Authorities searching for drug smugglers who shot and wounded an Arizona sheriff’s deputy in the desert south of Phoenix said they captured 17 suspected illegal immigrants Saturday, including three who may have been involved in the incident.
The three matched descriptions given by the Pinal County sheriff’s deputy who was grazed by a bullet fired by a group of about five smugglers were questioned but were not believed to have been the actual shooters, sheriff’s Lt. Tamatha Villar said.
The deputy was released from the hospital several hours after the Friday afternoon incident. He is expected to return to work next week.
The shooting came amid a growing national debate over the state’s new law cracking down on illegal immigration. A backlash over the law has erupted, with civil rights activists, concerned it will lead to racial profiling, calling for protests and boycotts.
Several hundred officers from local, state and federal law enforcement agencies, assisted by several helicopters, scoured a 10-square-mile area of rugged desert about 50 miles south of Phoenix on Saturday. The search was called off as darkness fell.
The U.S. Border Patrol searched areas outside the perimeter and made additional arrests of suspected illegal immigrants. “Their numbers are much, much higher,” Villar said.
A Border Patrol spokesman said he couldn’t immediately ascertain how many detentions his agency made.
Criticism of the law figured prominently at dozens of immigrants rights marches and rallies held on Saturday across the nation, including Arizona events in Phoenix and Tucson that drew thousands.
The new law’s passage came amid increasing anger in Arizona about violence, drug smugglers and illegal immigration drop houses.
The issue gained renewed attention a month ago when a southern Arizona rancher was shot and killed by a suspected illegal border crosser.
Arizona politicians called the shooting an outrage and urged the federal government to do more to secure the U.S.-Mexico border.
The violence “should show the rest of the country what we Arizonans have known for too long – the unsecured border poses a very real and very immediate danger,” said U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, a Democrat whose district includes part of Pinal County.
Deputy Louie Puroll, 53, was patrolling near Interstate 8 when he came upon a stash of marijuana bales and five suspected smugglers. At least one of the suspects opened fire on him.
A running gunbattle ensued, with at least 30 shots exchanged, probably many more, Villar said. The deputy used his pistol until it either jammed or ran out of bullets, then discarded the gun and began firing with his tactical rifle.
At some point, he was hit in the back, the bullet tearing out a chunk of flesh. The deputy believes it is likely that he shot one of the smugglers, but searchers have found no evidence of that.
Puroll used his cell phone to call dispatchers for help, setting off a frantic hourlong search for the deputy in the remote desert, Villar said.
The area is a well-known smuggling corridor for drugs and illegal immigrants headed from Mexico to Phoenix and the U.S. interior.
There were reports that at least one helicopter came under fire during the manhunt on Friday, but Villar said Saturday that report has been largely discounted.
Puroll, a 15-year department veteran, had been on the lookout for smugglers when he discovered the suspected smugglers, two armed with rifles, authorities said.
Pinal County sheriff Paul Babeu has been warning of increased violence in the smuggling corridor where the deputy was shot.
“The stakes are higher,” Villar said Saturday. “As the violence increases on the border, as cartels continue to fight over land, and ownership rights of land to move their drugs and people through, we’re going continue to see these and we’re going to continue to see the violence escalate if we don’t take swift action.”