Howard Buffett's Border War

Howard Buffett's Christiansen Ranch, reminiscent of a paramilitary compound, is about 300 yards from the border wall. (Beau Hodai)

Part 1

On February 6, 2016, around 8:30 p.m., someone standing in the blackness of the Arizona desert night took several pictures. The images depict a group of three friends standing proudly, armed to the teeth, striking their best badass poses.

According to metadata generated by the iPhone that took the pictures, the trio stood atop a hill situated approximately 4,000 feet from the rust-brown steel wall cutting off the hillsides of Cochise County, to the north, from those of Sonora, Mexico, to the south.

In the first available photo, Howard Graham Buffett appears with two men, likely Macon County (Illinois) Sheriff's Office Deputy and K-9 handler T.W. Houk and Decatur (Illinois) Police Department Detective and K-9 handler Chad Larner.

Buffett is the eldest son, and heir apparent, of Berkshire Hathaway Chairman and Chief Executive Warren Buffett, the third wealthiest man in the world, with an estimated fortune of $84 billion.

Over the past several years, 64-year-old Howard Buffett -- using wealth supplied by his father -- has been waging his own border war in Cochise County. This has included the arming of a private volunteer group, importing privately employed enforcement personnel, and funding the chemical defoliation of a substantial portion of the county's border with Mexico.

Buffett has also purchased the loyalty of -- and influence over -- the Cochise County Sheriff's Office (CCSO). He has done this through a steady stream of gifts and grants totaling tens of millions of dollars, used to buy guns, vehicles, surveillance equipment, helicopters, and other toys.

For his part in this relationship, Buffett has gained legitimacy and support -- under the color of law -- for his border war.

Buffett describes his activities on the border using the language of humanitarianism and concern for the "rule of law." But closer inspection shows he is using the same dog-eared playbook, and walking in the same well-worn circles, as infamous border warriors and vigilantes who have preceded him along southeastern Arizona's border with Mexico.

Setting Buffett aside from some of his more notorious predecessors is his extreme wealth, and not much more.

In the photo taken in February 2016, Buffett and the other two men are posing. The photo is among several thousand pages of records reviewed during the reporting obtained from several agencies through public records requests.

Howard Buffett and friends on night watch near the Mexican border. (Courtesy of Decatur Police Department)

Buffett stands vigilant, wearing a camouflage windbreaker and baseball cap, left hand on his hip. His right hand holds a night-vision scope to his eye, peering off into the night like the captain of a lost ship.

Just behind and to Buffett's left, stands the man likely to be Larner -- his face wrapped in camouflage ski mask and knit watchman's cap. Both of his hands grip a night-vision scope, also pointed off into the distance.

In the forefront of the trio kneels a man, likely Houk -- his face visible, wearing a watchman's cap and jacket, eye squinted behind the sight of what appears to be an AR-15 semiautomatic assault rifle, complete with high-capacity magazine, pointed out to some unseen target in the darkness of night.

According to metadata associated with the photographs, the hill on which the men stood during their armed patrol of February 6, 2016, was located less than a mile from the compound at Buffett's Christiansen Ranch.

From the road, Christiansen appears as a tight collection of cold, unwelcoming buildings -- reminiscent of either a paramilitary compound or a Great White Hunter's African safari retreat. The place is situated about 300 yards from the border wall, in a depression just below the confluence of Border Road and International Road -- rough dirt and rock roads more traveled by Border Patrol SUVs than anything else.

A 100-foot tower -- bristling with surveillance and communications equipment, buttressed by thick steel guylines -- rises up above the metal rooftops, just to the southwest of the compound's main house.

A neat helipad rests between Christiansen's front gate and the main building's front door -- a very expensive doormat, a clue as to the wealth of the ranch's current owner.

Christiansen's southern border occupies approximately 4.5 miles of land immediately adjacent to the U.S.-Mexico border.

The compound resides practically in the shadow of a hill in Mexico, peaked by a small square structure that serves as a lookout post for the Sinaloa cartel.

Christiansen has a long history as a smuggling corridor for both undocumented immigrants and drugs.

The third available image likely to have been taken of the three men on the night of February 6, 2016, was shot with the trio looking dead into the camera.

The hands of each of the men are occupied in a signal of unknown meaning. Each man's right hand grips their pistol, barrel pointed downward, index finger resting in the extended safe position above the trigger. The hands gripping the pistols partially cover the left hands of the men, which are laid out more flatly against their chests, as if in a pledge or an oath.

Buffett seems captured in an action pose -- as if stepping forward, to represent, confront, with an attitude reminiscent of a young gangbanger. Though his stance is clownish, the expression on the middle-age man's face is that of severe sincerity.

Howard Buffett (center) and friends posing for an IPhone photo near the Mexican border. (Courtesy of Decatur Police Department)

Howard Buffett's primary charitable organization, the Howard G. Buffett Foundation is based in Decatur, Illinois. The foundation is purportedly interested in matters of "food security" and "conflict mitigation," and has exhibited a growing preoccupation with "public safety" in recent years. Decatur is the seat of Macon County. Buffett, who has a deep interest in agriculture, owns several farms spread through Macon County and central Illinois.

The sole financial underwriter of the Howard G. Buffett Foundation is Warren Buffett, who donates roughly $150 million to $180 million to his son's charity annually, according to tax records.

Over the four or so years preceding the February 2016 armed patrol at Christiansen, Buffett had cultivated relationships with Houk and Larner, largely through his foundation's patronage of the law-enforcement agencies employing the men.

This patronage had seemingly bought Buffett a place within the law-enforcement ranks of central Illinois. He was given the title of Macon County "Civilian Undersheriff" in 2014, following approximately $4.5 million in gifts to the Macon County Sheriff's Office.

In September 2017, following the unexplained midterm departure of Macon County Sheriff Thomas Schneider, an elected official, Buffett was named to serve out the remainder of the sheriff's term. This followed several million more in gifts to the Macon County Sheriff's Office, the Macon County State's Attorney's Office, and the creation of Buffett-funded law-enforcement training centers in Macon County. Immediately following his resignation as sheriff, Schneider took a leadership position at a law-enforcement training center constructed and financed by Buffett.

Decatur Detective Chad Larner, Macon County Deputy T.W. Houk, and others in public law enforcement also became active participants in Buffett's private law-enforcement training and border-enforcement efforts. The epicenter of these border-enforcement efforts is in the far southeast corner of Arizona, where Buffett has conducted a program of patronage of the Cochise County Sheriff's Office since 2012, and where Buffett has acquired substantial property holdings.

By the outset of 2016, these properties included two border ranches covering at least seven miles of Cochise County's international border with Mexico.

To date, Buffett has given nearly $30 million in gifts to CCSO and related entities. The money has arguably been used to militarize and steer the rural sheriff's office into Buffett's own border-enforcement agenda.

Speaking with members of the U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on March 17, 2015, Buffett explained his motives behind this relationship with CCSO:

"The Border Patrol will accept no private money and no private support. That limits some of their ability to increase force multipliers. So, we are trying to go around that, to be honest with you, work through the Sheriff's Department, and make them the CCSO assets and have the Border Patrol work with us."

Among other things, Buffett funds have been used to create a privately funded investigative unit within CCSO dedicated to interdiction of human trafficking and drug smuggling, and for the creation and training of canine units.

According to documents, Buffett's foundation money has also been used to:

  • Rebuild and expand the county's law-enforcement communications infrastructure, with some of that infrastructure being installed on private property owned by Buffett.
  • Renovate at least one jail.
  • Erect a law-enforcement training complex and shooting range.
  • Purchase surveillance equipment, at least one drone, troves of weapons, ammunition, vehicles, and at least one BearCat armored assault vehicle.

The foundation has also provided the sheriff's office with at least three helicopters.

Howard Buffett did not respond to multiple requests for comment

Helicopter owned by Howard Buffett parked on helipad in front of Christiansen compound, June 2016. (Photographer asked to remain anonymous)

In 2013, following nearly $1 million in gifts to the rural Arizona sheriff's office, Buffett was awarded the honorary title of "special deputy" and became an active member of the Cochise County Sheriff's Assist Team (SAT).

SAT was co-founded in 2003 by retired Army intelligence lieutenant colonel and Lutheran pastor James Behnke, along with other retired military/intelligence personnel. The group is a private volunteer support organization for CCSO, which has provided services such as traffic control and security -- as well as "intelligence analysis on drug cartel operations" and patrols of the county's "remote areas."

According to the latest records, Behnke is SAT's treasurer and only remaining original director. He co-founded the group immediately following his failed 2002 Republican primary challenge to then-incumbent U.S. Representative Jim Kolbe. Behnke's campaign platform consisted of one plank: securing the border through the deployment of military personnel to Cochise County's San Rafael Valley, an area where Buffett now owns a substantial amount of land.

Behnke's campaign was rife with border warriors -- with former American Border Patrol Director Francis McWilliams serving as campaign manager, known Cochise County Concerned Citizens member David Stoddard serving as fundraiser, and notorious border vigilante and former CCSO deputy Roger Barnett aiding the campaign's fundraising and communications efforts. Barnett and his wife, Barbara, were also the campaign's top financial supporters.

When Buffett joined SAT in 2013, he became the outfit's primary, if not sole, funding source. To date, he has provided the organization with hundreds of thousands of dollars, largely for vehicles and equipment.

In the first year of this support alone, Buffett provided SAT with two law-enforcement-equipped Chevy Tahoes, 16 sets of body armor, 14 Colt .45-caliber semi-automatic pistols, two Colt AR-15 assault rifles, extra magazines, several thousand rounds of ammunition, and a $22,150 gas allowance for 50,000 miles' worth of "increase in Patrolling across County [sic]," according to CCSO records.

All of these items were purchased for SAT by the Cochise County Sheriff's Office, using funding supplied by Buffett. But, according to CCSO Public Information Officer Carol Capas, SAT members are "undeputized volunteers" with no law-enforcement powers.

Behnke, when approached for comment on SAT's activities relating to border security, stated "we really don't have anything to do with that," and referred all further questions to "our PIO gal" Capas.

Capas confirmed that CCSO purchased the weapons for SAT, but claimed the sheriff's office required SAT members meet firearms qualifications standards set by the Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board. According to Capas, no SAT member has met those standards, and no SAT member has been issued a weapon.

When asked why CCSO purchased weapons and ammunition for SAT, Capas said the weapons were for "personal protection."

"For example, being in a most remote or rural part of Cochise County, and in the nighttime, and if they were out of their vehicle for any reason, and let's just say, a wild animal attacked them, or et cetera -- those types of things," she said.

When asked if CCSO purchased AR-15 assault rifles chambered for military-grade ammunition to protect against animals, Capas responded: "Oh, I, I don't have any information on that for you. That was part of the purchase that was made. Um, and I can tell you that those weapons are not being, um, utilized by the Sheriff's Assist Team, so... um, so I don't have an answer on that for you."

Reports of SAT activity obtained from CCSO show SAT personnel engaged in searches for "UDAs" (undocumented aliens) and assisting in other border enforcement efforts. Nevertheless, Capas denied any such activity on the part of SAT and denied any knowledge of such reports.

In 2016, following approximately $22 million in gifts to the Cochise County Sheriff's Office, Buffett was inserted into the CCSO command structure -- if in title only. In June of that year, according to CCSO Public Information Officer Capas, Buffett was awarded the unpaid position of "Ranch Patrol Liaison Officer [...] with the rank of Deputy Commander."

According to Capas, Buffett has no law-enforcement powers in Cochise County.

Buffett is generous to his friends in the sheriff's department. In December 2015, Buffett directed the purchase, using money he had provided to CCSO, of Glock 43 9mm semiautomatic pistols (which retail for around $500 each) for the "off-duty" use of CCSO command personnel.

The rural sheriff's office did not want for on-duty arms. In 2014, Buffett funding purchased at least 120 Glock 21 .45 caliber semiautomatic pistols for the agency.

And, in January 2017, Buffett purchased, using tax-free funding provided by his father to his foundation, a fleet of at least five new customized and leather-upholstered Ford Raptors for CCSO command personnel.

It would seem that this pattern of deep-pocketed largess has engendered a permissive -- and even obedient -- attitude on the part of CCSO toward Buffett.

From 2014 through 2017, Buffett also provided the sheriff's office and related entities with at least $7 million in funding to lease, operate, and purchase at least three helicopters. The CCSO helicopters have been engaged, according to available records, in routine patrol of the border wall, riparian areas, and mountains of Cochise County -- in perpetual search for "UDAs [undocumented aliens]," "smugglers," and "mules."

Records obtained from CCSO demonstrate that when Buffett has wanted to fly missions in the sheriff's helicopter, he has notified CCSO command as to where and when he wanted the helicopter delivered -- and who he wanted aboard.

CCSO records also show that Buffett has engaged in road patrols of Cochise County, where he has conducted stops of motorists. For example, records dated August 26, 2016, list Buffett as the "responsible officer" in four traffic stops, but state no cause for the stops. Other records indicate that between 2013 and February 2016, Buffet spent 639 hours on "duty" with CCSO. These hours were also spent on activities such as "border patrol," "independent patrol," or helicopter patrol.

The Cochise County Attorney's Office and Cochise County Sheriff Mark Dannels have granted special dispensation for Buffett to outfit several Ford Raptors owned by one of his "charities" with law-enforcement lights and sirens, and to use these vehicles in "fulfillment of the Sheriff's duties," documents show

Howard Buffett (second from right) and Bill Gates received the World Food Program's leadership award from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and program director Josette Sheeran (far right). (Courtesy of U.S. State Department)

On the night of the three friends' armed desert sojourn in February 2016, Houk and Larner were far from their jurisdiction as Illinois lawmen. Buffett, in Cochise County, was nothing more than an honorary "special deputy" and Sheriff's Assist Team member.

Email records obtained from the Decatur Police Department indicate that the trio's armed excursion on the border had been in the works for several months.

On October 30, 2015, Buffett forwarded a number of emails to law-enforcement friends in Macon County. The emails appeared to have originally been sent to Buffett by an employee named Mark Rigel, advising Buffett of intelligence gathered on his Christiansen Ranch in Cochise County pertaining to illicit border traffic.

Attached to the emails were surveillance photos containing images of what the emails' author purported to be smugglers crossing Buffett's property.

Howard Buffett was the sheriff of Macon County, Illinois, until the November election. (Macon County Sheriff's Office Facebook page photo)

In 2013, Rigel was a lieutenant detective of the Park Hills (Missouri) Police Department and at some time was also cross-designated with the U.S. Department of Justice's Drug Enforcement Administration.

In June of that year, Buffett received training in the use of canines in detecting smuggling activity from Rigel's private training operation, SHARC Cove. Buffett clearly valued Rigel's skills. In 2013, Buffet's foundation paid Rigel nearly $50,000 for training and "consulting" services.

On June 2, 2014, Rigel gave his two-week notice of resignation to the Park Hills Police Department, stating that he had come upon an opportunity to "further develop my skills and advance my career." Less than two weeks later, Rigel was at work with Buffett's foundation, ostensibly combatting poachers in Tanzania, according to reporting in the Tanzanian Guardian on Sunday.

According to Cochise County property records, on August 21, 2014, the Howard G. Buffett Foundation completed the first of a block of several land purchases that would comprise Buffett's more than 2,500-acre Christiansen border ranch.

A week following its purchase of Christiansen, the foundation gave Christiansen, via gift deed, to a company called Iroquois LLC.

According to Illinois Secretary of State records, Iroquois LLC was incorporated on November 8, 2012. The registered agent at the time of incorporation was Trisha A. Cook, treasurer of both the Howard G. Buffett Foundation and related nonprofit, the Sequoia Farm Foundation, which is the sole managing member of Iroquois.

According to tax records, the Sequoia Farm Foundation is funded entirely by the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, which, in turn, is underwritten solely by Warren Buffett. Howard G. Buffett serves chairman and chief executive of the foundation, and as president of Sequoia.

According to email records, by some point in 2015, Howard Buffett had installed Rigel in Cochise County.

Rigel and other Buffett personnel set about placing a number of motion-activated surveillance cameras throughout Christiansen Ranch. As early as April 2015, Rigel began to send Buffett images of men said to be smugglers crossing the rough terrain of Christiansen.

By the end of 2016, Rigel was the Sequoia Farm Foundation's highest-paid employee, with the title of "senior program manager," earning $146,254 in that year and living in a $287,500 home owned by Iroquois, situated on eight acres of land in a gated community favored by military intelligence personnel employed at nearby U.S. Army Fort Huachuca.

Rigel also held the title of Iroquois manager of field operations.

By the outset of 2016, Buffett had imported to Cochise County at least two additional Missouri police officers, referred to as "Adam" and "Tony" in email records, as his private employees to "help Mark."

At 10:50 a.m., October 30, 2015, Buffett forwarded an email titled "5 Smugglers northbound CR security update," to Chad Larner, T. W. Houk, then-Macon County Sheriff Thomas Schneider, and Macon County Sheriff's deputy Adam Walter:

"Sir, the 5 smugglers in these photos are traveling north bound 1/4 mile from Hwy 80. The packs are not typical and they are wearing foot covers, Based [sic] on mine and TCR's [likely Iroquois employee "Tony"] experience they appear to be high value packs as the 5 persons are stacked as such -- dope [sic] pack, then security person, dope pack then security and so on. Each pack looks like it weighs approx. 30 lbs., which would be 5 kilos in each pack totaling 90 lbs. of meth, cocaine or heroin [sic]. This is based on our past experiences. [...] Respectfully Mark[.]"

At 10:51 on the morning of October 30, Buffett forwarded another batch of surveillance photos, likely gathered from Christiansen, to Larner, Houk, Schneider, and Walter:

"Sir, the following are a total of 4 smugglers on October 10th," wrote the email's unnamed author, likely Rigel. "We have seen this group before carrying drugs northbound wearing a U.S. Army fatigue jacket with deployment flag and a U.S. Air Force uniform."

"Wow!" Schneider wrote.

"Geez they are bold!!" Houk replied.

"You need a rag tag group of macon county sheriff vigilantes to show up and kick some ass," Walter added.

"Bring Chad [Larner], need his enthusiasm!" Buffett responded.

A little more than three months later, on February 6, 2016, a "rag tag group of macon county sheriff vigilantes" consisting of Buffett, Larner, and Houk, had their boots on the ground in Cochise County.

A motion-activated surveillance camera strapped to a rock near a gate in the the area of Howard Buffett's Christiansen Ranch in spring 2016. (Beau Hodai)

On January 4, 2016, Iroquois LLC purchased five adjoining parcels of land and ranch buildings for $5 million. This would become Buffett's Mission Oaks Ranch.

Mission Oaks occupies more than 2,000 acres, sandwiched between the U.S. Department of Defense's Ft. Huachuca Military Reservation in the Huachuca Mountains, and the U.S.-Mexico border. The ranch comprises a substantial portion of terrain in the area of the San Rafael Valley and the Coronado National Forest near Cochise County's western boundary, approximately 35 miles to the west of Christiansen Ranch.

Mission Oaks shares approximately 2.5 miles of international border with the Republic of Mexico, and its nearest neighbor is a Border Patrol "forward operating base."

Buffett seems to prefer his operations at Mission Oaks remain obscured. The real estate agent who sold Iroquois the property will not name the new owner, citing a nondisclosure agreement. Email correspondence between Buffett and Larner suggests that a no-trespassing sign punctuated with a noose was hung at the ranch not long after its purchase. Signs were erected by Buffett personnel on roadsides throughout the area, warning off hunters and other would-be trespassers, proclaiming the place a "wildlife conservation and protection area."

Indeed, in his April 2018 book, Our 50-State Border Crisis: How the Mexican Border Fuels the Drug Epidemic Across America, Buffett (or his ghostwriter) stated that Mission Oaks is a wildlife refuge, where Buffett and his "ranch manager," "Mark," were shocked to find images of immigrants and smugglers captured on their "wildlife study cameras."

Mission Oaks Ranch (Google Maps)

Nevertheless, clues exist as to the nature of Iroquois' activities at Mission Oaks.

In March 2016, Buffett/Iroquois personnel drafted an agreement through which Cochise County Sheriff's Office Detective Jake Kartchner and his wife would lease access to Mission Oaks property for horse-grazing.

According to email correspondence relating to the lease and available versions of the lease, Iroquois' personnel at Mission Oaks were based at a structure on the property known as the "Schoolhouse." The Kartchners would only be granted access to Mission Oaks from dawn to dusk, and would be required, whenever entering or departing the ranch property, to check in with Rigel at the schoolhouse.

"I'm just trying to avoid having you guys come up on our guys if they are out in the field and surprise them," said Buffett in a March 1, 2016, email to Kartchner, Rigel, and Cook.

As to the nature of Iroquois field operations managed by Rigel at Mission Oaks, the Kartchner lease contained some interesting admissions -- in the form of a nondisclosure clause.

The nondisclosure clause explicitly forbade the Kartchners from discussing any aspect of Iroquois, including any information relating to the activities of Iroquois employees at Mission Oaks Ranch.

Such information, according to the nondisclosure clause, included information pertaining to "data collection, location of cameras, strategic approaches to documenting activities on the ranch among other activities."

These "other activities" likely included private patrols, such as one likely undertaken at Mission Oaks by Buffett, Larner, and Houk on February 7, 2017. According to emails, the men (who had made arrangements to fly to the ranch in the Buffett-funded CCSO helicopter without any local law-enforcement presence) planned to explore "the terrain and challenges" posed by portions of Mission Oaks that Buffett believed to be used "for smuggling."

In 2017, Buffett expanded his border-enforcement efforts to Texas. In January that year, Iroquois LLC purchased two properties in Starr County, Texas. These amount to a little more than 240 acres of farm land, situated on the banks of the Rio Grande River, just southwest of Rio Grande City. Also, in that year (the latest year for which tax records are available), the Howard G. Buffett Foundation gave nearly $35,000 to the sheriff's office in neighboring Brooks County for the purchase of "equipment."

These counties comprise a notoriously busy corridor for undocumented immigration and drug smuggling.

Grasslands and border wall in the area of Howard Buffett's Christiansen Ranch, spring 2016. (Beau Hodai)

A chief point of Buffett's border-enforcement efforts in Cochise County has been a program of chemical defoliation. This program, conducted largely from 2014 through 2016, was financed by Buffett, under the auspices of Iroquois, and executed in partnership with local ranchers, conservation groups, and landowners.

Publicly billed as a "grasslands restoration" project undertaken for the benefit of ranchers and their grazing cattle, the true intent of the program was to improve visibility for border enforcement efforts by eliminating cover for those crossing the border illegally.

Using helicopters, Iroquois sprayed several thousand acres of trees and shrubs (such as mesquite, acacia, and creosote) with herbicidal poisons. This was done in a mile-wide swath stretching over a substantial length of the county's border with Mexico, immediately adjacent to the border wall.

Speaking before the U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on March 17, 2015, Buffett advocated for the program.

"One of the things we are doing if I were going to spend my time on anything, I would spend it on this. [... W]e are now implementing a program, which we started last year, where we are going to try to clear a mile deep for about 38 miles of the border of all the invasive species of creosote and other invasive species. This will change the face of how the border looks for these ranchers," Buffett said. "For one thing, they are concerned about their safety, which is, of course, one issue. The other is that they want to reclaim their lands. So, this is a water and grassland conservation project and it is also a border security project in one."

Creosote, mesquite, and acacia targeted by the border defoliation program are all endemic to Cochise County, according to local experts, though some ranchers claim the plants have invaded areas that were once grasslands.

"But, I think, at the end of the day, it is something new. It is different. It has not been tried to this extent, at least not in Arizona, and we will see what the results are. The funny thing is, the Border Patrol says we will catch more people. The ranchers say less people will cross. So, we do not know who is right. But, it is a pretty innovative program," Buffett continued.

Howard Buffett had a connection in the U.S. Senate: John McCain. (Miriam Wasser)

Buffett used his connections on the committee, namely Arizona Senator John McCain -- likely through the McCain Institute's initiative to combat human trafficking -- and North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp, to gain access to then-U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

Vilsack liked the "mile deep idea," and set up further meetings between Buffett and USDA's U.S. Forest Service, according to Buffett emails with Cochise County Sheriff Mark Dannels. The Forest Service manages federal grasslands in the Coronado National Forest along Cochise County's border with Mexico. Buffett and his "grasslands restoration" partners were also working to expand and sustain the program through USDA subsidization.

Buffett later contributed $8,100 to Heitkamp's unsuccessful re-election campaign, and donated $20 million to the McCain Institute's human trafficking initiative, records show.

Retired USDA district conservationist Gerry Gonzalez, interviewed in spring 2016, said he served as "coordinator" of the Buffett "Border Grasslands Restoration" project. According to Gonzalez, Iroquois was spraying targeted areas of trees and shrubs (largely mesquite and creosote) in "checkerboarded" fashion along a mile-deep strip running the length of the border -- from the New Mexico state line in the east, to a point in the area of the Coronado National Forest near Iroquois' Mission Oaks border ranch to the west.

The targeted defoliation took place along approximately 75 miles of the county's 83-mile border with Mexico.

At the time, according to Gonzalez, approximately 4,000 cumulative acres of mesquite trees -- not accounting for targeted areas of creosote and other trees/shrubs -- would be eradicated along this corridor.

"You to see what it looks like -- it's just a sea of grass now," Gonzalez said about the spraying in an area near Coronado National Forest. According to Gonzalez, Iroquois relied on the aerial application of two herbicidal poisons in the execution of this: Spike and Sendero.

Residents of Cochise County should be very concerned; both chemicals have a significant window of persistence in soil following application, and both are highly mobile in water, according to Tucson Audubon Society Conservation Director Jonathan Horst. As such, the spraying program poses a high risk for groundwater contamination, and could pose health risks to humans as well as sensitive ecosystems, he added.

According to Gonzalez, spraying was conducted by Iroquois during the months June, August, and September, which are typically summer monsoon months.

Of particular ecological vulnerability, noted Horst, are riparian areas around the San Pedro River.

The river and its forests are fed by area washes and draws, some of which originate on, or flow through, lands owned by ranchers participating in the Iroquois border defoliation program.

Statements made by Cochise County Sheriff Dannels at an October 2016 event dedicated to the "grasslands restoration" project strongly suggest that the chemical defoliation of washes and draws feeding the San Pedro was an intended outcome of the border defoliation project. These heavily treed areas have historically provided cover for those entering the country illegally, Dannels said, according to reporting in the Sierra Vista Herald.

Dannels singled out two areas as being particularly problematic: Horseshoe and Greenbush Draws.

Horseshoe Draw, situated upstream from the San Pedro River on a ranch owned by John Ladd, is a major source of water for the San Pedro River. Greenbush Draw is also located on Ladd's ranch.

Grasslands and border wall in the area of Howard Buffett's Christiansen Ranch, spring 2016. (Beau Hodai)

Ladd is a longtime member and leader of Hereford Natural Resources Conservation District. Hereford and other area conservation districts are organized under the auspices of the Arizona State Land Department and consist largely of area ranchers and landowners.

The Hereford district was one of Iroquois' most prominent partners in the defoliation program, with Ladd essentially serving as the public face of the "grasslands restoration" project. And, according to Gonzalez, portions of Ladd's ranch were sprayed with herbicidal poisons by Iroquois.

But, Gonzalez asserted, the "Border Grasslands Restoration" project worked in concert with ecological group, The Nature Conservancy, in demarcating safe spraying limits near the San Pedro.

Peter Warren served as a grasslands conservationist and representative of The Nature Conservancy. Warren said he worked with Iroquois at the outset of their spraying program, visiting both cottonwood stands and washes on Buffett's Christiansen Ranch and the draws on Ladd's ranch.

Nevertheless, according to Warren, The Nature Conservancy did not have much involvement in the Iroquois program, and did not sign off on the final spraying plan. Further, Warren stated that he believed the chemicals used by Iroquois to be essentially harmless -- rendered inert upon contact with the ground. As such, he believed Iroquois' plan to pose minimal risk of groundwater contamination or harm to riparian areas. Warren admitted that he did not research the chemicals used by Iroquois.

Where Iroquois' motivations for the border defoliation program are concerned, Warren made another admission: "they're paying for it for border security reasons, really."

It is also worth noting that the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, through the known period of Iroquois' border defoliation program, gave more than $2 million to Malpai Borderlands Group, a local conservation organization whose board of directors includes area ranchers, former Nature Conservancy personnel, and others.

Malpai works to conserve a substantial area of land in southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico -- largely for the purposes of ranching. According to Warren, Malpai's area of operation includes areas where Iroquois and partner ranchers have worked to denude the border of trees and shrubs. Warren retired from The Nature Conservancy in summer 2017 -- around which time, he joined Malpai's board of directors.

Also, during this period, the Howard G. Buffett Foundation paid out more than $700,000 to the Hereford conservation district for a project that would channel runoff rainwater from approximately 9,000 acres of land in the area of Ladd's ranch, through Horseshoe Draw, into the San Pedro River, its riparian areas, and into the Upper San Pedro River Basin aquifer.

(See a grasslands restoration flyer and trail cam images here)

The Hereford Natural Resources Conservation District and another of Iroquois' primary partners in the defoliation program, the Whitewater Draw Natural Resources Conservation District, are genuinely concerned with pastoral conservation.

But both are deeply involved in the politics of immigration restriction.

And both are represented, in federal litigation seeking to limit immigration programs under the banner of environmental protection, by the Immigration Reform Law Institute, the legal arm of the anti-immigrant group, Federation for American Immigration Reform.

FAIR is the flagship for a network of more than a dozen anti-immigrant groups founded, co-founded, or funded by anti-immigrant activist John Tanton.

And Howard Buffet's father was once a supporter of Tanton and his organization.

This article was first published in the Phoenix New Times here.

Photo credits in the order in which they appear in the above article:

  1. Howard Buffett and friends on night watch near the Mexican border. (Courtesy of Decatur Police Department)
  2. Howard Buffett (center) and friends posing for an IPhone photo near the Mexican border. (Courtesy of Decatur Police Department)
  3. Helicopter owned by Howard Buffett parked on helipad in front of Christiansen compound, June 2016. (Photographer asked to remain anonymous)
  4. Howard Buffett (second from right) and Bill Gates received the World Food Program's leadership award from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and program director Josette Sheeran (far right). (Courtesy of U.S. State Department)
  5. Howard Buffett was the sheriff of Macon County, Illinois, until the November election. (Macon County Sheriff's Office Facebook page photo)
  6. A motion-activated surveillance camera strapped to a rock near a gate in the the area of Howard Buffett's Christiansen Ranch in spring 2016. (Beau Hodai)
  7. Mission Oaks Ranch (Google Maps)
  8. Grasslands and border wall in the area of Howard Buffett's Christiansen Ranch, spring 2016. (Beau Hodai)
  9. Howard Buffett had a connection in the U.S. Senate: John McCain. (Miriam Wasser)
  10. Grasslands and border wall in the area of Howard Buffett's Christiansen Ranch, spring 2016. (Beau Hodai)