MARICOPA COUNTY, Ariz. — When their time came, the men were brought to these rough washes of bleached sand and broken rock. They died in a place that feels bottomless, where nothing but the echo of passing jets breaks the desert silence and there is nobody around to hear gunshots or cries or crunching tires.
Eight migrants have been shot dead since March in a desolate patch of rattlesnake holes and scraggly paloverde trees where Interstate 10 rolls west out of Phoenix. Their hands were pulled back and bound with handcuffs, duct tape or the waistband of their own jockey shorts. They were shot at close range, their bodies left to mummify in the sun.
"I call these executions," said Sheriff Joseph M. Arpaio. "I believe they were tied up, driven to that area and killed. It was brazen; they didn't try to bury the bodies. They're trying to send a message."
The trouble is, there are no known witnesses and no leads -- just an inscrutable landscape that swallows footprints and tire tracks as if they were never there. A mounted posse is hunting for more bodies. Meanwhile, officials are baffled over what the killings portend.
"Everyone has their theories," says Alan Hubbard, director of protection for the Mexican consulate in Phoenix.
Maybe it's drug warfare, or turf battles between immigrant smuggling organizations, or some combination of the two. The slayings could be punishment for migrants unable to cough up the fees they owe their smugglers, or graphic calling cards from Arizona's notorious anti-immigration vigilantes. Arizona's migrants are in the midst of the deadliest year in history -- at least 169 Mexicans have died trying to cross the state's brutal desert since January.
In this new mystery, worried investigators see a harbinger of bloodier days -- a sign that the ruthless warfare that periodically rages along the border has crept deep into the United States.
"Never, never have we had a pattern of execution-style murders in this area," Arpaio said. "Why would I be stupid enough to say I have eight murders I can't solve? Because in my mind I think we have a dead end. We're just not getting anywhere."
In a daunting vacuum of information, there is little to investigate but the victims themselves. And so, in a sketchy group of dead migrants, investigators are struggling to discern a pattern. They compare fingerprints with immigration records, scour pockets for scrawled addresses, hand photographs over to the Mexican government to be posted south of the border.
One of the bodies was so badly decomposed that investigators have meager hope of pulling even a name from the remains. And even when prints match an immigration record, it can cause confusion: Migrants often give fake names to authorities. "We had one man call us from Mexico and say, 'That's my brother, but you've got the wrong name,' " Hubbard said.
Most of the men were born in Mexico; the only exception identified so far is Daniel Vargas Baena, a 19-year-old from Ecuador. When the consulate phoned a Mexican woman whose number was jotted on a slip of paper in the dead man's pocket, she said she sneaked with Vargas Baena into the United States. The Border Patrol caught them, though, and the pair lost touch.
Two of the slain men were locked up for drug charges in the same cell of the county jail last summer. And in two of the killings, the gunman fired a .38 Super, a gun that used to be a weapon of choice in Mexico. Beyond those faint connections, the victims are a baffling assortment. Tracking down their families is tough; convincing them to talk is even more difficult.
It was this very phenomenon that inspired the Immigration and Naturalization Service to ignore the immigration status of witnesses who came forth with leads during the hunt for the Washington, D.C.-area sniper. Looking on from Arizona, Arpaio's temper smoldered.
The sheriff sat down and penned a letter to the INS. In it, he asked that tipsters who could feed his investigation be given the same protection granted to potential Washington witnesses.
"The loss of life in Maricopa County is no less regrettable than the murders along the East Coast freeway system," he wrote. "Our intelligence resources indicate that illegal aliens with potential information are reluctant to come forward." The INS agreed to look for ways to cooperate with the sheriff.
Here on the edge of the torrential streams of people and goods that run between Mexico and the United States, officials read disappearances, arrests and drug busts like augurs. The crimes are glimpses into the illicit trade lines that lace the two nations.
Arpaio, who for years prowled among drug traffickers as DEA director in Mexico City, has rigged an intelligence network throughout Maricopa County. Drawing on those sources, he says some gangs of "coyotes" that had been exclusively preoccupied with the smuggling of illegal immigrants have expanded their enterprise to run dope as well. "We feel there's a war going on," he said.