“A lot of angry, militant white men on the border sitting like hunters,” a former detective warns, as the number of unsolved murders piles up.
The mountains near here rise as jagged and unforgiving obstacles on the horizon for immigrants and smugglers who cross the border by moonlight and make their way northward along the foothills, stopping in the cypress groves for rest. It’s a natural passage and the easiest route to travel.
But it was also here, on April 8, that a group of what was described as four white men wearing camouflage opened fire on a packed truck carrying immigrants illegally into the country, killing two of them. The victims, Gerardo Perez-Ruiz from the central Mexican city of Toluca and another man believed to be from Guatemala, were part of a group of 20 to 30 immigrants driving through a remote desert wash near Eloy when the group of gunmen suddenly appeared.
According to statements provided by five surviving immigrants, the gunmen yelled, “Alto!” — “Halt!” — as the truck neared, then fired their weapons before disappearing without another word into the pre-dawn darkness.
The murders this spring were not the first in the smuggling corridor near Eloy. In fact, they bear distinct similarities to the killings of four immigrants in the area in 2007 — high-profile incidents that accelerated fears that U.S.-born vigilantes had begun a shooting war meant to turn back the tide of undocumented immigrants.
For more than 10 years now, the bulk of undocumented immigrants from the south have poured across the Arizona border, pushed by a change in U.S. border policy from the coastal cities and states into the far more treacherous Sonora Desert crossing. Partly as a result, the number of those dying, or being killed, as they cross the border has accelerated dramatically. Between 2004 and 2011, an average of 223 bodies of migrants have been found every year in just the Tucson Sector, now the busiest section of the border — and that doesn’t include hundreds of skeletonized remains. Although most of the deaths certainly were the result of searing heat, in hundreds of cases, the victims’ remains were too rotted to be sure.
The recent shootings near Eloy, coupled with the murders in January and February of 2007, have raised these worries again. An internal Department of Homeland Security (DHS) report from the earlier period, obtained by the Report, said the 2007 shootings were likely connected to each other. And in the second incident that year, police found two men with non-Hispanic names “concealed in the brush” nearby watching the police response — a “curious” fact, the DHS report said.
Through it all, most Arizona authorities have dismissed virtually all the non-weather-related deaths as the result of attacks by drug and human smugglers — and there is little doubt that that is behind some of the mayhem. But many activists and at least some in law enforcement fear that a small but committed cadre of hard-core extremists on the border may actually be engaging in murder.
Matt Browning, a retired Mesa police detective who spent years undercover infiltrating racist border and neo-Nazi skinhead groups, is one of them.
“In Arizona, we might not have Hammerskins or Volksfront or the Klan,” Browning said, referencing some of the more prominent contemporary white supremacist groups. “What we do have is a lot of angry, militant white men on the border sitting like hunters waiting for these people to come across.”