TUCSON — Federal officials and members of a special border crime detail are busy looking for powerful weapons that could fall into the hands of dangerous drug cartels operating in Mexico.
Fourteen deputies in the Pima County Sheriff's Office Border Crime Unit focus primarily on drugs and criminals heading north and guns and ammunition heading south into Mexico.
Southbound smuggling has added to raging drug wars in Mexico, which are being fought mostly with weapons smuggled from the United States.
More than 6,000 people were killed in Mexico last year in battles between cartels and law enforcement, including a record 116 in the once-quiet border city of Nogales, Mexico.
Of the more than 7,700 weapons recovered from those crimes, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives traced 90 percent back to the U.S.
Mexican laws strictly regulate the possession of firearms, making it easier to buy guns in the U.S. and take them south.
"The guns are arming very violent criminals who are intent on continuing the flow of drugs into the United States," said Bill Newel, ATF special agent in charge of the Phoenix office. "If we deny criminals access to firearms, then we hopefully have an impact on the drug trade."
To fight the problem, the White House unveiled an unprecedented influx of resources that will give a much-needed boost to law enforcement agencies trying to stem the flow of guns heading south.
New equipment going to the ports-of-entry include high-tech screening devices, K-9s that can detect weapons and cash, and upgraded license-plate readers.
"This is a major effort with guns moving across the border and even back across the border many times a day," said Susan Ginsburg, member of the 9/11 Commission and director of the mobility and security program at the Washington, D.C.-based Migration Policy Institute, a centrist think tank. "It will take some time to have an impact."
The border is wide open in many areas and smugglers are highly motivated and well-funded.
"The border is very porous and there are lots of ways into Mexico and lots of ways out of Mexico," said Lt. Jeff Palmer, who oversees the Pima County Sheriff's Office Border Crime Unit.
"Sometimes we get lucky and sometimes we do not," Palmer said. "The most we can hope to do is be an obstacle and a deterrent."