By David Schwartz
PHOENIX (Reuters) - The bodies of five people burned beyond recognition were found on Saturday inside a smoldering SUV in a desert between Phoenix and the Mexican border that is a popular route for smuggling migrants and drugs, a local sheriff said.
The discovery came in the Vekol Valley in Pinal County, and investigators were looking for any possible suspect connected to the deaths, said Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu.
Early on Saturday, U.S. Border Patrol agents spotted a white Ford Explorer in the area that was parked off the side of Interstate 8, Babeu said.
When the agents tried to approach the sport utility vehicle, its driver sped away into the darkness and the agents lost track of it and issued a request for other law enforcement to look for the SUV, Babeu said.
After dawn, Border Patrol agents found tracks from the vehicle that led into the desert away from Interstate 8, and they followed those markings to arrive at the smoldering SUV.
Inside the rear bed of the SUV and the back seat were the bodies of five people who had evidently been killed, Babeu said.
"The bodies are so badly burned that we can't ascertain their race, color, nationality or even their gender," he said. "Clearly these five individuals were killed. We believe it's related to drug activity."
The Pinal County Sheriff's Office is leading the probe with assistance from federal agents, and 10 investigators are in the area searching for more evidence or any possible suspect, Babeu said.
The dry and barren Vekol Valley is about 35 miles south of Phoenix and about 70 miles north of the border with Mexico. It is often used as a passageway for the smuggling of migrants and drugs to other parts of the United States from Mexico.
Babeu said that human smugglers, when moving people north into the United States, were more likely to abandon migrants in the desert than to kill them.
Mexico has been roiled by drug violence in recent years. More than 50,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence there since Mexican President Felipe Calderon took office in December 2006 and launched a crackdown on traffickers.
"Is this a clue that the violence and murders in Mexico are coming close to us?" Babeu said. "We can't say for sure, but nothing would surprise me anymore."
(Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Greg McCune; Desking by Peter Cooney)