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Updated Jun 4, 2012 - 10:34 pm

5 burned bodies in Arizona desert border violence?

PHOENIX – In the desert within 35 miles of the Phoenix metro area, Arizona
authorities found a car ablaze with five bodies burned beyond recognition
inside.

The location of the smoldering car in a known smuggling corridor and the nature
of the crime itself have Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu saying that he’s all
but certain a violent smuggling cartel is responsible.

The Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office was conducting autopsies Monday, two
days after the bodies were found in the Vekol Valley in a vehicle so badly
torched that the license plate was unrecognizable. The coroner will have to rely
on dental records in an effort to identify them.

The autopsies also will determine whether the five people were killed before
they were burned or whether they were alive when the car was set afire.

It’s unclear how soon results of the autopsies will be released.

For now, Babeu and his deputies are treating it as a smuggling-related crime,
possibly one cartel targeting rivals and burning the car in an effort to hide
evidence and evade authorities.

If that is confirmed, the incident would be the latest in spillover violence
from Mexico, which mostly affects those involved in the smuggling world or their
human cargo.

“It’s very alarming to me as the sheriff here that there could be this level
of deliberate violence,” Babeu told The Associated Press on Monday. “This
normally does not happen in the United States, and this happened 70 miles north
of the border and 30 miles south of America’s sixth-largest city. If this is in
fact connected to the cartels, and we absolutely prove it, this should be a
warning to our country.”

The area where the bodies were found has also been the scene of shootouts among
smuggling groups fighting over loads of drugs or illegal immigrants, high-speed
pursuits and major drug seizures.

Babeu said that the burned car likely is the same car that a Border Patrol
agent saw four hours earlier Saturday when it was still dark outside.

The agent saw a white Ford Expedition stopped and became suspicious, but when
he approached, the car fled and the agent lost it, Babeu said.

When the sun came up, the same agent saw car tracks in the area leading into
the desert and shortly after found a smoldering white Ford Expedition, Babeu
said.

When the agent approached the car, he saw four burned bodies lying down in the
cab of the vehicle, and one body in the back passenger seat; no one was in the
driver’s or front passenger’s seat.

The bodies were burned so badly that Babeu said investigators don’t yet know
their gender, race or ages.

Babeu declined to say whether other vehicle tracks or footprints were found
around the vehicle, saying that he did not want to compromise the ongoing
investigation and manhunt.

Border Patrol spokesman Mario Escalante did not immediately respond Monday to a
request for details about the agency’s involvement in the case.

If investigators confirm that a cartel is responsible for the killings, it
would be one of the most extreme examples of spillover violence in the U.S.,
said Eric Olson, associate director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center
for Scholars’ Mexico Institute in Washington, D.C.

“This sort of violence is highly unusual,” Olson said. “It’s a horrible,
horrible thing, but we don’t see that happening in a lot of places.”

He said there’s no reason to believe that the incident is the beginning of a
new pattern of behavior by cartels or that the violence will start affecting
more Americans.

“I think it would be more concerning if it were downtown Phoenix,” Olson
said. “But the surest way to attract enormous amounts of law enforcement
interest is to kill five people and burn their bodies in downtown Phoenix.
They’re not that stupid.”

Among high-profile examples of spillover violence suspected or confirmed to be
tied to smuggling cartels was the October 2010 killing of Alejandro Cota-Monroy,
a former smuggler who was bludgeoned, stabbed and then decapitated in a suburban
Phoenix apartment, likely because he stole from the cartel he worked for _ a
gruesome killing that police say was meant to send a message that anyone who
betrays the traffickers will get the same treatment.

In March 2010, Arizona rancher Robert Krentz was gunned down while checking
water lines on his property near the border. Authorities believe _ but have
never produced substantive proof _ that a scout for drug smugglers was to blame
for his killing.

And in May 2009, a Mexican drug cartel lieutenant who became an informant for
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement was shot eight times outside his pricey
home in El Paso. The lieutenant, Jose Daniel Gonzalez Galeana, was living in
Texas on a visa that ICE gave him, and is believed to be the first ranking
cartel member killed in the U.S.

___

Follow Amanda Lee Myers on Twitter at https://twitter.com/#!/AmandaLeeAP

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