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Task force after violent smugglers

Citizen Staff

New federal, state, local unit will try to stem incidents like I-10 gunfight.



A blazing shootout on Interstate 10 on Tuesday that left four men dead has law enforcement officials worried that escalating violence among rival immigrant smugglers could claim more lives.

Federal authorities are expected to begin a major assault against violent migrant-smuggling organizations in Phoenix. U.S. agents will be brought in to form a task force with state and local police.

In addition to the deaths, five people were wounded after shooting erupted north of Casa Grande about 8:30 a.m. Tuesday.

Authorities believe the shooters were retaliating after their immigrant load was stolen earlier in the southern part of Pinal County.

People hijackings along I-10 between Phoenix and Tucson are rising, said Frank Valenzuela, state Department of Public Safety spokesman.

Other violence that may involve smuggler rivalries includes:

• In Three Points west of Tucson, an immigrant was kidnapped and tortured Sept. 23 in an effort to extort money, authorities said.

• East of Tucson last month, a migrant was pushed or thrown to his death from a bridge.

• A string of nine execution-style shootings have occurred in the southwest Phoenix area since March 2002.

• On Oct. 16, 2002, two immigrants were shot to death in the desert near Red Rock.

The aftermath of the I-10 shooting left several motorists injured, including Northwest Fire District Operations Chief Randy Karrer, whose vehicle was rear-ended by a tractor-trailer rig as traffic backed up on the freeway after the shootings.

Tim Graves, a district firefighter, said yesterday from Karrer’s bedside that Karrer was recovering but was not up to an interview.

“Obviously we’re concerned about this,” Pima County sheriff’s Assistant Chief George Heaney said of the escalating violence. “Normally they don’t act out in such an Old West-style gun battle.”

The shootout resulted from bajadores (rip-off crews) fighting for control of loads of illegal immigrants, said Russell Ahr, spokesman for the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“It’s emblematic of the competition of these groups,” he said. “Losing a load means losing tens of thousands of dollars.”

Heaney said his department sent detectives to Pinal County yesterday to talk with investigators. The aim was to try to learn if the shooting spree might be connected to Pima County cases.

In the Tucson-area torture case, investigated by sheriff’s detectives, the migrant was kidnapped and taken to a home in Three Points, where captors pulled out two of his teeth, pried up his toenails and threatened castration.

Two men were arrested.

The homicide last month involved a suspected illegal immigrant who was traveling with his brother and others. The group was accosted by four armed men, one of whom pushed or threw the immigrant to his death from Davidson Canyon Bridge, three miles east of Vail. The surviving brother was taken to Phoenix and forced to buy his freedom. No arrests have been made, deputies said.

Heaney said he has not heard of any established link among the various cases.

Sheriff’s detectives are working with DPS investigators and the Border Patrol to come up with a plan to fight migrant smuggler violence, he added.

“My concern is we need to end this thing before it gets more out of control, because it is out of control,” Heaney said.

Investigators have not confirmed how many smuggling groups are involved in the Arizona violence, “but we think it’s many,” Heaney said.

“To combat a problem like this absolutely would take a multiagency approach,” said DPS Lt. Jeff Stanhope, in charge of patrol operations in the east Phoenix area. “It would take a lot of intelligence work, probably cooperation with the Mexican government.”

A “significant announcement” on fighting human smuggling will come next week, said Virginia Kice, a regional spokeswoman for the federal immigration and customs bureau. “Phoenix right now is the busiest hub in the country with regard to human smuggling.”

Investigators yesterday focused on identifying everyone involved in the I-10 spree , said Mike Minter, Pinal County Sheriff’s Office spokesman. “The coyotes are trying to act like they are undocumented aliens. We don’t know who is who yet.”

No one has been charged in the slayings. Tom DeRouchey, special agent in charge of the bureau for the area, said 27 immigrants were captured after the gunfight, and five of those are suspected of being shooters or smugglers. Except for those who were hospitalized, all are being held at a federal detention center in Florence.

The freeway spree began about 8:30 a.m. when a gray van pulled alongside a green Ford Explorer and a brown Ford pickup truck as the vehicles headed west toward Phoenix, Minter said in a statement. Occupants of the van started shooting at people in the other two vehicles, Minter said.

Minter’s statement said the pickup, packed with 18 people, was struck at least 28 times by gunfire and veered off the freeway’s right side and stopped.

The pickup’s driver and three passengers, all men, were killed by gunfire.

A man driving the Explorer and a woman passenger were wounded. The two got out when the sport utility vehicle stopped near the pickup or they were dumped there by another occupant.

The Explorer, with four people still in it, continued on until it was stopped by a DPS officer and a bureau agent on I-10 in the Casa Grande area.

The van, with four men in it, was driven on until its driver got off the interstate. The van had a flat tire.

Three Border Patrol agents and a search dog were sent to where the van was found abandoned and tracked footprints leading away from it until they found four men, took them into custody and turned them over to Pinal County deputies, said Border Patrol spokesman Rob Daniels.

Eleven other immigrants were found near the shooting scene, authorities said.

Citizen Staff Writer Gabriela Rico and The Arizona Republic contributed to this report.

PHOTO CREDIT: The Associated Press

CUTLINE: A suspect sticks his tongue out as he is taken away by a law enforcement officer after he and three others suspected of shooting eight people along Interstate 10 were arrested near Casa Grande. Four people were found shot to death along the freeway Tuesday and five others were wounded in a dispute that apparently involved immigrant smugglers, officials said.

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