Reporting from Antelope Peak, Ariz., and Phoenix — A Pinal County sheriff's deputy was shot by an apparent drug smuggler and suffered a superficial wound Friday night in an encounter sure to inflame passions in the state that recently passed the toughest law against illegal immigration in the country.
Arizona has been fiercely criticized for the new law, which makes it a state crime to lack immigration paperwork and requires police to determine whether people they stop are in the country legally.
Opponents have contended that the law will force police to racially profile people. Its backers deny that and say lawmakers were forced to act by incidents like Friday's shooting. Arizona is the top entry point for illegal immigrants crossing the Mexican border, and the shooting took place along a well-known drug smuggling route.
Paul Senseman, a spokesman for Gov. Jan Brewer, who signed the law last week, said the governor deplored "the horrendous violence, drug trafficking and human smuggling due to Arizona's insecure border."
He said Brewer was outraged "that Arizona must act on its own if the federal government continues to fail us as it did again today."
Lt. Tamatha Villar said that Deputy Louie Puroll, 53, was patrolling on his own along a stretch of Interstate 8 that runs through the empty desert south of Phoenix about 4 p.m. when he saw five men on foot hauling a load of marijuana. The moment Puroll left his vehicle, he was shot.
The bullet grazed Puroll's stomach. He was flown to a hospital and was expected to be released late Friday. The gunman and other men fled, and a massive search was underway well after sunset.
The route is where smugglers frequently run drugs from Mexico up to Interstate 8, where they are picked up and driven west into California, say law enforcement officials familiar with the area.
In March, an apparent smuggler shot and killed a rancher, Robert Krentz, on the rancher's property just north of the Mexican border in southeastern Arizona. The killing helped galvanize support for the new anti-illegal- immigration law. Supporters have regularly cited the Krentz case and the cases of two Phoenix police officers killed by illegal immigrants since 2007.