Fox: nursing a herniated testicle and battling senility? Fox: nursing a herniated testicle and battling senility?

To negotiate or not, that is the question

But negotiation with cartels is not the mother of all bad ideas

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

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  • Dave Warren

    The cartels will only have influence as long as drugs are illegal. Fox is right of course and most Mexicans realize this. Cartel against cartel is fine as long as innocents don’t die. If drugs became worthless then the worry is more kidnapping and extortion. Solutions? I have no idea? Probably more opportunity for people…. a significantly higher minimum wage leading to less need to go underground. It is a beautiful country but works in mysterious ways. Good luck!

  • kallen

    This article is so poorly written and its facts (or lack thereof) so pitifully presented that I just have to give up on this one because I don’t have the time and frankly, I don’t think anyone in Mexico even knows MND exists. It would be interesting and worthwhile if English/Spanish translations of both the article and comments could occur in real-time so a Mexican/American dialog could occur….but alas, I think SpaceX will land on Mars before that dialog takes place.

    • Glen Olives

      Hi, Kallen. I was wondering if you have the time you could be more specific as to where I took the wrong turn on this one. I’m not infallible. Perhaps I missed something.

      • kallen

        @Glen, I’ve found a lot of your articles informative and this one started out entertaining (I especially liked the hypothetical comparison of Fox with Marquez’s novel character) and that would have been fine but then it attempted to morph into a serious discussion about negotiating with cartels. Its a non starter Glen, just like the conclusion (legalizing illicit narcotics as the only solution) is a non starter. Just think for a minute what you’re contemplating and attempting to rationalize via a misguided historical perspective and erroneous presentation of facts. Negotiating is appeasement plain and simple and these people, these cartels are in the same league as Nazis and had Chamberlain lived to grasp the full knowledge of what he helped unleash and had he been privy to this notion of negotiating with cartels he would surely agree with me: don’t do it. How many times do we need to keep repeating history?

        • Glen Olives

          Okay, thanks for the clarification. I’m still not sure what facts I presented erroneously or what history I got wrong, but it is clear that you see negotiation as appeasement, and that’s certainly the majority opinion. But when the US negotiates with terrorists or pirates or state sponsors of terrorism, it isn’t seen as appeasement — it’s largely viewed as simply pragmatic (as were Mexico’s negotiations with the Zapatistas). We agree (I said as much in the piece) that negotiations is a non-starter, but for different reasons. Your rhetorical question is a good one: How many times do we need to keep repeating history? I believe that the only solution to violence and insecurity in Mexico is the legalization, regulation and control of currently illicit drugs — it’s either that or the status quo. So I’ll end with my own rhetorical question: How many violent cartels are fighting over whiskey, or aspirin, or computer chip, or cigar, or anything else that is legal, territories?

          • kallen

            Ok Glen, guess I have to a spell it out for you (then I have to get back to work). “Mexico’s security apparatus is impressively vast and well-funded.” That’s an example of a fact. Kind of a “so what” fact but a fact nevertheless. You have lots of those “so what” kind of facts in your piece. They don’t contribute much, that’s why I called them erroneous.

            The US may negotiate with terrorists to achieve a specific end like the return of prisoners or to play one off against the other but it doesn’t participate in outright negotiation for the cessation of hostilities against the US. Duh.

            Your “only solution” shows incredible lack of imagination and geopolitical knowledge. The obvious and most likely solution is that Mexico will eventually break. I can see climate chane being the trigger. Perhaps the extended bottom of the oil market. The cartels will either rise to control the state or a larger state player will fill the vacuum. In the meantime, Mexico will muddle through as it currently does: Prepare for an extended state of low-level violence and warfare. There is a chance a technological break-through or Orwellian society may come to pass. Those may change the status quo (genetic suppression of violent or addictive behavior for example) but I don’t see that happening….just can’t rule it out.

          • Glen Olives

            Thank you for spelling it out for me. But, alas, I don’t think you spelled much out at all. For example, the “so what” fact of Mexico’s bloated security apparatus is integral to the argument that Mexico has little incentive to negotiate, and why it won’t. This is central to Barbara Tuchman’s argument in her magnum opus The March of Folly.

            The US doesn’t participate in outright negotiation for the cessation of hostilities? I’m wondering who has a lack of geopolitical knowledge here. I seem to recall several (failed) negotiations with North Korea and a very recent (successful so far) negotiation with a state sponsor of terrorism — Iran. There are of course dozens of other examples.

            You oddly mention climate change, which is simply a non sequitur in the current discussion — it isn’t a problem unique to Mexico, but is (to use your articulate expression) “duh” a worldwide problem.

            My “only solution” may indeed lack imagination, but that is hardly a criticism. It has worked in other jurisdictions, while the military force solution has been an abject failure worldwide. Strangely, you offer no solution yourself, except for armchair musings that smack slightly of conspiracy theory. “Orwellian society”?

            If I didn’t know better I would think that my polemic op-ed style simply rubs you the wrong way (my academic publication are much more neutral and much less provocative), but we disagree on little. Certainly we agree that the status quo will continue into the foreseeable future, and I can’t imagine that you think the current strategy is successful, but I could be wrong.

            Nonetheless, this has been an interesting discussion. Enjoy your Sunday.

          • kallen

            Hahahahahahaa! You’re command of facts is pathetic! You really shouldn’t be writing to an audience…. unless its comedy or children’s books.

            To equate the US negotiating with dangerous state actors like Iran/North Korea in an international, diplomatic setting to avoid war, perhaps even nuclear war with Mexico negotiating with drug gangs shows you are truly clueless and perhaps even incapable of logical thought.

            I said climate change (as in extended drought) could be a trigger to Mexican regime failure which I pointed out could be a solution/end result different from the “only solution” your simple mind could fathom. How is that a non starter in this discussion? Oh, I know, you’re not familiar with the term. I get it.

            Oh and by the way, I never advocated force. Who said anything about force (being an “abject failure”). Again, irrelevant and erroneous in our exchange since I never mentioned that: please learn how to write or at least debate effectively.

            And apparently you can’t connect dots either. Waiting for Mexico to break or fail is a strategy and one of the only strategies available (to the US anyway). Its similar to containment or outspending an opponent and is often a good strategy as it doesn’t cost US lives; only time.

            The funniest part of your rebuttal was the “polemic op-ed style” bit….I didn’t know incoherence counted as style let alone polemic style.

          • Glen Olives

            Interesting. You first said that the US doesn’t negotiate with her enemies except in specific cases. When I pointed out that this is factually incorrect, you distinguished negotiation in an “international, diplomatic setting.” Clever, but it is a distinction without a difference. Why would one distinguish negotiation with domestic enemies from international ones?

            I had hoped this might be a fruitful discussion, but your passion and your ceaseless Argumentum Ad Hominem makes this seam unlikely.

            I think your wrong on this issue, but I don’t think you’re a bad person, or incoherent, or clueless, or incapable of logical thought, or can’t connect the dots.

          • kallen

            There you go again Glen: trying to sound erudite but muddying the waters in the process. There’s a huge difference between domestic and international. I assumed we were on the same page there and that you meant non-state actors like Hezbollah. Indeed, we have negotiated with such types but they are the exceptions rather than the rule. But then your next reply came over and I discovered that we were not on the same page so I provided additional clarification.

            I don’t think you’re a bad person either Glen but some might think what you practice is journalism. All you’re doing is legitimizing a terrible option. I don’t believe much harm was done because I don’t think (correct me if I’m wrong) there are many Mexican readers of MDN. I think what you’re doing is nevertheless dangerous and somewhat unethical because there are people that may think you’re an authority when you state “there’s only one solution…” . But that told me right there that you’re just a regular schmo who thinks he’s a journalist or expert. In actuality, this is all mental masturbation for you.

          • PintorEnMexico

            It does say “Opinion” at the top.

          • Glen Olives

            I’m not a journalist. I’ve never claimed to be one. Am I an authority on drug law? Well, yes, I’ve studied it for a decade, and my conclusions have been widely accepted in the academic community, but of course I could be wrong.

            Are my writings “mental masturbation”? Perhaps. An odd analogy, but yes, perhaps.

            If you think what I am doing is unethical, then that is where we must part ways. I’m a contrarian, to be sure, but not unethical — that’s too cute an accusation to throw about when you disagree with someone.

            Do I believe that there is only “only solution?” Yes, emphatically. As a student of history, I’m not sure how you might disagree.

            Am I a regular Schmo? You bet.

            Do Mexicans read MND and comment? Of course.

  • Three score and ten

    I agree that legalization and control of drugs is the only permanent solution to end a useless war, but that’s going to take some time (maybe several decades). In the meantime the murder and mayhem will continue. Negotiations, even if they were to fail, would perhaps provide a truce during which everyone could take a realistic look at the situation without the constant pressure of running a war. Maybe some time without the war will even bring some of it’s supporters over to our side.

  • Beau

    Mexico…a carcass of what it once was. Politicians are completely desensitized to the people’s needs, they talk and bribe their way to their election, gifting “dispensas” with beer, beans and rice, sometimes, buying the vote for $500.00 pesos.. The Mexican people know their vote, regardless of their desperate wish for change, means nothing. Once in power, the narcopoliticos only goal is to ransack whatever they can. The people, the cartels and the politicians know the “war on drugs” is just a charade lead by the CIA and the Mexican Government. There is no dialogue in Mexico and if there is, its all one sided lie to appease them. ” They think we are idiots, they said, politicians can talk and talk and talk because there is no bone in the tongue; so shut TF up, give us our despensas and let us go home to enjoy a cold beer with beans and rice because change in Mexico is not happening anytime soon; a thief is leaving without changing anything he promised us, and the new can’t wait to get in to get rich”

    • PintorEnMexico

      I get that a spike in violence follows the end of prohibitions. But that has to be the first step. In the US it took almost 60 years to get control of the Italian mobs. But the alternative?

  • alance

    Mexicans have demonized marijuana for so long they believe their own propaganda. They even have trouble recognizing the hypocrisy of the drug war, when more U.S. states legalize marijuana every year. The Mexican medical community has almost no continuing education requirements.

    The Mexican drug rehab business is often worse than Mexican prisons with little or no regulations or supervision. The cure is usually worse than the disease.

    When it comes to law enforcement, the police are highly skilled shake down artists, searching younger people at road blocks for small amounts of marijuana.

    • Glen Olives

      All true. Until there is a paradigm shift in public opinion, which depends on education, the status quo is what’s for dinner.

      • Güerito

        I agree about the need for a paradigm shift, Glen. Here I talk about how the new horizontally integrated cartels are also more likely to rely on income sources that don’t involve narco-trafficking. And which involve more violence against the Mexican civilian population:

        —- “I’m open to legalization, but I don’t think it will reduce violence in Mexico. And it might actually increase violence.

        Two recent articles from reporters who follow the narco wars in Mexico:

        “These new cartels continue to traffic drugs, some switching from Colombian cocaine to Mexican heroin to feed an epidemic sweeping parts of America. But they have also used their armies of assassins to move into new endeavors: rackets, extortion, oil theft, even wildcat iron mining. And they are now muscling in on one of Mexico’s most lucrative businesses of all: local politics.

        As cartels have entrenched themselves in Mexico’s local politics, finding a solution to the drug war mess has gotten even tougher. Drug policy reform, meaning wider legalization of some drugs, like marijuana, and better addiction treatment to reduce the use of others, like heroin, can help bleed the gangster financing. But with cartels now diversified into a portfolio of crimes and taking over the political establishment, it won’t stop them.”… (1/15/16)

        From earlier this month, a report from Michoacán:

        “A gradual end to prohibition, coupled with ramped up drug treatment programs in the States, would certainly help the situation. But a focus on narcotics alone is no longer sufficient, because Mexican crime groups have already diversified into other black market activities. Kidnapping for profit, extortion, illegal mining, petroleum theft, and even organ trafficking all provide income streams for the gangsters now.”

        I’ve been posting this stuff here for almost a year now. I could go into more detail, describing the activities of certain cartels that mostly stick to drugs (less violent) and those that have moved beyond drugs (more violent).

        “Legalization = less violence” is facile. What’s needed here is a paradigm shift.

        • alance

          The Jamaican Parliament recently decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana and legalized use for medicinal, therapeutic and sacramental reasons. Now, you’re able to grow up to five plants.

          Business owners are planning commercial enterprises such as producing spicy sauces infused with marijuana and then there is the prospect of marijuana tourism.

          • Güerito

            Mexico is also moving toward legalizing small quantities of marijuana for personal use.

            But Mexican narcos make most their drug money by selling drugs to the US. And today they make the real big drug bucks serving as middle men for cocaine from S. America and as suppliers of heroin and crystal meth. (they’ve lost a lot of the marijuana market to higher quality, legal US product)

            But it doesn’t really matter because in the unlikely event that the US (and Mexico) were to legalize these “harder” drugs, as I’ve posted many times, the violent narco types will just focus on their other sources of income – crimes against Mexican citizens.

            Mexico is violent not so much because of illegal drugs, or even all the guns. Mexico is violent because of high levels of impunity and a non-functional criminal justice system. Until that changes, nothing else will change.

          • Glen Olives

            As usual, we might disagree on some details, but I don’t think we disagree on the important parts. The legalization/decriminalization of currently elicit drugs is a key point. But if Mexico goes it alone it won’t make a dent.

            Criminal justice reform, as you note, is an entegral part of the puzzle.

            I am note hopeful.

    • Three score and ten

      Despite the fact that some US states are legalizing marijuana, there is still a large misguided “moral” resistance to legalization. And, based on the number of people in prison in the US for drug crimes, clearly the US is more interested in putting people in prison than dealing with the medical issue. I know Mexico has it’s own set of problems, but your second sentence sounds like the pot calling the kettle black.

      • Glen Olives

        You make a fair point. The sale of illicit drugs is enormously profitable. The contravention of the sales of illicit drugs by law enforcement and the private prison industry is also enormously profitable, which is why the US has the highest per capita rate of incarceration in the world, with the majority of those incarcerate being non-violent drug offenders. So there you have it — neither side is especially eager to change the rules of the game.

  • Rightazz

    Fox the leader of Mexican morality great idea along with your thought the family’s of the missing students should just go home get over it and stop making trouble and what did you call Trump No wonder Americans are voting for him oh by the Fox that does include Hispanics you dumb ass