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2 sentenced for roles in drug-related desert shootout

A 2016 desert shooting between bandits and cartel scouts in a remote part of the Tohono O'odham Nation led to the prosecution of six men, two of whom were sentenced in Tucson by a federal judge Thursday. 

Following plea agreements made with federal prosecutors in the fall, Pedro Ojeda-Ramirez, 24, and Ulises Alaim Saijas-Zamorano, 22, both from Mexico, were sentenced by U.S. District Judge Cindy K. Jorgenson to prison terms of 140 months and 60 months, respectively, said Cosme Lopez, a spokesman with the U.S. Department of Justice.

Both men previously pleaded guilty to conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute marijuana, and Ojeda-Ramirez also pleaded guilty to possession of a firearm during a drug trafficking crime, said Lopez. 

On May 2, 2016 Ojeda-Ramirez, Saijas-Zamorano, and another man, were working as armed scouts, helping to guide men muling drugs through the desert near the Santa Rosa Mountains, about 50 miles northwest of Tucson in Pinal County. 

According to court documents, Ojeda-Ramirez told agents with Homeland Security Investigation, a part of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, that he was working for a drug trafficking group and that a man, known only as "El 4," told him that a "rip crew"—people who steal drugs from smugglers for later sale— had stolen marijuana from the cartel, and that he would pay Ojeda-Ramirez an extra $2,000 to retrieve the drugs. 

Armed with AK-47-patterned rifles, Ojeda-Ramirez and Saijas-Zamorano, along with two other men, climbed the mountain and found two bajadores or "bandits," guarding 10 bundles containing nearly 500 pounds of marijuana.  

The three men fired their rifles, seriously wounding one man, who was hit in the legs, said Ojeda-Ramirez in a plea agreement submitted to the court. 

After the shooting, the men heard helicopters, so they took off running and Ojeda-Ramirez threw his weapon away, he said. 

One of the men managed to make a 911 call to the Pinal County Sheriff's Department, who immediately forwarded the call to U.S. Border Patrol agents at the Casa Grande station. According to the complaint submitted against Ojeda-Ramirez, agents could hear gunfire on the call. 

Border Patrol agents, backed with a helicopter from Air and Marine Operations launched a search, eventually finding Javier Lizerega-Fernandez, who had been shot in both kneecaps. The other man was also apprehended, according to the complaint. 

After determining that the two men were bandits who had stolen the drugs from rival drug traffickers, agents searched for the other men, eventually tracking down Ojeda-Ramirez less than three miles from the scene. 

According to the complaint submitted against Saijas-Zamorano, a few days later, near Arizona City, Ariz., a Pinal County sheriff's deputy stopped a Ford pickup truck containing 13 men, all suspected of being in the country without authorization. 

As they were processed, another man told Border Patrol agents that Saijas-Zamorano was one of the men involved in the shooting. An HSI agent interviewed Saijas-Zamorano, and he admitted that he was drug scout and had previously helped guide around 10 groups of smugglers through the mountains over a 15 day period. 

Another man, who said he was carrying drugs identified Saijas-Zamorano as one of the shooters. 

Along with Ojeda-Ramirez and Saijas-Zamorano, four other defendants pleaded guilty to related drug and firearm offenses, and received prison terms ranging from 60 to 140 months, said the U.S. Attorney's office. 

The prosecutions were handled by Assistant U.S. Attorney Serra M. Tsethlikai in Tucson, and the investigation included HSI, Border Patrol and the Tohono O'odham Police Department. 

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Bundles of marijuana found with six men in January 2015 by Tucson Sector Border Patrol agents in the desert near a Gila River Indian community in Pinal County.