Operation Intercept Described by

government sources as the largest peacetime search-and-seizure operation in U.S. history, Operation Intercept was launched along the United States—Mexico border in September 1969. This unilateral program was instituted, ostensibly, to halt the flow of MARIJUANA, HEROIN, and other dangerous drugs from MEXICO into the United States. However, Intercept's true goal was not to interdict narcotics but to publicize the war on crime promoted by President Richard M. Nixon, who had taken office the previous January, and to force Mexican compliance with Washington's antidrug campaign. Fashioned by well-meaning but shortsighted law-enforcement officers, who all but totally neglected the State Department and knowledgeable border-state residents, Operation Intercept constituted a classic example of international pressure politics and became a serious incident between Mexico and the United States.

On September 16, 1968, presidential candidate Nixon had pledged to an Anaheim, California, audience that, if elected, he would move against the source of drugs and accelerate the development of tools and weapons to deter NARCOTICS in transit. As president, he came face-to-face with the reality of a staggering national drug abuse problem and accelerating drug-related street crime. With the director of his own Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous DRUGS contending that the United States had ''failed miserably'' in controlling narcotics abuse, Nixon chose to couple a highly publicized law-and-order campaign at home with an international offensive against foreign sources of heroin and marijuana. Attorney General John Mitchell was chosen to implement the program, and in April 1969 he assembled a multiagency task force to attack the importation into, and illegal sale and use of illicit drugs in, the United States.

Establishing a linear relationship between marijuana, deteriorating health, heroin usage, and increased crime, the task force turned its attention to the border problem. Mexico was correctly deemed the primary source of high-potency marijuana entering the United States. Officials noted further that (1) a significant percentage of the heroin was of Mexican origin, (2) substantial quantities of European heroin were being smuggled across the southern frontier, (3) Mexico served as an in-transit point for South American COCAINE, and (4) considerable amounts of AMPHETAMINES and Barbiturates entered the United States surreptitiously from Mexico. In the midst of so much smuggling, Mexico's resources and efforts remained inadequate. Something had to be done to elicit a concerted, sustained antidrug program from Mexico City. That something was Operation Intercept.

On Sunday afternoon, September 21, 1969, at exactly 2:30 P.M. Pacific standard time, ''the biggest, broadest-based enforcement task ever mounted'' was launched. Noting that the Mexican government had been kept ''fully informed'' of the operation, a U.S. Treasury Department news release termed Intercept a ''coordinated effort'' encompassing the law-enforcement resources of several branches of the federal government. Involving intensified land, sea, and air surveillance along the entire 1,945-mile U.S.—Mexico border, the effort would continue ''for an indefinite period,'' as everything and everyone, no matter their nationality or status, was thoroughly and painstakingly searched.

More than 4.5 million individuals and their belongings were ultimately inspected. Vehicles, their component parts, personal baggage, purses, books, lunch boxes, jackets, toys, and in some cases even blouses and hairdos were searched. The daily routine of life in Mexican border cities was radically altered, as traffic backed up for miles, car radiators boiled over, and tempers, both private and diplomatic, flared. No person or object—including diplomatic and consular officials, their children, possessions, and even their diplomatic cargo—was spared during Intercept's 20-day existence. In the process, the maneuver encompassed some 2,000 personnel, intensified inspections, heightened air and sea surveillance, and the expenditure of some 30 million dollars.

Analyzed solely on the basis of drugs confiscated, Intercept surely was not worth the cost and effort it entailed. Seizures, however, were of minor importance. The primary objective was to ''bring the Mexicans around, get them really mov ing against cultivation and trafficking. ' In this regard, the operation must be judged a qualified success. Diplomatic outcries notwithstanding, Intercept did play an undeniably important role in energizing Mexico's moribund antidrug program during the 1970s.

Viewed retrospectively, Operation Intercept's basic weakness was embodied in its title, for its purpose was not to interdict drugs at the border but to pressure Mexico through economic denial. Seeking a politically expedient solution to the highly complex problem of domestic drug abuse, the Nixon administration chose Mexico. Unfortunately, the White House failed to recall the salient fact that Mexico is a foreign country, and a friendly one at that.

Neglect of the State Department proved a serious blunder. Overlooked or overpowered by law-enforcement officials during Intercept's crucial formative stage, U.S. diplomats ultimately terminated the ill-advised project before it became an even greater diplomatic disaster. More important, if its supporters had managed to prolong the unilateral maneuver for an extended period, U.S. authorities probably would have never secured the level of cooperation they sorely needed to impair the cultivation of drugs in Mexico and the trafficking of drugs across the border.

Equally damaging was the failure of Intercept officials to gauge the impact of such a blockage on the U.S. border's economy. Highly dependent on Mexican shoppers, American border merchants reacted angrily and effectively through professional and civic groups. Pressure on the administration from border-state members of Congress was intense, and its impact increased as the project was prolonged. Along with diplomatic protests, this proved crucial to Intercept's demise.

Additionally, the operation was poorly timed; it came on the eve of tapadismo, the process through which Mexico chooses its next president, but before the Nixon administration's announcement of a Latin American policy. Furthermore, Mexico played host during the Intercept period to a regional meeting of the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs and the thirty-eighth annual assembly of INTERPOL, thereby compounding its embarrassment over the blockade's indignities.

Yet despite its numerous shortcomings, Operation Intercept was not entirely void of accomplishments. Because of the tremendous publicity it en gendered, the program made Mexican officials keenly aware of a reality heretofore ignored or slighted—that nation's own burgeoning drug problem. Politicians and journalists became introspective and reluctantly admitted that the availability of domestically produced drugs posed a danger to the health of nuestra juventud (our youth) as well as providing an everyday pastime for ''gringo jipp-ies'' (American hippies).

Intercept also helped spur a previously lagging Mexican campaign against the cultivation, manufacture, and shipment of illicit drugs of all kinds. Since the fall of 1969, the government of Mexico has budgeted ever increasing funds for la campaña permanente (the permanent campaign) and is presently conducting (mid-1990s), with U.S. assistance, the world's most comprehensive eradication program against opium poppies and marijuana plants. As a corollary to this effort, cooperation between Mexican and American narcotics officials improved dramatically during the 1970s, only to tail off during the 1980s. Thus, while Intercept proved a short-term diplomatic blunder, it indirectly and somewhat ironically became a long-term catalyst to an accelerated Mexican antidrug campaign and a springboard to more effective international cooperation.

(SEE ALSO: Border Management; Crime and Drugs; Crop Control; Drug Interdiction; International Drug Supply Systems; Transit Countries for Illicit Drugs; U.S. Customs Service)


BARONA, L. J. (1976). México ante el reto de las drogas.

Mexico City: Impresiones Modernas. Craig, R. B. (October 1980). ''Operation Intercept: The international politics of pressure.'' Review of Politics, 42, 556-580.

CRAIG, R. B. (May 1978). La campaña permanente: Mexico's antidrug campaign. Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs, 20, 107131.

Epstein, E. J. (1977). Agency of fear. New York: Putnam.

Gooberman, L. A. (1974). Operation Intercept: The multiple consequences of public policy, New York: Pergamon.

SCHROEDER, R. C. (1975). The politics of drugs: Marijuana to mainlining. Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly.

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