ATF Heads "Operation Gunrunner" to Stop Weapon Flow from U.S. to Mexico

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Friday, 12:58 p.m.

TUCSON, Ariz. It's always entertaining to watch someone who's never picked up a gun before fire one for the first time — even more so when the weapon in question is an AK47, one of the most powerful (and deadly) guns in the world.

FOX producer Ron "Ronzilla" Ralston was our guinea pig at an ATF range outside of Tucson, Ariz., and had the power of the AK in his hands. His first shot nearly knocked him on his derriere ... but, at least he has plenty of padding in that area to cushion the fall.

It was a light moment in an otherwise deadly, serious story. We are with the ATF to get the lowdown on Operation Gunrunner, the agency's attempt to stem what they call an "iron river" of weapons flowing from U.S. gun stores across the border to Mexico. These guns are going into the hands of drug cartels, who are using them to kill each other and, more worryingly, to assassinate scores of Mexican police officers and government officials.

The smugglers came across from Mexico, bringing with them their illicit cargo of drugs, and then they head back with their equally illegal cargo of weapons. And, short of stopping and searching every single vehicle and every single person crossing the border, there is no way to stop the flow of weapons.

Operation Gunrunner has been successful in stopping thousands of guns getting to the drug gangs … but thousands more have made it through, with the result that the cartels are frequently better armed than the Mexican police and army. When we toured some of the violence-wracked towns of northern Mexico, one police chief showed us the weapon he carries — a Smith and Wesson revolver that looked like something Wyatt Earp might have used. As an ATF special agent told us, a police officer armed with that sort of a weapon doesn't stand a chance against the AK-toting drug cartel enforcers.

The stark reality is that until the flow of high-powered weapons from the U.S. to Mexico is halted, there will be only one winner in the drug war.

Thursday, 1:54 p.m.

CANANEA, Mexico — It's not easy deciding how to cover the soaring drug-related violence in Mexico, since journalists are frequent targets of the all-powerful cartels ... so wandering around without protection isn't a good idea.

The police are happy to help out, with officers armed to the teeth, but given that police officers are being murdered almost every week, the safety they offer may be more of an illusion than a reality.

Having to make that choice, we — myself, cameraman Eric Barnes (who fears nothing except his mother), and producer Ron "Ronzilla" Ralston — opted for the illusion. Having a 300-pound policeman, with an AK47 strapped across his barrel chest, sitting next to you in the back of a pick-up just seemed to at least give us a chance if the drug gangs emerged from the shadows of the Mexican countryside.

We are in Cananea, about 50 miles across the border from Douglas, Ariz. It was here that a drug gang of around 100 brazenly abducted four police officers ten days ago. The gang swept into town in a convoy of 20 vehicles; they took the four officers, drove them to the edge of town, lined them up against a fence, and shot them execution style. It was a clear warning from the cartels that the local authorities should not interfere with the billion-dollar drug smuggling operation.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon has sworn to do much more than interfere. He says he will crush the cartels, but the drug gangs have answered that call to arms with unprecedented violence. They are also adopting the methods of the Iraqi insurgency, beheading their victims and posting videos of the murders on the Internet. They have also left severed heads on the steps of government buildings. It is terror; it is intimidation, and it is war. The Mexican police and army find themselves facing an opponent who is often better armed, more disciplined, and certainly more ruthless.

It is a strange feeling to be in a country in which I, and the rest of the FOX crew, have spent many wonderful vacations ... and now, to know that we could get caught in a bloodbath at any time.

That's why we opted to stay close to the guys in uniforms, the guys with the big guns. It's not the perfect choice, but right now with Mexico at war, it's the best one we could make.

Jonathan Hunt has served as a New York-based correspondent for since 2004. He led the coverage of the United Nations Oil-for-Food scandal, covered the war in Iraq from Kuwait and Baghdad, and was the first FNC reporter to travel into Fallujah. You can read his bio here.

Jonathan Hunt currently serves as a New York-based chief correspondent for FOX News Channel (FNC). Hunt joined the network in 2002 as an international correspondent based in Los Angeles.