Our 50-State Border Crisis

How the Mexican Border Fuels the Drug Epidemic Across America


By Howard G. Buffett

Read by Matt Kugler

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From one of America’s most prominent philanthropists, an eye-opening, myth-busting new perspective on the crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Howard G. Buffett has seen first-hand the devastating impact of cheap Mexican heroin and other opiate cocktails across America. Fueled by failing border policies and lawlessness in Mexico and Central America, drugs are pouring over the nation’s southern border in record quantities, turning Americans into addicts and migrants into drug mules — and killing us in record numbers.

Politicians talk about a border crisis and an opioid crisis as separate issues. To Buffett, a landowner on the U.S. border with Mexico and now a sheriff in Illinois, these are intimately connected. Ineffective border policies not only put residents in border states like Texas and Arizona in harm’s way, they put American lives in states like Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Vermont at risk.

Mexican cartels have grown astonishingly powerful by exploiting both the gaps in our border security strategy and the desperation of migrants — all while profiting enormously off America’s growing addiction to drugs. The solution isn’t a wall. In this groundbreaking book, Buffett outlines a realistic, effective, and bi-partisan approach to fighting cartels, strengthening our national security, and tackling the roots of the chaos below the border.


A List of Acronyms

ATF: Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms

AOR: Border Patrol “Areas of Responsibility”

BP: U.S. Border Patrol

CBP: U.S. Customs and Border Protection

CCSO: Cochise County Sheriff’s Office

DACA: Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals

DEA: Drug Enforcement Administration

DPD: Decatur Police Department

DOD: Department of Defense

DHS: Department of Homeland Security

FBI: Federal Bureau of Investigation

FEMA: Federal Emergency Management Agency

GAO: Government Accountability Office (formerly the General Accounting Office)

GIS: Geographic information system

ICE: Immigration and Customs Enforcement

INL: Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs

KIND: Kids in Need of Defense

MCSO: Macon County Sheriff’s Office

MS-13: Mara Salvatrucha-13

NBPC: National Border Patrol Council

NGO: Non-governmental organization

NORTHCOM: U.S. Northern Command

NSC: National Security Council

OFAC: U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control

PAIC: Patrol Agent in Charge

PRI: Partido Revolucionario Institucional

PERF: Police Executive Research Forum

POE: Port of Entry

SOUTHCOM: U.S. Southern Command

TSA: Transportation Security Administration

UDA: Undocumented alien

USCIS: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services

USCG: U.S. Coast Guard

WFP: World Food Programme

A Note on Names

A number of individuals whose comments and insights appear in this book either live in or have left situations where violence is a constant threat. I use pseudonyms for those at risk, and I have not identified their hometowns or given specific details about where they are living now.

by Senator Heidi Heitkamp

Howard G. Buffett is one of the most brilliant, outside-the-box thought leaders I’ve ever met. His ideas often challenge the status quo and force people out of their comfort zones. His foundation specializes in helping vulnerable people in some of the most dangerous and difficult situations on Earth, and he lives by a hard-and-fast rule: You must take risks and not be afraid to fail, because the same stale thinking and ideas will get you nowhere.

As a member of the U.S. Senate Homeland Security Committee and former attorney general of North Dakota, I have considered U.S. border security and the consequences of smuggling illegal narcotics, people, weapons, and other contraband into and out of our country priorities for some time. Unfortunately, this important topic has been burdened with half-truths, false facts, and partisan bickering. In Our 50-State Border Crisis Howard courageously takes on an issue that challenges our sense of what it means to be an American. We are at once a nation built on the rule of law, and yet we embrace a longstanding moral obligation to help those in need. We are a nation of immigrants, but to be a nation we must protect our borders from the truly evil cartel forces that cross them every day.

All writers have biases. Howard’s bias is for facts. Howard paints a high-definition picture of the border that he has lived as a ranch owner, a law enforcement officer, a humanitarian, and a photographer. The book starts from one very basic set of facts: The U.S. border with Mexico is not secure. And yet at the same time we have refugees and economic migrants arriving at our border whose challenges and needs we must address. His stories of his experiences and travels in Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries of Central America, and of his interactions with migrants, violent gang members, ranchers, law enforcement, and leaders struggling to help their countries recover from years of conflict, are vivid and powerful.

I first met Howard several years ago when a friend suggested I talk to him before I traveled to Africa, where our congressional delegation was attending briefings on food security. I was promised a lively and interesting conversation on soil and water conservation. Given the topics, I thought, Maybe. Well, within fifteen minutes on the phone I knew Howard was the real deal. He is an expert on the fragility of soils and water issues, and I learned how his foundation was investing in a farm in Arizona to try new soil and water conservation techniques that could be used in Africa.

In the same call, I explained to Howard that I was focusing on the challenges in Central America and Mexico and the resulting border security issues. Through my platform on the Homeland Security Committee, I felt that I had some ability to influence our policy toward those regions. Howard invited me to Arizona to see the soil and water conservation work, but also to see the effort he was making to understand and develop data about border security. The price of my admission to his farm and ranch was that I could not bring any staff, and I had to read his 2013 book 40 Chances: Finding Hope in a Hungry World.

“You’re on,” I said. I read 40 Chances, not because I thought I would find enlightenment, rather because I said I would. Instead, I found I could not put it down. Books about foundations’ work so often involve fluffy tales of success, hope, and happiness. In 40 Chances, I found honest autopsies of failures as Howard has tried to solve hunger crises all over the world: an example about how an intervention may have caused more problems than it solved or how a huge investment had only limited impact. The book showed how money and good intentions don’t make complicated situations and issues any less so. The lesson is: You don’t abandon the effort, but you must approach solving these problems with honesty.

I was instantly drawn to Howard’s brutal honesty, and this book delivers more of it. Howard will always tell you the truth as he sees it. There is no partisan agenda or self-promotion. Howard cares about what works and how to achieve results that don’t disrupt delicate relationships. How many philanthropists and investors have you heard or read about who put their failures on display so that others can learn from them? How many will use their own missteps to foster dialogue on how to solve problems? I know of only one.

Howard is the son of a famous investor, and people may be dismissive and think his philanthropy is some kind of an indulgent hobby. That couldn’t be further from the truth. This is difficult and sometimes heartbreaking work. Like Howard, I’ve also traveled on multiple occasions to Mexico and to the Northern Triangle countries. I promise you these problems are real and not easy to solve, and we may never completely solve them. Howard provides the unvarnished, hard truth—that border security is not simply a “border problem.” Border insecurity also is driven by choices made by individuals in states across the country who use and abuse illicit narcotics. Addressing border security means tackling the problems in the interior of the United States as well as root causes in neighboring countries whose social fabric is deteriorating from violence and poverty.

Our 50-State Border Crisis is a book for readers who are deeply concerned about the safety and security of the United States and want to understand how we can better achieve it. For best results, check your ideology and preconceptions at the door.


The Honorable Heidi Heitkamp

Senator for North Dakota

by Cindy McCain

Border security is a contentious topic in our nation today. As someone born and raised and living in the border state of Arizona, I can also tell you that it’s a subject fraught with myths and misleading stereotypes. The good news is we now have Howard Buffett’s book, Our 50-State Border Crisis, to help us sort it out.

One of the most important myths Howard explodes in this book is that you are either a humanitarian who cares about immigrants or you are a hard-hearted border security advocate. Howard forges another path: He is a big-hearted realist, and he is a nonpartisan security advocate who believes deeply in the rule of law. Readers of this book will come to understand the complex forces at play on the border. He makes the argument that a strong, secure border both keeps us safe and erodes the ability of the drug cartels to exploit vulnerable people on both sides—and he shows how that is happening today.

Howard is one of the most high-energy, committed philanthropists I know. I’ve traveled with Howard to some very difficult and dangerous situations from the Democratic Republic of Congo to an El Salvador prison to inner-city Chicago. But the experience I shared with Howard that is most vivid for me was in 2015, when Howard invited me to tour the Arizona border near his foundation’s property. I was standing with Howard on a small hill just a stone’s throw from the border fence with Mexico. We were watching a group of migrants assembling on the other side. Clearly, they were getting ready to make an illegal entry. As I looked around the U.S. side of the fence, I saw clothing strewn around the base of a tree. There were women’s undergarments hanging from its branches.

“What is that over there?” I asked Howard.

“That’s a rape tree,” Howard said. “The coyotes and their contacts will take women and girls they’re guiding to the U.S., and part of the ‘payment’ is they rape them, and then hang their clothing as a trophy.” He was so obviously moved by this horrible display and motivated to act to stop it.

Fighting against human trafficking is the area of philanthropy that is closest to my heart. Every single day in this country and around the world vulnerable people, many of them children, are subjected to trafficking for both sex and labor. It has been gratifying to have Howard Buffett’s tremendous compassion and support on our side.

As an Arizona native, I know that my state is full of optimistic and hardworking people. Hispanic culture forms the backbone of our communities. It’s been painful for me to see politicized rhetoric that disparages Hispanics or pretends they are the cause of the border crisis today. As you will learn in this book, our enemy is not a nation or a race, it is the criminal element—Mexican drug cartels and Central American gangs. The former are pushing massive quantities of lethal, illegal drugs into our country and trafficking huge numbers of terrified people who are running from gang violence in countries including Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Innocent people are an expendable commodity in this twisted economy. The cartels have come to realize that you sell drugs or guns once, but you can sell a child or a woman for sex over and over and over. We must destroy this criminal business model.

The McCain Institute is committed to advancing leadership based on security, economic opportunity, freedom, and human dignity in the United States and around the world. What I have seen firsthand is that Howard Buffett has a fearless commitment to understanding and battling threats to all these important values. He personally works in law enforcement, riding unglamorous night patrols and supporting first responder programs not only to battle drug dealing in communities but also to help addicts get treatment. He visits respite centers in Mexico so he can understand what is driving people on these incredibly risky journeys north. He talks to the powerful and powerless alike: migrant farmworkers and politicians, drug counselors and generals, Texas and Arizona ranchers and gang members trying to break out of the life, parents who’ve lost children to drugs and Border Patrol agents who work long shifts alone in dangerous smuggling corridors.

It’s tempting to turn away from difficult realities. Howard makes it his business to lean in, understand, and then act. A more secure border will discourage the trafficking that leads to tragic symbols like rape trees. But so will investing in improving livelihoods in the home countries of poor people attempting these dangerous border crossings. Howard’s foundation has spent hundreds of millions doing that and is increasing its work in Central America.

I challenge anyone who thinks philanthropy is easy to go on the road with Howard Buffett and see how hard he works and the length he goes to figure out how to help—always with perspective and, even in sticky situations, humor. You’ll get a sense of his journeys and his passion in this book, one that can help all of us understand an urgent crisis and work toward solving it.

Cindy McCain

Chair, Human Trafficking Advisory Council

The McCain Institute for International Leadership


When I was growing up in Omaha, my cousin Billy Rogers was one of my favorite people. We’d play basketball together, and he told great jokes and stories. Billy was a jazz guitar prodigy, and he later performed with a well-known group called The Crusaders. But like a lot of the musicians around him in the 1970s, he tried heroin, and he became an addict.

My mother loved Billy. She helped him move to San Francisco where my brother, Peter, also lived, to try to help Billy overcome his addiction. Peter hired Billy to work in his recording studio. One day, Billy asked Peter to borrow twenty dollars to go buy lunch. He never came back to work. Eventually, my mother and Peter found Billy in his apartment. He was dead from an overdose.

Billy was a great person—smart, funny, and kind. And he was a heroin addict. I wish we’d all known more about addiction in those days and had been able to get him the treatment he needed.

Today, the exploding number of overdose deaths from heroin, fentanyl, and other opioids has become an almost daily topic in the news. The increase in addictions is now a nationwide epidemic. It’s reaching into every corner of our society, lowering our lifespans, straining our economic resources, and fracturing our social fabric. Overdose calls are bankrupting emergency response budgets. U.S. businesses are finding they can’t hire and retain drug-free workers.

Perhaps you have read or heard about America’s addiction epidemic, but you feel like it’s someone else’s problem—someone you may dismiss as weak or in any case very different from you. I have not thought that way for a long time, for two reasons. First, the painful loss, many years ago, of Billy; second, my extensive involvement, over the last five years, in local law enforcement in Illinois and Arizona.

Following Billy’s death, I’ve been committed to trying to help people facing hardships. As a philanthropist, I’ve spent almost two decades trying to invest in meaningful agricultural and livelihood development projects around the world. But I have come to the conclusion that when the rule of law is absent it is almost impossible to achieve real progress. I have witnessed that even hundreds of millions of aid dollars, provided by my foundation and others, invested in some of the most difficult and violent places in the world, may do very little to solve the suffering of vulnerable people. Corruption and armed thugs will hijack the resources, and soon it will seem as if your resources were never there at all.

Watching this happen over and over, I became interested in understanding the rule of law from the ground up, starting with my own hometown. In 2012, I began volunteering as an auxiliary deputy sheriff in Macon County, Illinois. I have lived in Decatur, which is located in Macon County, since 1992. And when our foundation expanded our research farm and ranch programs to southern Arizona, I also began volunteering in the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office (CCSO).

Because of those experiences, when I hear about drug overdose statistics they are not abstract to me. I think about scenes like one in a cheap motel in Macon, Illinois, in the fall of 2015. My Macon County Sheriff’s Office deputy partner and I received a call from dispatch and headed toward the scene, where an ambulance and another sheriff’s vehicle had already arrived. We were responding to a 911 call reporting that a woman in a room of this motel had stopped breathing and was unresponsive. There was familiar evidence of heroin use in the room: a syringe, a spoon, and an electric razor cord used as a tourniquet. Paramedics were administering rescue breathing, but she was not reviving.

A man in the room with the victim had called 911. He admitted the thirty-five-year-old woman had injected herself with heroin in front of him. He told the deputies and detective that he was a recovering addict and that he had met the woman online and urged her to come to Macon so he could help her get into a drug treatment program. He said he’d picked her up at a bus stop, and, after they arrived at the motel, she produced a small foil pack containing heroin. She said she wanted to chase one last high.

After she shot up, however, she stopped breathing. He called 911 and stayed with her. The detective felt the man was telling the truth and released him. The paramedics took her by ambulance to a local hospital. My partner and I were assigned to stay with her body for another two hours until the coroner arrived. When we got back to post, the sergeant said the woman’s mother had been tracked down in a town about seventy-five miles away. She said her daughter had left home abruptly and nobody knew where she’d gone. An officer had to tell that mother her daughter was gone forever.

These days I meet many individuals in my hometown who are trying to help family members struggling with addiction. They come from many walks of life—respected corporate executives, devoted soccer moms, and even law enforcement officers. In 2015 there were eleven identified heroin overdose deaths in Macon County, which has a population of just over one hundred thousand people. In 2016, that number jumped to fifteen heroin overdose deaths. By October 2017, eleven people were confirmed to have died in Macon County of heroin or other opioid-related overdoses, but it’s important to note that in the same time period Macon County’s ambulance service reported that EMTs administered the opioid overdose reversal drug Narcan to 118 people who might have died without it. In some cases, victims had heroin plus other illegal drugs in their system.

This is one county in central Illinois. I assure you that overdose numbers are skyrocketing across the United States.

America has long benefited from a strong rule of law, unlike those countries in Africa and Central America where at times I have struggled to keep my foundation’s work from being derailed by corrupt and violent people. Working in law enforcement in two counties, one thousand miles apart, one along the border and another in the U.S. heartland, has opened my eyes to a dimension of America’s drug problem that I want to share with you in this book. It’s one that is threatening the fundamental stability of our rule of law.

Many Americans, including some politicians, think our nation’s drug crisis and the security crisis happening at our southern border with Mexico are two distinct problems. Some people want to tackle one issue, but seem to care little about the other. From my experience as a landowner on the Mexico–U.S. border and in law enforcement, I know they are connected—and we must treat them as such. The flood of drugs cartels in Mexico are smuggling across the U.S. border by land, through our ports, and on our coasts is fueling a crisis impacting virtually every community in every state.

I don’t believe it is an exaggeration to say that every single American is impacted by our insecure border. We tend to think of drug addiction and overdoses as community-based problems, and we tend to view drug dealing and related violence as “local” crimes. But federal officials routinely estimate that 90 percent of the illegal drugs smuggled into our country are coming from or through Mexico, where the drug cartels have assumed unprecedented power through violence and corruption at every level of government and law enforcement.1

The drugs come hidden in passenger vehicles driven through official ports of entry in San Diego or Nogales or El Paso.2 They ride in the trailers of semi-trucks, stashed inside fake crates of soda and boxes of toys. They’re loaded on carts driven or pulled through underground tunnels; they travel close to ocean beaches in small wooden paddleboats called pangas; they’re packed inside “narco-torpedoes” carried by and shot from larger ships along the Pacific coast.3 They are wrapped in bundles and catapulted and fired by homemade cannons over border fences in Arizona.4 They come in the stomachs of couriers riding on airplanes, and they come on the backs of drug mules crossing harsh, dangerous deserts and wilderness areas. Once the drugs cross the border, they use our efficient highway system to reach customers in every community in every state.

Whether you live in rural Maine, in a Nevada resort town, or even on a Hawaiian island, 90 percent of the drugs Americans now spend $100 billion a year buying come from or through Mexico.5 The cartels are infiltrating our territory and cornering the market for heroin and other dangerous drugs and spreading violence and death in the process. As you will learn, the profits from those drugs are destabilizing our entire hemisphere. The rule of law in America is under assault.

Our foundation’s focus is on global food security, conflict mitigation, and public safety. We own research farms in the Midwest, Arizona, and Texas, and we own two ranches in Arizona where we have invested in land that preserves unique habitats and where we do research on soil, water, and grassland conservation. Almost from the first day we purchased our Arizona farm, which is about fifty miles north of the border, we realized drug smugglers and migrants were crossing our land on a routine basis. When we took possession of our ranch properties directly adjacent to the border, between cartel scouts watching us 24/7 from the Mexico side and the armed smugglers appearing in videos from wildlife cameras we had placed in remote parts of the property, we felt like we were operating in an active conflict zone in the developing world.

These experiences and investments of my time and resources have convinced me that border security is one of the most critical national security issues we face. Only the theoretical threats of war or a high-impact terrorist attack can compare to the overdose deaths and suffering the Mexican drug cartels will, without a doubt, deliver to our communities this year. On a regional basis, the cartels’ activities have destabilized our friend and neighbor Mexico, and they exacerbate the suffering of Mexico’s southern neighbors in the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. Those consequences also are a threat to our safety and stability.


  • "[Buffett's] argument is not doctrinaire.... In all this, he urges probity and diplomacy... A useful, reasonable work of civilian policy analysis sure to invite discussion and even controversy."—Kirkus

On Sale
Apr 3, 2018
Hachette Audio

Howard G. Buffett

About the Author

Howard G. Buffett is Chairman and CEO of the Howard G. Buffett Foundation. A farmer, businessman, elected official, photographer, law enforcement officer, and philanthropist, he has dedicated his life to finding solutions for some of the world’s most serious and intractable problems, including hunger, conflict, wildlife trafficking, border security, and public safety. He is currently serving as the sheriff of Macon County, Illinois.

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