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Deaths in Arizona could signal spread of drug cartel violence

June 04, 2012|By Richard A. Serrano and Molly Hennessy-Fiske
  • Five bodies were found burned beyond recognition in this vehicle abandoned in the Vekol Valley area of Pinal County, Ariz.
Five bodies were found burned beyond recognition in this vehicle abandoned… (Associated Press / Pinal…)

WASHINGTON — Federal law enforcement officials theorize that five people found dead in a burned-out vehicle in southern Arizona were hostages killed by a Mexican drug cartel and that their deaths last weekend could mark another example of violence spreading from Mexico across the Southwest border into the United States.

“That is what it sounds like to us,” said a Border Patrol official who has been briefed on the bodies found Saturday morning in a white Ford Expedition in a remote desert area off Interstate 8 between Phoenix and Tucson. The attacker, he said, was “probably taking hostages someplace to kill them.”

Dr. Gregory Hess, the Pima County medical examiner, said Monday that the bodies were burned so badly that it may be difficult to determine whether  they were killed before the vehicle was set afire or died in the fire. “The remains are fairly charred,” he said.

Hess added that the victims’ identities — whether they were Mexican or U.S. citizens — also will be difficult to ascertain. “You’re down to things like dental information,” he said.

The Pinal County Sheriff’s Office, which is leading the investigation, asked for assistance from federal officials because the driver of the sport utility vehicle sped away from a Border Patrol unit about four hours before the vehicle was found burned. One body was in the back seat, four others in the rear compartment.

The Border Patrol official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the investigation is still underway, said the driver could have fled on foot, driven off in a vehicle stashed nearby or phoned someone to pick him up. “My guess, he’s an illegal, maybe a Zetas cartel member and he was doing a hit for the Zetas,” the official said.

Elias Johnson, a Pinal County sheriff's spokesman, said of that theory: “That’s possible, but a lot of other things are too.” But Sheriff Paul Babeu  said the deaths may be a spillover from the rising violence in Mexico. “This is likely connected to some kind of drug trafficking, possibly to the cartels,” he said.

There have been other incidents in recent years of cartel violence in this country. An American jet ski rider was shot to death on Texas’ Falcon Lake, which crosses  the border, and cartel members were charged in San Diego County with kidnapping, torturing and killing nine people there.

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richard.serrano@latimes.com

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com


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