Crime and Violence

Burned Bodies Discovered in Arizona Desert: Another Indication of the Spillover Threat?

The discovery of the Butwin’s burning vehicle in Arizona has reopened the debate on the threat of spill-over violence in the United States. Photo: Pinal County Sheriff’s Office

06/07/12 – The disturbing discovery of five charred bodies in Pinal County, Arizona, on June 2 reignited the discussion of the dangers of “spill-over violence” to the U.S. Southwest and once again highlighted the impact of the ongoing drug violence in the communities on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. Despite early assertions by Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu that the crime was a result of cartel violence, emerging evidence confirmed the bodies are those of a local Arizona family, the Butwin’s, and that the deaths were a result of domestic violence culminating in murder-suicide committed by terminally-ill James Butwin. Although the bodies were burnt so badly that gender, age, and ethnicity could not be immediately identified, Sheriff Babeu released statements to the media through both official channels and his own personal webpage connecting the crimes to the ongoing violence in Northern Mexico. The backlash against Babeu’s premature announcement has been intense, raising questions about the realities of the effects of spill-over violence and the inclination to assess blame too quickly to non-U.S. actors.

The case itself began on June 2, 2012, when a burning SUV was discovered by a Border Patrol agent while he was patrolling the Vekol Valley, an area known for drug smuggling and cartel violence. In addition to immediately linking the deaths to cartel violence, Sheriff Babeu criticized Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano for her assertions that the border was ‘more secure than ever.’ However, as the investigation progressed and law enforcement linked the SUV to Butwin family, investigators discovered James Butwin’s actions pointed more towards self-inflicted violence than a random cartel-sponsored attack. He had recently been re-diagnosed with a brain tumor, was in the process of separating from his wife, Yafit, and was experiencing significant financial difficulties. In the days before the tragedy, Butwin sent a letter and a key to a business associate detailing his wishes regarding the future running of his construction business. The same associate contacted police with concerns regarding Butwin’s personal safety, suggesting he might be suicidal, and Tempe law enforcement paid a visit to the house on June 2 where they found evidence suggesting foul play. After the discovery of the burning vehicle, subsequent investigations determined the victims to be James, his wife (40), and three children, ranging in age from seven to 16.

In the days following the revelation that the deaths were not related to Mexican instability, the reaction has been swift and loud from critics who accuse Babeu of fear-mongering in hopes of raising support for his November reelection campaign. As reported to the Mohave Daily News, Carlos Galindo, president of the recently formed Immigrant Advocacy Foundation, stated “It is completely inappropriate for a law enforcement officer to compromise the integrity of his position to further his political career. We hope that what we’re doing here is essentially putting a nail in the coffin by bringing it to the attention of the community.” Babeu defended his actions, though, reiterating the dangers posed by cartel violence spilling over the border into the United States.

Spillover violence remains a contentious issue for the communities of the Southwest, despite the relatively low level of such crimes. As TBI director David Shirk wrote in a co-authored piece for the Washington Post, spillover violence has been fairly limited due to both the strength of the U.S. judicial system, as well as the desire of Mexican drug cartels to operate ‘under the radar’ and maintain their lucrative trafficking trade. While there are incidences of cartel related violence in the United States, the levels are significantly lower than the widespread perception, partly because of such political maneuverings of local politicians like Babeu who see the specter of Mexican violence as a way to secure legislative seats and support. The spectacularly violent nature of many cartel crimes also contributes to disproportionate media coverage, leading to the perception that cartel related violence is far more prevalent than the reality.


Olson, Eric, Selee, Andrew, and David Shirk. “Five myths about Mexico’s drug war.” Washington Post. March 28, 2010.

Guidi, Ruxandra and Hernán Rozemberg. “Spillover Violence From Mexico’s Drug Cartels: How Real Is It?” KPSB. May 27, 2011.

Hansen, Ronald J., Wagner, Dennis, and Jim Walsh. “Burned bodies in Arizona desert linked to Tempe murder-suicide.” The Republic. June 5, 2012.

Myers, Amanda Lee. “5 bodies found in Ariz may be latest drug violence.” Associated Press. June 6, 2012.

“Ariz. sheriff criticized for rush to tie deaths to border.” Detroit Free Press. June 6, 2012.

González, Daniel. “Tempe family died of gunshots in murder-suicide, official says.” The Republic. June 8, 2012.

“News Release: Vekol Valley Homicide Investigation.” Pinal County Sheriff’s Office. June 5, 2012.

Associated Press. “Bodies in the desert: Sides turn tragedy into political issue.” Mohave Valley Daily News. June 7, 2012.

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