Adam Coleman and Dean Lucas were a pair of lifelong best friends, united by a shared passion for surfing, travel and laid-back fun.
The duo, who grew up together in the Perth suburb of Golden Bay, had spent the better part of their lives travelling together before they decided to embark on the road trip of a lifetime.
In 2002, they had their first adventure when they moved to Broome, where they worked and lived at a local caravan park.
After Coleman fell in love with a Mexican girl, Andrea Gomez, during a surf trip in February, he and Lucas decided to return later in the year to visit her in her hometown.
Haydn Raitt, a friend of the pair from Broome, said they would have had no hesitation travelling through Mexico, which has been plagued by drug cartel-driven violence in recent years.
“They would have thought ‘this is going to be great fun, this is going to be awesome, everywhere we go there’s going to be good people and we’re going to have a ball’,” Mr Raitt told the ABC of his mates.
“That’s just how they lived.”
So last month Coleman and Lucas, both 33, hopped in a Chevy van in Edmonton, Canada, where Coleman had been working and living for most of the year.
Their plan? To drive across the United States to Mexico to join Gomez in the western city of Guadalajara on November 21.
On November 20, Coleman and Lucas arrived in the Mexican state of Sinaloa on a ferry from Baja California at night before beginning a journey toward Guadalajara, some 900 kilometres away.
According to Gomez, a witness spotted the men on the night of November 20 in a 24-hour convenience store in the town of Los Mochis, Sinaloa, looking for a map.
After that, Coleman and Lucas disappeared. On November 30, their burnt out van was discovered by authorities on a dirt road, with two charred bodies inside.
So what happened to the laid-back Aussie surfers?
Timeline of horror
According to a highway toll both camera, the pair were on track to their destination at 2.23am on November 21.
Now it appears the men fell victim to an organised gang of highway robbers.
Authorities allege that, after spotting the van, 37-year-old Sergio Simon Benitez Gonzalez called ahead to his accomplices to let them know a potential target was on its way.
Soon after, a Cherokee Jeep, with fake police lights flashing and four occupants wearing police uniforms inside, appeared alongside the Australians’ van.
Believing the car to be a police vehicle, Coleman and Lucas pulled over, only to have the barrel of a .223 rifle pointed in their face.
Realising they were being robbed, the Australians reportedly attempted to prevent the men from entering their van.
According to the attorney-general of Sinaloa Marco, Antonio Higuera Gomez, the pair were allegedly then shot by gang leader, 27-year-old Julio Cesar Gonzalez Muniz, with a .357 magnum before Espinoza Bojorquez shot and killed them both.
Bojorquez then allegedly took the Australians’ van off the highway, stole their electronics and removed the number plates.
He is then alleged to have set the vehicle on fire with the bodies inside.
Mr Higuera said the three men, who were arrested on December 5, face charges that could result in between 22 and 50 years in jail.
Prosecutors from the state of Sinaloa said the men, known low-level drug dealers and thieves, confessed to shooting a long-haired tourist in the face when he resisted a robbery and later shooting a second man.
Mr Higuera said police had found stolen mobile phones, other electronic equipment, five guns, 173 gun cartridges, police jackets, a siren, handcuffs and 124 packets of crystal meth at Benitez Gonzalez’s house.
“These people are part of a criminal group dedicated to vehicle thefts, drug dealing and with a history of committing murders,” he said.
Lucas and Coleman’s van was found on a rural road ahead of the town of Navolato in the Mexican state of Sinaloa, a Cartel-driven area known for its high level of crime and gang violence.
Navolato’s mayor Miguel Calderon Quevado described the region as a “Bermuda Triangle” of crimes that include robberies, murders and kidnappings.
The area has earned itself the nickname ‘The Cemetery’, where tourists are likened to road kill and drug cartel loyalties dominate local politics.
At the head of the Sinaloa cartel is notorious drug lord Joaquín Guzmán, better known as ‘El Chapo’.
In July this year, El Chapo escaped from prison and has been on the run ever since, inciting further turmoil in the region.
‘He was a beautiful and free-spirited chap’
While the bodies found in the van are yet to be identified, the families of the missing men hold grave fears for their loved ones.
In a statement to Fairfax media, family friend Gareth Taylor requested privacy for the families following the arrests and said the silver lining was that the two families had been brought together.
“The tragic events of the last fortnight are weighing heavily on those close to Dean and Adam and the siblings of both men request that their privacy be respected,” Taylor said.
“If any positives can be drawn from these sad events, it is that the vast amount of people drawn to the characters of both [men] in their lifetime, are now sharing a common bond.”
Lucas’ girlfriend, Josie Cox, has flown to Mexico to assist in the investigation alongside Gomez.
Lucas had reportedly been planning on proposing to Cox.
On December 2, Cox posted on Facebook that she was planning to finish what Lucas started.
“Doing what Dean Lucas would’ve wanted, finishing his surf trip off,” she wrote. “See u at the ocean Hun! Love and miss u soooo much.”
As for Gomez, she paid tribute to her boyfriend of under a year by sharing a love note he sent her on Facebook.
“You are one of a kind Andii, and you rock my world, you are my world. I do love you,” the note read.
Raitt told the ABC Coleman was also incredibly close with his family.
“His mum was everything to him and was pretty much the only reason that brought him back from travel,” Raiit said.
Coleman’s mother and sister have also travelled to Mexico to assist in the investigations, while his father, who lives in the UK, paid tribute to his “beautiful” son.
– with ABC