Donald Trump’s threat to build a wall on the México-U.S. border is missing one key ingredient – that the border is not owned by the United States alone. The border is a shared resource. The economies of the United States and México are intertwined together so tightly that the border is now a shared thing that neither country can unilaterally control. It didn’t always used to be that way because for all intents and purposes the United States controlled the economy and, thus the border. To force the Mexican government to do what the United States wanted, all it had to do was to shut down border traffic until the Mexican government complied. The border was a bargaining chip to be used whenever the United States needed México to comply to a U.S. demand.
In 1968, the so-called Drug War was launched to stop drug addictions in the U.S. Richard Nixon was the president that had promised to bring back law-and-order to the country. Funny thing though is that it wasn’t México, or even Colombia that had the first drug cartels making money off the scourge of the drugs that the United States has been intent on eradicating for generations. Before Pablo Escobar and before Chapo Guzman, it was the French criminal gangs that processed heroin from Turkey and delivered it to U.S. consumers. But that didn’t matter to the Nixon administration because it wasn’t about drugs, per se, but rather about distracting the electorate by using México as the convenient scapegoat.
The United States is no stranger to extorting México to its will.
At about 5:30pm, Eastern time on September 21, 1969, the United States shutdown the México-U.S. borders under orders from Richard Nixon in an act dubbed Operation Intercept. Officially, Operation Intercept was designed to curtail the flow of Mexican marihuana into the United States by forcing the Mexican government to begin eradication programs to destroy marihuana fields.
Under Operation Intercept, the United States government inspected every pedestrian and every vehicle entering the United States. It created hours-long lines of cars and pedestrians. Commerce came to an almost standstill and both sides of the border suffered economically. The Mexican government responded in anger to the U.S. operation.
The sealed borders lasted about twenty-days before the United States relented. However, the damage had been done. The operation was nothing more than a political distraction and an extortion of México by the United States. Operation Intercept was “an exercise in international extortion, pure, simple, and effective”, according to G. Gordon Liddy, a Nixon senior advisor in the Department of Treasury. Liddy was later convicted for his part in the Watergate scandal.
The damage was immediate and it has long-term implications even to today. The El Paso Chamber of Commerce told the Wall Street Journal that it “estimated that 50% of downtown El Paso sales” were from neighboring Cd. Juárez. Cd. Juárez estimated that El Paso visitors were the source of about 60% of the retail sales in the city.
Mark Miles, of the El Paso Chamber, referred to the operation as the “Berlin Wall”. [Brand, David; “’Operation Intercept’ Turns Up Little Dope, Lots of Resentment”; Wall Street Journal, October 3, 1969]
In the end, little marihuana was intercepted but it left in its wake many unintended consequences, although the Nixon administration portrayed it as a win because México agreed to cooperate in marihuana interdiction programs.
Rather than end the drug epidemic it made it worse. The Mexican marihuana smugglers were mostly family run operations fragmented, each with its own well-maintained smuggling routes. Because they were small operators, their impact on the drug epidemic was minimal, at best, during this time. The real drug problem at the time was heroin, which was being peddled by French gangs.
By 1972, U.S. and French law enforcement finally broke up the Corisican gangs, based in Marseilles, effectively creating a shortage of heroin in the U.S. Rather than dissuade drug users, the shortage in heroin pushed them towards cocaine. By 1975, large seizures of Colombian cocaine began to make headlines. The Colombians filled the heroin shortage with cocaine, while the Mexican marihuana peddlers continued to peddle their drug as well. By 1981, the Colombian drug cartels had become well organized drug trafficking organizations sending large quantities of cocaine to U.S. consumers.
The United States responded by interdicting cocaine shipments in Florida. The Colombians, looking for alternate routes into the United States, enlisted Mexican marihuana smuggles to piggyback Colombian cocaine unto the marihuana loads. By late 1995, the Colombian drug cartels were dismantled and the Mexican marihuana peddlers come unto their own as international drug traffickers by taking up cocaine and evolving into methamphetamines.
Thus, small time peddlers of marihuana grew into the drug empires that have terrorized Mexicans for years now. The initial problem was French drug gangs but México was politically expedient to target for the benefit of U.S. politicos.
However, in 1969, the Mexican economy was not diversified and was wholly dependent on the United States. It was easy to force México to capitulate. Although almost 80% of Mexican exports go to the United States today, the trade traffic is no longer a one-way street affair, as U.S. exports rely heavily on México. Additionally, the Mexican economy is much more diversified today giving the Mexicans more to work with when dealing with the attempts of the United States to force México to comply to U.S. demands.
In many ways, Richard Nixon created the dynamic of a shared border that confounds Donald Trump today as he attempts to force México to comply with his demands by threatening to end NAFTA. It is also the reason why The Wall will not be built, much to the chagrin of the nativists.
Tomorrow, I’ll show you how the U.S. government, yes the one under Donald Trump, has finally understood that the issue of drugs is a U.S. problem, not a Mexican one.