MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And from Canada we're going to go south, quite a ways south, to the U.S.-Mexico border, where smuggling is a two-way street.
Mr. BILL NEWELL (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms): Drugs coming north, guns and ammunition going south.
NORRIS: That's Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Special Agent Bill Newell in Phoenix. The weapons and bullets that go south are being used by Mexican drug cartels to fight law enforcement and each other. It's a war that has left thousands dead. NPR's Ted Robbins has our story, beginning at the border between Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Sonora.
TED ROBBINS: As I drive toward the border I see a welcome sign, Bienvenidos A Mexico. There is another sign too, a warning in English and Spanish: No Firearms or Ammunition. But as I head south and come to a stop sign and I get a green light that says pass, two customs inspectors from Mexico are on their cell phones, I go over a couple of speed bumps, and I'm in.
No questions, no inspection. All I have is my audio recorder and microphone. But I could have pistols, rifles, even hand grenades. More than 5,000 people were murdered in Mexico last year alone. According to the ATF, 95 percent of the weapons recovered from those killings were traced back to the U.S. That's largely because it's easier to buy guns in the U.S. and smuggle them across the border than it is to buy them in Mexico. Abel Murrieta-Gutierrez is attorney general of the Mexican state of Sonora.
Mr. ABEL MURRIETA-GUTIERREZ (Attorney General, Sonora): (Through translator) I'll tell you something with all due respect. The problem of violence in Mexico starts in the United States when someone buys a weapon and their intent is that it's going to Mexico.
Mr. NEWELL: This is an AK-47 variant. If you hear this sound in the middle of the night...
(Soundbite of gun cocking)
Mr. NEWELL: ...you better start running.
ROBBINS: Bill Newell is in a walk-in vault loaded with weapons seized 120 miles north of the border. The tall, lanky agent is in charge of the ATF field division in Phoenix. The vault is filled with hundreds of rifles in wall racks, handguns in stacks, semi-automatics wrapped with plastic ties to prevent their firing. And this is one of a number of ATF vaults just in Arizona filled with weapons about to be destroyed, then replaced by more weapons from new cases. Newell points to a trash can filled with AK-47 knockoffs.
Mr. NEWELL: These guns were actually seized here in Phoenix from some traffickers that were going to take them to Mexico. Actually, this case was one case of about 30.
ROBBINS: Newell has worked in Mexico and with Mexico to stop weapons trafficking. A Mexican Justice Department representative has a desk in the Phoenix ATF office. But Newell says the guns are coming from all over the U.S. The weapons and ammunition are being bought on the black market at gun shows, but mostly from licensed dealers. Arizona and Texas make it especially easy to purchase guns retail. Basically, any adult with a valid ID and no criminal record can buy as many as they want.
Dave LaRue owns Legendary Guns, a shop in Phoenix which sells everything from Old West antiques to modern firearms.
Mr. DAVE LARUE (Gun Shop Owner): This is called the Form 4473.
ROBBINS: Form 4473 is a five-page document the federal government uses to screen purchases. It's a felony to lie on the form. It's also illegal to buy a gun for someone else. But that's what happens. Smugglers hire people to make straw purchases.
Mr. LARUE: And there are plenty of signs. They don't understand how the gun works. They don't know what the gun is. They come in and point at it and say I'll take that gun.
ROBBINS: Then the real tip-off. To avoid a financial trail, customers pull out a wad of cash.
Mr. LARUE: It's so unusual for somebody to buy an expensive gun and pay for it in cash - and quite often in small bills. So you just think that this can't be right.
ROBBINS: Dave LaRue says he and his employees have seen the pattern often enough to refuse to sell if there's anything suspicious. They work closely with the ATF. Others are not so careful. Another Phoenix gun dealer is about to stand trial on charges he sold 600 weapons he knew were headed to the Sinaloa drug cartel in Mexico.
(Soundbite of foreign language)
Back at the border, U.S. agents also occasionally seize weapons. At the Nogales Port of Entry, Customs and Border Protection Supervisor Christopher Larkins says agents recently found them hidden in the back of a pickup truck.
Mr. CHRISTOPHER LARKINS (Supervisor, Customs and Border Protection): Took a refrigerator unit and hollowed out the insulation and hid weapons and ammo in it.
ROBBINS: A lot or...?
Mr. LARKINS: Not - I mean refrigerator freezer door aren't that big. So...
ROBBINS: Authorities call the weapons smuggling, trafico de la hormiga - ant traffic - because it's done in small steady shipments to avoid detection. And after all, the main mission of the customs service is not examining vehicles leaving the U.S.
Mr. LARKINS: Our primary responsibility is inspecting the traveling public entering the United States. That's what one of our bigger threats are. When resources allow, we do the outbound.
ROBBINS: So what can be done to halt the flow of guns south? Last year President Bush signed the so-called Merida Initiative, which gives Mexico U.S. training equipment and intelligence. President Obama recently vowed to do more. Meanwhile, nearly 8,000 guns sold in America last year were traced to Mexico. That was more than double the number the year before.
Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.