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Drug cartels suspected in 5 Arizona desert deaths

The white sport utility vehicle was first spotted winding its way through the rugged desert mountains of southern Arizona about 4:30 a.m. Saturday. Federal and local authorities gave chase, but by the time they found it, it was too late for five people aboard.

Four hours after the initial spotting by a Border Patrol agent, authorities found the smoldering wreckage of the Ford Expedition where it had gone off the road in the Vekol Valley. The five bodies inside were burned beyond recognition.

The area is known as a popular route for smugglers of both illegal immigrants and drugs, but it was not immediately clear whether the deaths involved either. However, Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu said he suspected the case was connected to Mexican drug cartel violence.

“We definitely believe this was five people who were murdered,” Babeu said. “We don’t see this kind of violence. We’ve seen bodies dumped and vehicles torched, but our experience here in Pinal County is this is likely connected to some kind of drug trafficking, possibly to the cartels. It’s very concerning.”

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Babeu said investigators believe the SUV discovered at 8:30 a.m. was the same vehicle that had earlier fled from Border Patrol agents.

At daybreak, the agent spotted tracks leading into the desert off Interstate 8, a known drug and human smuggling corridor, Babeu said.

Investigators believe the driver may have dumped the SUV and fled, Babeu said.

“It was still smoldering,” he said.

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Inside the car, agents found one body in the back passenger seat and four others lying in the rear cargo compartment, Babeu said. The bodies were burned beyond recognition, as was the license plate. The driver’s seat and front passenger seat were empty.

“We don’t know the nationality, they were so badly burned,” Babeu said. “We’re still trying to determine the gender.”

He said investigators were working with Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and had contacted the Mexican Consulate in Tucson, in case the dead were Mexican nationals.

The bodies had been turned over to the local medical examiner late Saturday, but Babeu said their cause of death was still unclear.

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Babeu said his county, a rural area between Phoenix and Tucson that is home to about 4,000 people, saw 350 high-speed pursuits along the corridor last year alone, and what he called the largest drug bust in state history last year. That case resulted in 76 arrests and the seizure of more than 100 weapons.

“The cartels control the drug trafficking along that corridor,” he said. But he noted that so far, none of the cartels had taken responsibility for the deaths.

No weapons or drugs were recovered from the scene, and it was unclear what started the fire in the car, he said, but he noted: “This was very deliberate.”

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molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com


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