LOS ANGELES — Five bodies burnt beyond recognition have been found in the smoldering wreckage of an SUV on a popular drug trafficking route in the Arizona desert near the US-Mexico border, officials said.

Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu said he suspected the incident that took place off Interstate 8, a popular route for smuggling migrants and drugs into the United States from Mexico, was likely linked to the Mexican drug war.

US Border Patrol agents spotted a white Ford Expedition at 4:30 am (1130 GMT) Saturday as it made its way through the rugged desert mountains.

By the time federal and local authorities caught up with it four hours later, all that was left of the vehicle was the charred frame and the five bodies inside.

"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."

Investigators say the driver likely abandoned the vehicle and fled, according to the sheriff.

"It was still smoldering," Babeu added, noting that the bodies and the license plate were so badly burnt that they could not be identified.

Agents found a body in the back passenger seat and four others in the rear cargo compartment. There was no one in the driver's seat or the front passenger seat.

"They were so badly burned," Babeu said. "We're still trying to determine the gender."

There were 350 high-speed pursuits along the route last year in Pinal County, a rural area home to some 4,000 people between Phoenix and Tucson, according to the sheriff.

The region also saw 76 people arrested and more than 100 weapons seized in the state's largest-ever drug bust.

"The cartels control the drug trafficking along that corridor," he said, adding that no one had yet stepped forward to claim responsibility for the murders. "This was very deliberate."

Authorities did not recover weapons or drugs from the crime scene.

Photo by August Rode via Flickr