Nixon and Reagan tried closing the border to pressure Mexico – here’s what happened

Just a week ago, President Donald Trump appeared poised to take the drastic step of closing the U.S.-Mexico border to both trade and travel. He said he wanted to stop the flood of Central American migrants entering the United States but also punish Mexico for failing to do so.

But on April 4, the president backpedaled and instead gave Mexico a year to stop the flow of drugs across the border. If that didn’t happen, he threatened, auto tariffs would be imposed – and the president suggested he might still close the border if that didn’t work.

If Trump ever follows through on his threat and puts up a closed sign at the southern border, it wouldn’t be the first time. Twice in the last half-century the U.S. has tried to use the border to force Mexico to bend to America’s will. The ruse failed both times.

I studied these incidents while researching for a book on the origins of U.S. drug control policies and militarized policing techniques in Mexico from the 1960s to the 1990s. The history suggests that threats of border closure may be politically useful but are never a real answer to human tragedy.

Operation Intercept

In 1969, President Richard Nixon launched Operation Intercept in hopes of forcing Mexico to collaborate more fully with his administration’s policies to stop the flow of drugs – one of his campaign promises.

Although it technically wasn’t a full border closure, it required customs agents to search every car, truck and bus entering the United States. This caused long delays and a significant drop in economic activity in both countries. Border businesses and politicians begged Nixon to end Operation Intercept.

Meanwhile, Mexican leaders paid lip service to U.S. demands, based on my archival research. They highlighted the progress they had already made in their anti-drug operations and vowed to “continue with increasing intensity.”

Mexico even said it was willing to accept American anti-drug aid – such as aircraft and sophisticated weaponry – in order to help the Nixon administration fight its drug war.

In the end, however, nothing substantial changed. The border reopened after three weeks.

The incident did, however, teach Mexican leaders how to appease similar American demands in the future by using the right “war on drugs” rhetoric.