VEKOL VALLEY, Ariz. – Five bodies burned beyond recognition have been found inside the shell of a charred sport utility vehicle in the Arizona desert, and Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu said Saturday the case is likely connected to drug cartel violence.
The bodies and vehicle were found in the Vekol Valley, a rugged, mountainous desert area that's a well-known smuggling corridor for drugs and illegal immigrants headed from Mexico to Phoenix and the U.S. interior.
The bodies were so badly burned that investigators couldn't immediately determine their gender or ethnicity. While it's unclear whether the victims were from Mexico, the sheriff's office has notified the Mexican Consulate.
"Given all these indicators, you don't have to be a homicide detective to add up all this information," Babeu said.
A Border Patrol agent first spotted the white Ford Expedition driving at around 4:30 a.m.
The vehicle disappeared despite an effort by federal and local authorities to track it down. Why the vehicle first drew attention from authorities is unclear.
At daybreak, an agent spotted tracks leading from Interstate 8 into the desert. The vehicle that left the tracks had apparently launched off the highway, going airborne for a short distance before landing in the desert. The tracks continued on for a couple of miles.
Agents could see the smoldering vehicle from a distance through binoculars.
They approached with extinguishers. Inside, they found the bodies -- one in the rear passenger seat and four lying in the back cargo compartment. The front seats were empty, Babeu said.
Babeu said investigators will try to determine whether the victims were dead before the SUV was set ablaze or whether they were alive when the fire was started.
"Clearly these people were murdered, but we don't know the manner of death," he said.
The sheriff said the extent of the violence, particularly in the western part of the county -- about 35 miles south of Phoenix -- is more evidence that drug smuggling north of the border hasn't subsided.
Pinal County deputies were involved in more than 350 high-speed pursuits last year, and Babeu said most of those involved cartel members. There have been shootings, the bodies of murder victims have been left in the desert and just this week, several loads of drugs were confiscated, he said.