1968 - How Nixon used the U.S.-Mexico drug trade to demonize activists and African Americans
In 1968, Richard Nixon began campaigning for the presidency in his home state of California with a speech at the Anaheim convention center, in the longtime GOP stronghold of Orange County. It was September, and the event was crammed with thousands of people, and thousands more waiting outside, some holding signs that read “Nixon is groovy.” Nixon told the crowd that he had received a letter from a 19-year-old girl struggling with drug addiction (she wasn’t named, perhaps because she wasn’t real). “She gave the details of the horrible life,” Nixon said. “She asked me what I could do to help her generation.” If elected president, he told the crowd, he would wage war on the “pestilence of narcotics.” Two months after winning the presidency, Nixon made good on his promise. He created the Special Presidential Task Force Relating to Narcotics, Marihuana and Dangerous Drugs. A report produced by the task force propped up the story Nixon had been peddling in Anaheim:Mexico was to blame for America’s fondness for drugs. According to the National Security Archive, the 37th President planned a “massive surprise attack” on the Mexican border. It would be called “Operation Intercept.”
Before its launch, a preliminary meeting was held with members of the Mexican government, which had been reluctant to take on a massive attack on organized crime. Nixon aide Gordon Liddy described the meeting this way: “The Mexicans, using diplomatic language of course, told us to go piss up a rope,” he said, adding, “the Nixon administration didn’t believe in the United States’ taking crap from any foreign government. Its reply was Operation Intercept.” So Liddy and the White House quickly identified the battleground where this war would take place — Mexico.
What followed was a vicious crackdown at the border that disrupted life on both sides and created a diplomatic fiasco, forever reshaping U.S.-Mexico relations.
But it was never really about drugs. Nixon was the first president to explicitly call for a “war” on drugs. But recent revelations confirm what many suspected it was really about since the beginning. In 2016, a Nixon aide, John Ehrlichman, revealed Tricky Dick’s true motivation in an interview with Harper’s. The whole operation, he explained, was a machiavellian scheme to undermine two potent forces of resistance to conservatives: black people and anti-war activists. “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black,” Ehrlichman said, “but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.”
Nixon was catering to his base: middle and upper middle class white people known as “the silent majority.” And there was another cause his fans could rally around: xenophobia towards Mexicans and border control.
Not all Americans were supportive. The U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Robert McBride, warned of “catastrophic consequences, “ such as the ruining of foreign trade deals, not to mention a diplomatic nightmare that could last decades. The State Department and the Bureau of the Budget weren’t on board either.
While the planning of Operation Intercept was underway, Nixon met with Mexican President Diaz Ordaz for a dam dedication ceremony — a gesture meant to solidify friendship between the two countries. Before the two heads of state were face to face, National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger told Nixon to say the following to Ordaz: “The excellent relations between our countries rest on mutual respect for each other’s sovereignty, as well as on our mutual interests,” and “You intend to consult with him from time to time on matters of mutual interest.” Nixon was plotting just the opposite.
Launched in September of 1969, Operation Intercept cost American taxpayers $30 million dollars—about $200 million in today’s sums. According to Ted Galen Carpenter’s book, Bad Neighbor Policy, about the U.S. government’s anti-drug campaigns in Latin America, thousands of federal agents were sent to the border in what would be the country’s largest peacetime search and seizure operation. The battlegrounds were at various crossings along the nearly 2,000-mile border, from Brownsville, Texas to San Diego. All means of transport — air, foot, boat, and car — were under siege. Unsurprisingly, this created huge bottlenecks. Traffic into the U.S. came to a standstill. Pedestrian bridges were clogged. Unable to cross, thousands of Mexican workers lost their jobs. Enforcement was indiscriminate, and made all the worse when temperatures soared to 100 degrees.
To maintain the element of surprise, the Mexican government had been mostly kept in the dark, and once they realized what what was happening, they were outraged. According to historian Patrick Timmons, the Mexican chamber of commerce staged a U.S. travel boycott, and other politicians made angry phone calls and wrote letters of complaint.
Despite the enormous effort, federal agents didn’t manage to intercept many drugs. But as Liddy explained in his autobiography, Will: The Autobiography of G. Gordon Liddy, drug traffic control had never been their aim. “It was an exercise in international extortion, pure, simple, and effective, designed to bend Mexico to our will.”
One month after the operation began, and once the Mexicans had agreed to begin spraying a deadly herbicide over marijuana plants and undertake the U.S.’s plans, Nixon called Operation Intercept off and embarked on the friendlier sounding “Operation Cooperation,” aimed at Mexican-American collaboration. It even rhymed when you said it in Spanish.
Though neither operation did much to “solve” the American drug problem, Nixon had gotten what he wanted. He looked tough on “lawlessness” — an idea that would become laughable a few years later, when Nixon, stood at podium saying, “I am not a crook.”
Nixon had succeeding in dividing the country by perpetuating racist and xenophobic stereotypes that would lay the foundation for the “war on drugs” for years to come. In the 1980s, and then in the ’90s, Presidents Reagan Clinton would pick up where Nixon left off, disproportionately prosecuting people of color and meting out barbaric sentences for drug crimes. It was a bipartisan conflation of race and crime that still haunts our prison system today, hamstringing the lives of hundreds of thousands of men and women and the communities they came from.
The other legacy of Operation Intercept is what Mexican president Diaz Ordaz called “a wall of suspicion,” that remains to this day. In his war on the “pestilence of narcotics,” Nixon had really waged war on the Mexican people. Operation Intercept was a manifestation of a fact that has always been true of the U.S.-Mexican border — it is weaponized for political gain. The border is the line along which one country towers over another, bending it to its will with arbitrary and ruthless shows of force.
A 2003 National Security Archive article warned that a similar action could be planned today, a move that could be economically devastating, considering the quarter of a trillion dollars in trade between the two countries: “Any attempt by the United States to punish or castigate Mexico that resulted in real harm to the Mexican economy would automatically lead to collateral damage to the U.S. economy in turn,” says the article. But as the piece noted so many years ago, “Washington’s penchant for unilateral action is as strong as ever.”