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.

The former president’s statement came in response to the recent arson attack on a Monterrey casino, one of the deadliest strikes on a public space in recent years, which left 52 dead. 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.

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 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.

However, 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.

However, in recent years, the major groups have fractured further into dozens of smaller gangs. In addition to longstanding major networks like the Familia Michoacana, the Beltran Leyvas, the Sinaloa Cartel, and the Zetas, there are upstarts like the Jalisco Cartel – New Generation, the Independent Cartel of Acapulco, and the South Pacific Cartel. The rise of the domestic drug market has ushered into existence scores of well armed local groups, capable of defending their turf against outsiders.

The proliferation of actors makes a peace deal much harder to enforce. The industry is governed by imperatives of self-defense and retaliation, and so if one gang defies the truce, its competitors will likely follow suit, kicking off a chain reaction of violence that would obliterate the agreement. This downward spiral becomes far more likely with the addition of each extra group. Recent events bear this out: according to various reports, the government has tried to foster a truce between the different warring groups on a number of occasions during the Calderon presidency (though without the promise that the government will back off), but these have always failed.

Today’s more adversarial political dynamic would also make a pact more difficult to maintain. Presumably, the president would be obligated to keep such a policy quiet. Doing so was far easier in the 1980s, when the long-ruling PRI controlled the political system at virtually every level across the country. Today, dominance is split between three major parties. Any attempt to negotiate a back-room deal with the capos would be far trickier for a president that has to worry about scandal-hungry and powerful opposition parties, not to mention a much larger and more aggressive group of muckraking journalistic enterprises, all eager to bludgeon the president.

At the most basic level, this reflects another major difference: today Mexico truly is, for all its faults, a democracy, which couldn’t be said in the 1980s and most of the 1990s. This means that the leaders must be more in tune with what the populace wants, and poll after poll has shown that most favor an aggressive combat of organized crime, headed by the military, and not a truce.

That isn’t to say that the government and the gangs couldn’t find a more peaceful equilibrium. Indeed, any real improvement in security depends on just such a development. But seeking an explicit truce with the gangs is not a practical way to make criminal groups more defensive and less violent, and create a safer Mexico.