Smugglers trafficking in illegal immigrants opened fire on a rival group on an Arizona interstate Tuesday, killing four people and wounding five, authorities said. Four people were later arrested in the desert.
The shootings began as smugglers traveling in a van chased down an SUV and a pickup truck carrying the other smugglers and several illegal immigrants between Tucson and Phoenix, said Pinal County Sheriff Roger Vanderpool. The pursuing group shot into the other vehicles numerous times.
"This was clearly a retaliation to send a message," Vanderpool said.
Vanderpool said the gunmen opened fire because the other group had taken the smugglers' human cargo earlier. He didn't have any other details late Tuesday.
"This tragic incident underscores how ruthless and violent organized smuggling has become," said Thomas DeRouchey, special agent with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. "The smugglers' only motive is money. They don't care about the human cost."
Migrant smuggling is getting more dangerous as violent drug dealers move into the lucrative business of bringing immigrants from Mexico into Arizona, one of the most-active illegal entry points on the U.S.-Mexico border.
An increasing number of smugglers are holding immigrants hostage in the United States until they or their families pay up. Rival gangs of criminals also steal immigrants away from smugglers and hold them for ransom, officials said.
In Tuesday's shooting, four suspects were arrested after they allegedly abandoned the van and fled on foot in the desert near Chandler. Three firearms were found in the vehicle.