A sign in Arivaca warns travelers of encounters with border-crossers. Smugglers carry marijuana to drop-off points and walk back into Mexico.

A brazen attack on a drug ripoff crew in a Southern Arizona mountain range last year left one man shot in the knees and six men sentenced to prison terms.

Federal prosecutors said a hitman working for a Mexican drug cartel was hired to exact revenge on a rival group that stole a load of marijuana the day before, according to a sentencing memorandum filed in U.S. District Court in Tucson.

The May 2016 incidents resulted in the first prosecutions of a Southern Arizona “rip crew” shooting since at least 2011, said Francisco Burrola, deputy special agent in charge in Tucson for Homeland Security Investigations, the lead agency in the investigation.

Violence among criminals often goes unreported, but a shooting between a rip crew and hit men is “not a common thing,” Burrola said.

Border Patrol agents who responded May 2 to the remote area near Cyprus Mine in the Santa Rosa Mountains southwest of Casa Grande found Francisco Lizarraga Hernandez with gunshot wounds in his knees and Jose Hernandez Flores, who had called 911 asking for medical help.

The agents also found 500 pounds of marijuana, two AK-47 style rifles, ammunition magazines, a pistol, and a bullet-proof vest, according to a criminal complaint.

The incident led to the arrest of six men, two of whom were part of the rip crew that stole the marijuana and four involved in the shooting the next day. The final two defendants were sentenced Thursday in U.S. District Court in Tucson.

Lizarraga Hernandez told agents he and Hernandez Flores, each armed with an AK-47, stole a marijuana load from a group of smugglers working for the Pariente drug-trafficking organization, court records show.

They were guided by a man in Mexico who knew where the drug load would be crossing the desert. When the group of backpackers arrived, Lizarraga Hernandez said he and Hernandez Flores ran toward them, shooting their firearms into the air.

After the robbery, the guide of the backpacking group, Severo Nieblas Diaz, called Pedro Ojeda Ramirez to recover the marijuana, federal prosecutor Serra Tsethlikai wrote in a sentencing memorandum, describing Ojeda Ramirez as a “sicario, a hit man, an assassin.”

The next day, Ojeda Ramirez, Vidal Quinones Gonzalez, and Ulises Saijas Zamorano, armed with an AK-47 style rifle, an M-1 style rifle, and a pistol, positioned themselves on a hill overlooking the stolen marijuana and started shooting at the two men guarding the load, Tsethlikai wrote.

Ojeda Ramirez was arrested about three miles from the site of the shooting. He told agents he was a scout for the Cusa drug-trafficking organization and volunteered to recover the load for an extra $2,000.

A few weeks after the shooting, then-Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu held a news conference and issued a warning to travelers for the Memorial Day weekend about rip crews stealing drug loads in shootouts.

Three days after the shooting, a Pinal County deputy stopped a white Ford F-150 on Sunland Gin Road south of Interstate 10 for a traffic violation. Inside, the deputy found 13 people who were in the country illegally.

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One of the men inside the truck told authorities he and the other occupants of the truck were the backpackers shot at days earlier.

Another man in the truck was Saijas Zamorano, one of the shooters. He told agents he was a scout who had helped guide about 10 backpacking groups in the previous two weeks, including the group that was ambushed by the rip crew.

Ojeda Ramirez did not have a criminal history and was not identified as the shooter, defense lawyer Annamarie Valdivia said at the sentencing hearing. If he had not taken responsibility, he likely would have won at trial.

“You’ve already sentenced the people who were the real villains here,” Valdivia said.

A witness to the incidents refused to testify after being threatened by co-defendant Nieblas, the guide of the backpacking group who called in Ojeda Ramirez, Tsethlikai said.

Valdivia said it was “shocking” that although Nieblas ordered the assault, he was offered a plea deal that resulted in a five-year sentence.

The men faced drug-trafficking and firearms charges. Ojeda and Lizarraga Hernandez were sentenced to about 12 years in prison; Hernandez Flores and Quinones Gonzalez, 10 years; Nieblas and Saijas Zamorano, 5 years. 

NOTE: This story originally misstated the sentences for Francisco Lizarraga Hernandez and Jose Hernandez Flores. Their sentences have been corrected. 

Contact reporter Curt Prendergast at 573-4224 or cprendergast@tucson.com. On Twitter:

@CurtTucsonStar