organizational discipline by the devolving cartels.
The only solution to end the violence and insecurity is to legalize, regulate and control all currently illicit drugs. But given the fiasco of last month’s UNGASS summit, this seems extraordinarily unlikely as well.
Glen Olives Thompson is a professor of North American Law at La Salle University in Chihuahua, a specialist in law and public policy and a regular contributor to Mexico News Daily. Some of his other non-academic work can be viewed at glenolives.com.