TUCSON, Ariz. — Deaths of Mexican and other Latin American immigrants trying to cross Arizona’s Sonoran Desert, one of the deadliest deserts in the world, have soared. Since 1999, more than 3,000 people have died trying to make the journey from the Mexican side of the border.

This region has become a virtual war zone, filled with “coyotes” (smugglers of immigrants), drug smugglers, bandits, rapists, hi-tech drone planes, Black Hawk helicopters, Humvees, kidnappings, shootings and death. Yet the migrants still come looking for work, or returning to their jobs.

Along with the heightened sophistication of smuggling operations in response to the increased Border Patrol security measures, several groups of armed vigilantes have sprung up in recent years “to protect” the border by illegally detaining desert travelers.

In 2002, Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) asked that law enforcement shine light on the illegal activities and gross human rights violations these hate groups, hoping that they might “scatter like cockroaches.” It seems, finally, some of these characters, who have acted with virtual impunity for years, are now being scattered like pesky cockroaches.

Glen Spencer, a Californian who came to Arizona to organize yet another anti-immigrant group named “American Border Patrol,” was indicted last year for allegedly shooting into his neighbor’s garage door one night after hearing a noise in his middle class subdivision in Sierra Vista, Ariz. He and a couple of his buddies were kicked off Nature Conservancy land after trespassing overnight and posing as border patrol agents.

Spencer is a good friend of Roger Barnett and his brother Don who warn local residents to “watch for people in the grocery store buying too much tuna or water,” lest they be smugglers. They urge people to call the Border Patrol for any “suspicious activity by your neighbors.” The Barnetts run a towing business, profiting from government contracts to tow cars seized from apprehended migrants. They brag that they have personally detained over 2,000 migrant workers.

Chris Simcox, another Californian who came to Arizona a couple years ago, owns a small newspaper, the Tombstone Tumbleweed, and has written inflammatory articles calling for armed “citizen patrols” along the border. He was arrested last spring for entering a national park area carrying a firearm.

Ranch Rescue is another of these groups now on the defensive. For years, they advertised “Fun in the Sun” and “Easter Hunts,” urging people to park RVs on a ranch near the border and go on armed searches for migrants. Jack Foote, the gun-slinging editor of Soldier of Fortune magazine, who came here on forays from Texas, was arrested Sept. 20 on a charge of illegal possession of a weapon, stemming from a 1996 conviction for domestic violence in Montana.

Casey Nethercott, another member of Ranch Rescue, was arrested for assault for pistol-whipping a man from El Salvador in Texas in March 2003. The Southern Poverty Law Center and the victim are suing Nethercott, the rancher, and Foote. The rancher immediately dropped all affiliation with Ranch Rescue and asked them to leave his property. Nethercott was arrested again Sept. 22 in Douglas, Ariz., and FBI agents shot his “bodyguard,” Kalen Riddle, who had reached toward his belt during the arrest.

The author can be reached at susan@susanthorpe.com.