Mexican drug cartels are using suburban teens to help them smuggle guns across the border, according to a former smuggler.
The imprisoned smuggler, who asked his name not be revealed for fear of retaliation, said he used to recruit teenage heroin addicts to act as "straw buyers" -- they would purchase weapons at stores across the Valley in exchange for heroin.
"I actually got involved through a relative of mine, and after he got me involved, I got other people for him to buy guns," the smuggler told 5 Investigates reporter Tammy Leitner. "We usually got younger kids that were 18 or 19 that were addicted to drugs -- mostly heroin."
The idea of "easy cash" -- an $800 AR-15 sells for about $1,900 even before it reaches the border -- would spread quickly via word of mouth, he said.
"One kid would do it, and then he would tell his friend about it, and he would want to do it," the smuggler said. "We'd limit the kids to two guns so they wouldn't be wise to anything -- so they'd only be able to buy two guns, and then they'd tell their friend and their friend would come to us."
Attorney Adrian Fontes, who represents clients like this smuggler, said straw buyers make the smallest amount of money, but they take on the greatest risk when they sign their names to the ownership application.
The U.S. government is targeting these straw buyers, he said.
"They're targeting folks they can go after, which is the straw buyer and the coordinator or smuggler," Fontes said. "Most of these folks nine times out of 10 are not illegal aliens. They are U.S. citizens."
The straw buyers would purchase AK-47s, AR-15s and Colt .38 Supers, which end up in the hands of the cartels.
The smuggler said he would strap the guns underneath his car with zip ties, then drive across the border to Nogales, Mexico.
"I definitely know (the guns were) going back to the cartel in Mexico because every time we took guns down there, we would take four or five and they'd give us about $9,000 for all of them," he said. "It would be all $20 bills, and they'd come within five minutes after we got there, no matter what time of day or night."
The Mexican Drug Cartel relies heavily on smugglers from Arizona to stock their arsenal.
"You're talking about some very violent, or potentially violent organizations and individuals, here," said Brian Levin, who works for U.S. Customs and Border Protection. "We need to be prepared for this."
Levin said preventing guns from leaving the U.S. is becoming a higher priority for CBP. The agency has set up checkpoints north of the border to check vehicles heading south for guns and drug money.
"You're going to see that this continues at the ports of entry," Levin said. "We're going to continue to enforce the outbound laws (and) look for these people."
During the past six months, federal authorities confiscated nearly 600 weapons bound for Mexico -- a 50 percent increase from the same time period in 2008.
Nevertheless, authorities estimate about 20,000 guns reach Mexico every year.