Special Report Part 1: How Operation Hold the Line changed the border 20 years ago

POSTED: 01:12 PM MDT Sep 16, 2013    UPDATED: 12:59 PM MST Jan 16, 2014 
EL PASO, Texas -

Twenty years ago the presence and role of the U.S. Border Patrol on the border with Ciudad Juarez was suddenly ramped up, changing the way an entire generation of border residents crossed in and out of the United States.

It was a Sunday morning in El Paso on Sept. 19, 1993 when people noticed U.S. Border Patrol vehicles along the border.

On the U.S. side of the free bridge, more than 50 Border Patrol agents moved in to the crest of the bridge to block it.

That’s when people on the bridge began throwing rocks and bottles at them in protest.

It was the beginning of Operation Blockade which later would be renamed Hold the Line. The aggressive plan saturated the border with so many agents they were within sight of each and discouraged people from crossing.

The operation was an effort to cut illegal immigration along a 20 mile stretch of the border between Anapra and the Ysleta Border Patrol headquarters in East El Paso.

“We are now adopting the strategy that worked very well for us under the border blockade and that's the way we're going to do business here on out,” Silvestre Reyes said 20 years ago when he was chief of the El Paso Border Patrol sector.

Before the crackdown, Mexicans and Americans had relatively unhindered access into each other’s country. Some used the bridges while others crossed along the Rio Grande.

Not everyone was pleased with the new operation.

“What happened 500 years ago is happening now,” one woman said. “We're being … we have borders. There shouldn't be borders.”

Another said the operation was fermenting racism.

Reyes considered the operation a success despite protests by Mexican nationals. Some businessmen said crime was down on the U.S. side because of the operation.

Apprehensions were down by 70 percent and illegal crossings decreased, deterring future crossers, as well.

“We are and will continue to enforce the law,” Reyes said at the time.

Hold the Line had a ripple effect across the country and into Washington, D.C.

Operation Hold the Line's success led to Operation Gatekeeper a year later in San Diego. Gatekeeper reduced illegal entries in San Diego by more than 75 over the next few years.

"A defined national strategic plan was introduced alongside Operation Gatekeeper and set out a plan of action for the Border Patrol into the future," according to the Customs and Border Protection website. "With illegal entries at a more manageable level, the Patrol was able to concentrate on other areas, such as establishing anti-smuggling units and search and rescue teams such as BORSTAR. The Border Safety Initiative (BSI) was created in 1998 with a commitment by the Border Patrol and the promised cooperation of the Mexican government."

U.S. Justice Department touts the success of Operation Hold the Line as strongly influencing future Border Patrol strategy and the public debate about Border Patrol operations.

"It established that entry attempts could be deterred, and that the entry/apprehension cycle was not inevitable," according to a Justice Department report on border strategy. "The new program also set a new benchmark for success - a reduction rather than an increase in apprehensions. This operation also clearly showed that adequate resources were the key to obtaining control over border areas. For better or worse, Operation Hold the Line set the standard against which future Border Patrol operations would be judged."

Part 1 in a series on Operation Hold the Line's 20th anniversary