SAN CRISTOBAL, Mexico — Former President Vicente Fox grew up on a farm here in rural Guanajuato, one of Mexico's most conservative states. He is the kind of guy who wears big belt buckles, collects hand-tooled saddles and worships the free market.
Ask him about his experience with the drug culture and the big man with the cowboy-movie mustache exhibits a kind of straight-laced pique: Never smoked pot, he says. Hardly knew anyone who did.
But Fox has always fancied himself a policy maverick. And these days, the former standard-bearer of Mexico's conservative National Action Party, or PAN, has emerged as one of Latin America's most outspoken advocates of marijuana legalization.
Fox, 71, came out for legalization a few years ago. But this summer he has significantly ramped up his efforts. In June, he declared that he would grow the plant if it were legalized — "I'm a farmer," he said — and added that he'd like to see marijuana sold in Mexican convenience stores.
Some see him as a visionary, others as a cynical promoter milking the issue for attention (and, perhaps, lucrative speaking fees). Many think he's simply nuts. In a poll published in the liberal Mexico City newspaper La Jornada, 43% of respondents agreed that the former president "had finally gone crazy," while 32% said he should be investigated for promoting criminality. Only 11% said he had the right idea.
It was an unsurprising response from the Mexican left, who have long considered Fox to be a rash bumpkin with an embarrassing history of speaking before thinking. But these days, it is arguably the right-wing Fox who has done the most to promote this pet cause of the left and finally force a serious debate in the Mexican mainstream.
Fox speaks like a true believer about legalization's potential to save his troubled country, at times lapsing into the giddy visionary jargon of online TED talks: It would be a "game-changer," he says, "a change of paradigm."
A month after his pot-growing comments made international headlines, Fox built momentum for the cause with an attention-grabbing legalization symposium at his presidential library, the Centro Fox, here in the farming town where he grew up.
Since then, the national discussion has grown considerably. Mexican TV and newspapers are suddenly rife with articles debating the pros and cons. The mayor of Mexico City, Miguel Angel Mancera, has reiterated his promise to debate legalization in the left-leaning capital. More recently, the liberal governor of Morelos state, Graco Ramirez, said he would push to ease marijuana restrictions in his state.
Though Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto opposes the idea, it now seems possible that the nation might follow the pattern of the United States, where residents of Colorado and Washington voted to legalize recreational marijuana use, despite the continuing opposition of the federal government. The Mexican Congress decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana in 2009.
Fox favors the eventual legalization and regulation of all drugs in Mexico. The idea is to rob the bloodthirsty drug cartels of their profits and power. Legal pot, he says, would be the first step.
"This prohibition is the last frontier of prohibitions," Fox told The Times during a break in his July symposium. Revealing a marked libertarian streak, he argued that government efforts to regulate other personal behaviors had been found wanting: "The issue of abortion. The issue of same-sex marriage. The issue of gays. The issue of alcohol," he said. "These arbitrarily imposed prohibitions have ended. And they have ended because they don't work."
Across Latin America, there is a growing frustration with long-standing U.S.-backed prohibitionist drug policies. Several current and former heads of state in the region have, like Fox, declared their support for marijuana legalization — declarations that would have been considered unthinkable just a few years ago.
One of the most significant cracks in the previous drug-war consensus came in late July, when Uruguay's lower house of parliament approved a landmark marijuana legalization bill. Observers say it has a good chance of becoming law.
During his 2000-06 presidency, Fox was a prohibitionist. But now, he says, he doesn't see any sense in Mexico fighting domestic pot growers when the legalization trend appears to be picking up steam in the U.S., where Mexico sends about 40% to 70% of the marijuana it grows.
His change of heart took place during the six-year term of his successor, Felipe Calderon, who launched a military-led crackdown on Mexico's drug cartels. From 2006 to the end of Calderon's term late last year, an estimated 70,000 Mexicans died, and thousands more disappeared — what Fox today calls a "butchery" and a "gully of blood."
Fox's friends say he was affected by the Calderon era. "I think Fox is a religious person, and he is a humanist," said Ruben Aguilar, Fox's former spokesman. "He lives with a lot of sadness over the deaths in those last six years."
Calderon, for his part, has said that he launched the offensive because he discovered, after winning the election, that Mexico's criminal groups had become frighteningly powerful, and that the institutions charged with fighting crime were, in many cases, mixed up in it.
Embedded in such comments is an implicit critique of Fox's leadership, and it reflects the broader criticism that some other observers level against him: that he accomplished little of note after the milestone 2000 election in which he vanquished the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which governed Mexico in a semi-autocratic fashion for more than 70 years.
Aguilar defended Fox's record as president and noted that he has always been more popular with the Mexican mainstream than with the left and the news media. Even so, it will be a challenge for Fox to sell the idea of a radical shift in drug policy to ordinary Mexicans. In a poll released last month by the research firm GCE, nearly 50% of Mexicans said they were "totally opposed" to marijuana legalization, while about 14% said they strongly favored it. The rest fell somewhere in between.
Unease with the idea is almost palpable. Former presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador recently called the legalization debate "a smoke screen" detracting from more important issues including the economy and corruption.
Fox has already changed the Mexican status quo once. Many would agree that his 2000 presidential victory was the catalyst for a new era of democratic governance. The fact is not lost on him. Hanging in the main room of his glass and concrete library are a series of large banners honoring visionary thinkers including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas K. Gandhi.
There is also a banner of Vicente Fox.
The library is the first of its kind in Mexico, and Fox takes pride in the fact that, unlike other Mexican ex-presidents, he has stayed involved in the public debate, enjoying the freedom to speak his mind, with little concern for political taboos.
He's certainly caused his share of trouble. Last year, his own party threatened to kick him out after he endorsed Peña Nieto, the PRI candidate, for president. Fox said he simply thought Peña Nieto was the best candidate. PAN leaders said they would expel him, but he quit the party before they could do so.
In Oaxaca this summer, the city council officially declared him persona non grata after he proclaimed that he had been a better president than Benito Juarez, the Oaxaca-born 19th century president who is perhaps Mexico's most revered political hero.
Criticism came from all sides, but Fox did not back down. As the first day of the drug symposium drew to a close, he could be found making an extended case against Juarez for the benefit of a Mexican TV reporter.
There were more reporters, and many more questions, but eventually the ex-president called it a day. He walked from his presidential library to his family's graceful old hacienda, now converted into a luxury hotel.
He sidled up to the bar and ordered that least controversial of Mexican psychoactive substances: a cold Corona.