Authorities in Jalisco are searching for three police officers and a drug cartel leader in connection with the disappearance of three Italian men on January 31.
One of the wanted officers is the police chief in Tecalitlán, the town where the men were last seen, while the narco is allegedly a local leader of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel.
Four municipal police officers were arrested Saturday and remain in custody in connection with the case.
The Jalisco Attorney General’s office said the officers confessed that they “sold” the Italians to an organized crime group, but it is unclear why and it didn’t say to which one.
If convicted of the crime of enforced disappearance, the officers — three men and one woman — could face prison terms of up to 60 years.
Other members of the Tecalitlán municipal force were sent to a police academy last week to avoid interference in the case, a measure usually taken when police corruption is suspected.
According to family members of the missing men, 60-year-old Raffaele Russo traveled to Tecalitlán from Ciudad Guzmán on January 31 to sell electric generators and was the first of the three Italians to disappear.
The man’s son Antonio Russo, 25, and nephew Vincenzo Cimmino, 29, subsequently traveled to the town to attempt to locate him.
However, the two younger men were intercepted by police at a gas station on the outskirts of the town and ordered to follow them.
A message Antonio Russo sent to a relative saying they were following the police was the last time anyone heard from any of the three men. The two vehicles the men were driving have not been located either.
Announcing the arrests of the four police officers Saturday, state Attorney General Raúl Sánchez said there was evidence that showed that the missing men had been passing off cheap generators and tools as though they were high-quality goods.
“They sold them as originals of recognized prestigious brands but they were, apparently, Chinese [brands],” he said.
Some media reports have suggested that the men may have sold fake machinery to organized crime gangs including the Jalisco cartel.
Sánchez said that Raffaele Russo was arrested three years ago in Campeche for selling counterfeit machinery. Authorities also asked their Italian counterparts to run criminal checks on the missing men.
But family members have denied that the men were doing anything wrong in Mexico. Francesco Russo told Italian state broadcaster RAI Sunday that “Mexican police officers sold my relatives for 43 shitty euros.”
“They are the criminals, not my brother, father or cousin,” he said.
It is unclear where Russo obtained the figure, but some media outlets have compared the men’s disappearance with that of 43 students who disappeared from Iguala, Guerrero, in 2014. Russo may have also been trying to draw a parallel between the two cases.
In the Iguala case, prosecutors said that corrupt police handed the students over to a criminal gang who then killed them and burned their bodies.
In the same interview, Russo also denied that his father had used false identity documents while in Mexico.
In addition, family members have rejected suggestions that the men are involved with or have links to organized crime either in Mexico or Italy.
“Us, drug dealers? It’s a lie,” Francesco Russo’s sister Daniele told the Italian newspaper La Repubblica.
At a press conference yesterday, the general secretary of the Jalisco government, Roberto López, said authorities are continuing their search for the missing Italians, stressing that there was no evidence that confirmed they have been killed.