Image: Officers along Ariz. border
Joshua Lott  /  Reuters
Law enforcement officers and a U.S. Border Patrol helicopter are seen along Interstate 8 after a sheriff's deputy was shot with an AK-47-type weapon by suspected drug smugglers in Arizona on Friday.
updated 5/1/2010 7:30:56 PM ET 2010-05-01T23:30:56

Law officers apprehended 17 suspected illegal immigrants while hunting for suspected pot smugglers who shot and wounded a sheriff's deputy in a remote desert area 50 miles south of Phoenix.

Pinal County sheriff's Lt. Tamatha Villar says three of those captured match descriptions given by the deputy. They were being questioned Saturday morning.

The violent episode came amid nationwide debate over the state's tough new immigration law.

Pinal County Deputy Louie Puroll was patrolling alone Friday afternoon in a rugged area about 50 miles south of Phoenix when he came upon a band of suspected smugglers, authorities said.

At least one of five suspects opened fire on the 53-year-old lawman, tearing a chunk of skin from just above his left kidney. The officer was found after a frantic hourlong search, Pinal County sheriff's Lt. Tamatha Villar said.

The wound was not serious and Puroll was released Friday night from Casa Grande Regional Medical Center.

State and federal law enforcement agencies deployed helicopters and scores of officers to search a 100 square-mile zone for the suspects. The Arizona Republic newspaper reported officials said more than one of the choppers came under fire during the manhunt.

The Pinal Sheriff's department told The Associated Press that the hunt lasted into the early morning hours Saturday but no arrests had been made.

The shooting was likely to add fuel to an already fiery national debate sparked when Gov. Jan Brewer on April 23 signed a law cracking down on illegal immigration in the state.

A backlash over the law has surged with civil rights activists, concerned it will lead to racial profiling, calling for protests and a boycott of the state.

Increasing anger
The new law's passage came amid increasing anger in Arizona about violence, drug smugglers, illegal immigration drop houses and other problems that some say are caused by poor border security. The issue gained focus a month ago when a southern Arizona rancher was shot and killed by a suspected illegal border crosser.

Arizona politicians called Friday's shooting an outrage and urged the federal government to do more to secure the border with Mexico.

Video: Arizona immigration debates rages "Regardless of the outcome of tonight's manhunt and investigation, Arizona is now confronted by some of the most vicious and dangerous narco-terror organizations the world has seen," Brewer said in a statement.

Rep. Kirkpatrick, a Democrat whose district includes part of Pinal County, said the violence "should show the rest of the country what we Arizonans have known for too long — the unsecured border poses a very real and very immediate danger."

Puroll, a 15-year department veteran, had been carrying out smuggling interdiction work before finding the bales of marijuana and encountering the five suspected smugglers, two armed with rifles.

"He was out on his routine daily patrol in the area when he encountered a load of marijuana out in the desert. He obviously confronted the individuals and took fire," Villar told The AP.

The Republic quoted Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu as saying about 30 bullets were fired at the deputy, who returned fire with a semiautomatic rifle and a handgun.

The area is a well-known smuggling corridor for drugs and illegal immigrants headed from Mexico to Phoenix and the U.S. interior.

"(Puroll) is a search-and-rescue deputy, so its not uncommon for them to work those areas A) looking for drugs and B) looking for people who need assistance out there," Villar said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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