Immigrant shooting motive elusive

Investigators are focusing on 3 theories

By Daniel González and Brent Whiting
The Arizona Republic Oct. 29, 2002

Authorities are searching for something more than the eight bodies found so far in a killing field west of Phoenix.

They're also looking for a motive for what Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio has described as a brutal string of execution-style slayings.

Three possibilities have emerged: drug trafficking, alien smuggling or warnings to immigrants by racist vigilantes not to cross the border.

No evidence has been uncovered to support the latter theory, but nothing is being ruled out, said Lt. J.J. Tuttle, a spokesman for Arpaio's office. Tuttle said investigators also were to meet with Pinal County sheriff's deputies to check for any link to a shootout Oct. 16 n ear Red Rock, about 35 miles northeast of Tucson.

Two men were killed when gunmen opened fire on a group of illegal border crossers.

Search continues

In the meantime, Maricopa County sheriff's deputies and posse members were out over the weekend looking for more bodies in about a 20-square-mile desert area north of Buckeye that is north of Miller Road and Interstate 10. None was found, deputies said.

It's the area where eight bodies have been found since March with the victims' hands tied behind their backs before being shot multiple times with a semiautomatic weapon, deputies said.

Arpaio has asked the Mexican attorney general for help in solving the killings, said Alan Hubbard, an administrative officer with the Mexican counsel general's office in Phoenix.

Mexican officials are still trying to identify three of the victims, Hubbard said. Four have been positively identified as Mexican nationals, and officials believe a fifth is probably from Mexico, he said. Another victim was from Ecuador, he said.

Nothing ruled out

The Mexican counsel general's office has received dozens of telephone calls during the past week from people in Mexico wondering whether some of the dead could be relatives who disappeared crossing the border, he said.

Hubbard said the Mexican counsel general's office has not ruled out the possibility that the victims were part of a drug-trafficking operation or that they were killed by human smugglers trying to extort money from their families.

Emilia Bañuelos, a Phoenix immigration attorney and founder of the group Justice for Long-term Immigrants of Arizona, said in the past year she has heard of four or five cases where smugglers held immigrants hostage in safe houses while they tried to extort money from their families.

"They will call and say, 'We have your family member,' and now instead of $1,500, they want $3,000. If they don't get it, they'll threaten them and say, 'You're not going to see this person again,' " Bañuelos said.

But the group's coordinator, Jose Carlos, who declined to give his last name, said while coyotes, or human smugglers, occasionally demand more money, he doubts they are behind the killings.

The deaths more likely are related to narcotics traffickers, he said. But there is also fear among many immigrants that a vigilante group may be taking immigrants out into the desert and killing them to send a message to others not to cross the border.

"It's not just fear, it's a panic," he said. "There are Mexicans being killed, and no one is doing anything about it."

In Tucson, human-rights advocates last week called for a federal investigation into the fatal shooting of two immigrants and a vigilante group's seizure of drugs near the U.S.-Mexico border.

Pinal County authorities speculated that the group was caught in a turf battle between rival gangs of coyotes, but human-rights advocates have speculated that vigilantes may be responsible because the shooters reportedly were wearing camouflage.

Glenn Spencer, 65, president of American Patrol, an anti-immigration group based in Sierra Vista, said it is "outrageous" to blame so-called vigilante groups for the killings.

"I believe there is a tendency for those who seek open borders to defeat any attempt at controlling the borders," Spencer said.

Border policy at fault

Isabel Garcia, 49, a public defender in Pima County and co-chairwoman of the Human Rights Coalition/Indigenous Alliance Without Borders, is one of the human-rights advocates who suggests vigilantes may have been responsible for the Red Rock killings. She also blames U.S. border policies.

"We've never heard of coyotes killing people, but the point is, who has created this very dangerous and lucrative business? Our policy," Garcia said.

But Hubbard, of the Mexican counsel general's office in Phoenix, said there is nothing to indicate a vigilante group had anything to do with the killings.

"We can't rule that out, but nothing has pointed in that direction," Hubbard said. "That wasn't the first thing that pops into our minds or the second or the third."