Richard Nixon was the first U.S. president who made a promise to close the U.S-Mexican border to illegal drugs and unwanted people part of an election-winning strategy. Speaking on the campaign trail from Anaheim, California, in 1968, Candidate Nixon promised to deal with the “marijuana problem” protested by parents of California’s youth by intercepting Mexican drugs at the border. Then, on September 21, 1969, just eight months after his inauguration, President Nixon’s Treasury and Justice Departments launched Operation Intercept along the almost 2,000 miles of southern border in a supposed attempt to enforce federal narcotics laws.
Spending $30 million USD, Intercept staffed the border with thousands of federal law enforcement agents who were charged with executing intense, time-consuming customs inspections. Nixon’s bottlenecks at the international bridges disrupted life and business on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. They also provoked resistance. The Mexican Chamber of Commerce led a brief U.S.-travel boycott on behalf of merchants who had lost trade in Mexican border communities, including Ciudad Juárez. Then Mexican president Gustavo Díaz Ordaz said Intercept “raised a wall of suspicion” between the two countries. Indeed, for almost three weeks, Intercept created a “wall effect” as the U.S. government turned a fluid border into an obstacle course.
Although the U.S. government officially ceased the operation of the program in October 1969, Intercept’s principles have guided border policy for every president since Nixon. In the late 1970s, Kent State University political scientist R. B. Craig called Intercept “a benchmark in United States-Mexico narcotics policy.” In 1999, U.S. Congressman Silvestre Reyes (D-El Paso) remembered Intercept because it “initiated new approaches to a problem of national magnitude.” Reyes would know. Prior to Congress, he was the El Paso sector Border Patrol chief, and in 1993, he designed and executed Operation Blockade/Hold-the-Line, placing agents at roughly 50-yard intervals along the urban border between El Paso and Juárez to stop smuggling and unauthorized immigration. Reyes immediately followed Hold-the-Line with an attempt to build a fence on the western outskirts of Juárez/El Paso. Similarly, law-and-order politicians, like former Maricopa County, Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, fondly remember Intercept. As the New Yorker’s William Finnegan reported in 2009, Arpaio, who worked on Intercept with erstwhile Nixon operative G. Gordon Liddy, said the operation “nearly closed the border with Mexico.” The no-exceptions customs inspections became permanent after September 11, 2001.
Today, Donald Trump’s threatened U.S.-Mexico border wall—like Nixon he wants to keep unwanted elements from Mexico out of the U.S.—comes straight from Nixon’s playbook. As Grace Slick of the rock band Jefferson Airplane sang in 1970 in response to the dearth of marijuana in the U.S. for the months after Intercept, “Mexico is under the thumb of a man we call Richard.” As with Nixon, so too with Trump. And now, perhaps more than ever, Mexico must beware of the United States’ longstanding inclination for unilateral action on the two nations’ shared border. After all, Trump won’t so much build the wall as complete it: at present, a fence 18 feet tall lines 650 miles of the southern border.
Who was put in charge of this lovely program?
G. Gordon Liddy—the infamous Watergate burglar—was Intercept’s foreman and Joe Arpaio his henchman. Lieutenants in Nixon’s Justice and Treasury Departments, Richard Kleindienst and Eugene Rossides, sent then Special Agent to the Treasury Liddy to towns along the border in the summer of 1969 to lay out the border operation. Bob Ybarra, a reporter for the El Paso Herald-Post remembered Liddy’s visit to El Paso in an oral history interview in 1994. “This is the way we are going to do business from now on,” Ybarra recalled Liddy saying, referring to how Intercept changed border inspections to a no-exceptions-to-inspections regime. Prior to Intercept, the New York Times reported, customs officers “took less than a minute to process a vehicle and its passengers. Only one car in twenty was given the present three-minute treatment, including thorough scrutiny of the trunk and engine areas, under seats and behind cushions and door panels.” According to Ybarra, it was Intercept that brought “the phenomenon of long lines [to the border].”
G. Gordon Liddy AND Joe Arapio! What a pair! But Nixon showed tremendous bravery in signing environmental legislation that passed the House 405-3! What a great liberal!!!
The whole article is really fantastic.