PHOENIX -- Jorge Zubia and his family were having a relaxing holiday trip until they saw the muzzle flashes.
A man hanging out of a car window on an urban stretch of interstate opened fire on their rented van. With his family crouching in the back and his front tires flattened by bullets, Zubia struggled to keep the van under control.
But three vehicles boxed Zubia in and forced him to the side of the road, where a gunman tried to open the van's locked doors. Zubia's terrified relatives yelled at the gunman, asking him what he wanted.
Then the caravan drove off.
"I had with me what I most love in the world," Zubia said. "If they had succeeded in opening the door, they would have hurt us."
Police suspect immigrant smugglers were responsible for the ambush in Phoenix and at least five other roadway attacks last year in Arizona on families who have nothing to do with the smuggling trade.
Smugglers who make money bringing people across the Mexican border into Arizona have taken to kidnapping illegal immigrants from rivals and holding them for ransom. But sometimes the smugglers mistake traveling families -- almost always Hispanics -- for smuggled immigrants.
"These people were truly innocent victims," said Ken Witkowski, acting chief of the Gila River Police Department, an agency 40 miles south of Phoenix that investigated four such attacks last year.
In recent years, immigrant smuggling has grown more dangerous, with smuggling-related kidnappings and killings in the Phoenix area on the rise.
In a dispute between rival gangs of immigrant smugglers in Arizona, four people were killed and several wounded in a shooting involving three moving vehicles on Interstate 10 south of Phoenix, which has become a hub for illegal immigration in recent years because of tighter patrols along the border in California and Texas.
The mistaken-identity attacks pose an enormous threat, police said. Immigrants, smugglers, families, and passing motorists could get shot, and the ambushes could lead to high-speed wrecks involving other cars.
"The potential for something catastrophic to happen is high," said Phoenix Detective Tony Morales. "I'm surprised we haven't already had that happen."
Immigration officials say they have not heard of such attacks elsewhere in the Southwest.
The attacks have usually come late at night on or near Interstate 10, which runs through Arizona's two biggest cities, Phoenix and Tucson. Police said smugglers probably look for vans and other vehicles capable of carrying groups of people.
In the attack on Zubia's van, eight members of the Zubia family and a friend were traveling from El Paso, Texas, to Mira Loma, Calif., when they were ambushed on July 3.
The attackers fire at the tires before using cars to try to force over their victims. The families always resist, and none among them has been physically hurt. In all but one of the six cases, the attackers got away.
Police are not certain why the would-be abductors gave up. They may have been scared off by other motorists, encountered more resistance than expected, or realized their victims were not being smuggled, police said.
In the Zubias' case, the gunman "probably realized that it was the wrong van," said 20-year-old Susana Zubia, Zubia's niece.