Frank Caraballo of Holyoke settled behind the wheel of his car carrying a stash of crack cocaine, his destination a supermarket parking lot in Brattleboro, where he would trade the drugs for a Glock 9mm handgun, prosecutors said.
It was a journey — and a deal — all too familiar to law enforcement authorities who have watched with increasing alarm as narcotics from Massachusetts are ferried to Vermont and swapped for guns that are plentiful and cheap.
And as the case of Frank Caraballo showed, the drugs-for-guns trade can end with deadly consequences: A few weeks after Caraballo purchased the gun in 2011, a woman whom he suspected had stolen from him was shot dead with a Glock 9mm in rural Vermont. Last October, Caraballo was convicted in the killing.
"You don't know which one came first, the chicken or the egg, but guns are being traded for drugs, and drug dealers are coming here with their product," said Jim Mostyn, the Vermont agent in charge for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. "Drug dealers are aware that guns are readily available here."
It is a trade that is compounding public safety worries on both sides of the state border, as urban authorities in Western Massachusetts battle gun crimes and gang violence and Vermonters cope with the skyrocketing abuse of heroin and other opiates.
"For the drug dealer, it's a great deal," said Tristram Coffin, the US attorney for Vermont. "He's got a commodity that he gets for a wholesale price and then can trade a relatively small amount of drugs for a pretty valuable weapon."
The market has an express lane, Interstate 91, which authorities call the Iron Pipeline because it gives Massachusetts drug dealers easy access to Vermont, a state awash in firearms and some of the most permissive gun laws in the nation.
Gun-and-drug traffic along I-91 generally links Southern and Central Vermont with Springfield, Chicopee, and Holyoke, said Jim Martin, the ATF agent in charge for Western Massachusetts.
"If you go into the drug distribution areas of Springfield and Holyoke, you will see Vermont plates," Martin said.
The transactions that occur in those neighborhoods benefit both sides, he said. Inexpensive handguns are readily available in Vermont — from dealers, gun shows, and private sales — and those weapons can fetch twice their price in Massachusetts, where gun laws are much tougher.
And a bag of heroin that sells for $4 on the streets of Springfield — "We have the cheapest heroin," said Springfield narcotics detective Steve Kent — can command $40 if bought in rural Vermont where supply is not as plentiful.
From January 2011 through January of this year, ATF officials said, authorities in Springfield recovered 12 guns at crime scenes that they traced to Vermont, more than any other state outside Massachusetts.
If that figure seems low, law enforcement officials cautioned, the total number of guns brought illegally from Vermont to Massachusetts is impossible to quantify. Transactions occur clandestinely.
A thicket of firearms regulations makes it difficult to trace guns. And cars and trucks traveling up and down I-91 cannot be stopped merely on suspicion.
"Through intelligence gathering, interviews, and thorough investigations, ATF offices in Vermont and Springfield, Mass., have consistently seen guns originating in Vermont used as currency in the interstate drug trade," said Debora Seifert, a special agent in the Boston office of the ATF.
The intersection of guns and drugs is spawning a wide range of related crimes, Mostyn said. Firearms are being stolen in Vermont and then exchanged for some of the more than $2 million in heroin and other opiates that flood Vermont every week, officials said. And addicts desperate for a daily fix are stealing from their families and strangers to pay for it.
On April 19, for example, a Richford, Vt., man stole 32 firearms from a sports shop in Hardwick, Vt., and exchanged many of the guns with another Richford man for money and drugs, federal prosecutors said.
On March 19, a South Wallingford, Vt., woman was pulled over on I-91 in Holyoke, heading north with 1,400 packets of heroin in her vehicle, Massachusetts State Police said.
"This is affecting communities every day in our state," said Ann Braden, president of Gun Sense Vermont, a gun control organization. "All the discussion at the State House is about drugs, but we need to be looking at guns and drugs and how they interact."
Despite its reputation as a bastion of liberal politics, Vermont has been awash in guns since Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys seized Fort Ticonderoga in the Revolutionary War. The state ranks number one in New England in the rate of gun ownership, with 42 percent of residents owning at least one firearm, according to a 2007 survey. In Massachusetts, by contrast, 12.6 percent of residents own a gun.
Most guns in Vermont are carried for hunting and sport, authorities said. Permits are not required to own a gun and there is no registration.
Firearms can be carried openly or concealed without state or local approval. And although guns bought from licensed dealers are subject to federal background checks, Vermont does not regulate private transactions between neighbors or even strangers, said Stephanie Dasaro, spokeswoman for the Vermont State Police.
However, one restriction comes from the federal Gun Control Act, which states that sellers "may not knowingly transfer a firearm to someone who falls within any of the categories of prohibited persons," such as a felon or drug addict.
But if sellers do not ask, they might not know.
To Braden, the system allows criminals from Massachusetts to easily bypass detection. Instead of undergoing a federal background check, they arrange for a Vermonter to make straw purchases from a dealer, steal a firearm, or buy a gun through a private sale.
"Basically, it's like setting up two security lines at the airport and letting the criminals choose which line to go through," Braden said.
In Holyoke, the first sizable city that Vermonters encounter off I-91 in Massachusetts, Police Chief James Neiswanger acknowledged that an influx of firearms from the north is a major worry for a community struggling to curb gangs, drug use, and violence.
"We see the plates," said Neiswanger, who added that "years ago, we rarely saw guns from Vermont and New Hampshire. Now, it's much more commonplace."
Neiswanger said that illegal guns have become his top law-enforcement priority in Holyoke. And in Springfield, the detective who heads the night narcotics unit said the city sometimes seems awash in firearms.
"There are more guns out there than at any time I've been here," said Kent, a detective sergeant who has been on the force for 22 years.
A task force of local police, ATF agents, and State Police has been assembled in Western Massachusetts to combat problems posed by guns and drugs. John Rosenthal, cofounder of the Newton-based Stop Handgun Violence, said the task force's work would be helped by national, mandatory background checks on all gun sales.
Such checks, he said, "would include private gun sales by individuals at gun shows, on the Internet, and out of their homes, backpacks, and car trunks, all of which is perfectly legal in Vermont."
To many Vermont gun owners, however, such checks infringe on the state Constitution, which stipulates "that the people have a right to bear arms for the defense of themselves and the state."
According to 77-year-old Bob Scudero of Underhill, Vt., who walked among thousands of firearms at the Central Vermont Gun Show in February, selling a gun should be "no different than selling my lawnmower."
But to Chelan Brown of Springfield, a community activist who lost two cousins to murder last year, the Iron Pipeline is more than just a catchy nickname for a ribbon of interstate highway.
"It's been a problem up and down I-91 for a while, a huge problem," Brown said. "About a year ago, we were out doing some work on a street with known gang activity, and there was a van that pulled up with Vermont plates. We thought they were selling T-shirts."
Instead, she added, "they were selling guns."