PHOENIX – A shooting in the Arizona desert where officials say camouflaged gunmen opened fire on a group of illegal immigrants has left authorities to investigate whether the attack that left two dead was the work of vigilantes or border bandits.
The men who were killed Sunday were part of a group of 20 to 30 illegal immigrants crammed in a full-sized pickup driving in a wash in the remote desert outside of Eloy, about halfway between Phoenix and Tucson.
Investigators have no suspects in custody, and they don’t yet know who is responsible, Pima County sheriff’s Deputy Dawn Barkman said Thursday.
Five immigrants among the group later told investigators that as they were driving Sunday night, two or more camouflage-clad gunmen appeared and yelled “Alto!” Spanish for “Stop,” fired at them and ran away, Barkman said.
She declined to say whether the truck stopped or its driver tried to flee, or how long the gunmen fired on the immigrants.
Of the 20 to 30 immigrants in the truck at the time of the shooting, most fled into the desert and got away from authorities.
The five immigrants who were found hiding in nearby brush, who are all from Mexico, described the ambush, but they couldn’t say exactly how many shooters there were.
Barkman said it was too dark for them to see their attackers. They were turned over to the Border Patrol.
The shooting is similar to a handful of fatal shootings in 2007, including one in March of that year in which a woman and her brother-in-law were found dead by Pima County sheriff’s deputies after men with high-powered weapons opened fire on a truck loaded with 21 other immigrants about 25 miles south of Tucson. The men were part of a so-called “rip” crew looking to rob other smugglers of drug loads.
In a similar attack in February 2007, gunmen believed to be rival smugglers opened fire on a truck carrying about 20 immigrants, killing two men, and a suspected smuggler who was driving a vehicle was killed and a 12-year-old boy was wounded when four men wearing camouflage uniforms and berets and armed with at least one assault weapon stopped the vehicle in a farm field.
The uptick in violence in 2007 prompted the Pima County Sheriff’s Office to form two units targeting immigration-related violence the same year.
Barkman said the office believes those units have helped decrease border violence in recent years.
In Sunday’s shooting, Barkman identified one of the men killed as 39-year-old Gerardo Perez-Ruiz from the central Mexican city of Toluca. The other man killed is believed to be Guatemalan, and authorities are working to identify him and notify his family of his death.
Barkman said Perez-Ruiz was traveling with a brother and another family member, possibly a cousin, and that the men unsuccessfully tried to revive him after he was shot.