(VEKOL VALLEY, Ariz.) — Five people found burned beyond recognition in an abandoned SUV in an area of Arizona frequented by smugglers were likely the victims of one of the same drug cartels that have ravaged parts of Mexico with their rampant violence, the local sheriff said today.
A border patrol agent noticed a white Ford Expedition stopping around 4:30 a.m. Saturday in Vekol Valley, a desert area that’s a well-known smuggling corridor for drugs and illegal immigrants from Mexico. Suspecting the car stopped to pick up drugs, the agent tried to make contact with the vehicle, but the vehicle fled.
When the sun came up, the agent noticed car tracks leading off-road and followed them for a couple miles into the desert. The agent found a smoldering vehicle and called for back-up. When other agents arrived, they used fire extinguishers to put out the fire and found five charred bodies inside the car, police say.
“This is pretty significant,” Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu said. “Given all these indicators, you don’t have to be a homicide detective to add up all this information.”
One victim was found in the sedan’s rear passenger seat and four others in the back cargo compartment, their bodies burned beyond recognition.
Investigators had not yet determined whether the bodies were bound, the sheriff said
Babeu told ABC News that it’s likely others fled the scene.
“There wasn’t somebody in the front driver’s seat or in the front passenger’s seat and the position of the bodies lead us to believe that there’s likely other people that were there,” Babeu said.
Babeu said the deaths are being investigated as homicides.
“The vehicle was stopped in an open area. It did not crash into something. Clearly whoever murdered these people did it intentionally,” he said. “They brought them there either alive or dead and torched the vehicle in an effort to conceal evidence.”
Babeu said the incident is likely a case of drug cartel violence.
“This is more than likely connected to drug smuggling,” he said. “It’s not likely human smuggling because most of the time if illegals are no longer of use or too slow for the rest of the group, they’re left to fend for themselves or die. We don’t see many cases where illegals are killed. They’re usually only killed if they put up a fight as they’re being robbed.
“This is more likely either punishment on criminals who tried to steal from the cartels or some competing interest in a criminal element.”
Babeu said investigators will try to determine whether the victims were dead before the fire was started or whether they were alive when the SUV was set ablaze.
The Vekol Valley is located 70 miles north of the U.S.-Mexican border. Babeu called the area a “hotbed for human and drug smuggling.”
The federal government put up 15 billboards that read “Danger Warning, Travel Not Recommended, Drug Smuggling, Active and Armed Gunmen” in the area along Interstate 8.
Last year, the Vekol Valley was the site of the largest drug bust in the history of Arizona.
Seventy-six members of the Sinaloa cartel were arrested in the bust, known as Operation Pipeline Express. The suspects had 108 weapons, including scoped rifles, AK47s and two weapons from the U.S. government’s Fast and Furious program.
The controversial program, run by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, was designed to track guns bought in the United States by strawmen and delivered to drug cartels in Mexico, in an attempt to catch the cartel higher-ups. Begun in 2009, it was shut down after the December 2010 murder of U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry, who was killed with a weapon sold through the program.
Babeu said the fact that the Fast and Furious guns were found in the possession of the Sinaloa cartel members is a sign that the program is “criminal.”
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Tom LoBianco, Deirdre Walsh and Tal Kopan, CNN
Seth Fiegerman, CNN
Azadeh Ansari and Joe Sutton, CNN