(The Blaze/AP) – An Arizona sheriff says five bodies found burned beyond recognition inside the shell of a charred SUV are likely the result of 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 severely burned that investigators couldn't even determine their gender or ethnicity. While it remains uncertain whether the victims were from Mexico, the sheriff's department has notified the Mexican Consulate.
"Given all these indicators, you don't have to be a homicide detective to add up all this information," Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu said Saturday.
A Border Patrol agent first spotted the white Ford Expedition driving at around 4:30 a.m, however, the SUV disappeared and federal and local law enforcement were unable to track it down. It is not clear why the vehicle drew attention from authorities in the first place.
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.
Equipped with fire extinguishers, they approached the vehicle and found the charred corpses inside – one in the rear passenger seat and four lying in the back cargo compartment. The driver and passenger seats were empty. The sheriff's office didn't say whether they got a look at the person driving the vehicle.
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.
Babeu also said the extent of the violence, particularly in the western part of the country – roughly 35 miles south of Phoenix – is more evidence that drug cartels are still operating north of the Mexico border.
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.
As the instances of drug cartel violence continue stacking up inside the United States, the Department of Homeland Security still argues Mexico's drug war has not spilled onto our borders.
DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano has repeatedly praised the Obama Administration and her department for implementing the most effective measures to secure the U.S. border in the country's history.
"The Obama administration has undertaken the most serious and sustained actions to secure our borders in our nation's history," she said in her annual State of America's Homeland Security address in January. "And it is clear from every measure we currently have that this approach is working."
But as the saying goes, the first step to fixing a problem is admitting that you have a problem.