MEXICO CITY — Four municipal police officers were arrested Saturday in the disappearance of three Italians last heard from more than three weeks ago in western Mexico, and authorities said the agents apparently handed the men over to a criminal gang.
Jalisco state Attorney General Raul Sanchez said at a news conference that the suspects, three men and a woman, all active-duty police officers in Tecalitlan, “confessed” to delivering the Italians to members of an organized crime group operating in the town.
“They were asked to hand them over,” Sanchez said, adding that authorities were still investigating why.
Sanchez did not name the crime group, but the Jalisco New Generation drug cartel is dominant in the area.
The Italians have been identified on search posters as 60-year-old Raffaele Russo, his 25-year-old son Antonio Russo and his 29-year-old nephew Vincenzo Cimmino, all from the Naples area. They disappeared in Tecalitlan while traveling in two white SUVs, which have not been found either.
Authorities said previously that the men were apparently selling knock-off appliances and investigators were trying to determine whether that may have caused them to run afoul of someone in the area.
Before they disappeared, they reportedly communicated to a relative that they had been stopped by a police patrol.
The detained officers are suspected of forced disappearance, a crime punishable by 40 to 60 years in prison, Sanchez said.
News of the arrests had uncomfortable echoes for Mexico, where police in much of the country — especially local forces like the one in Tecalitlan — are often corrupt and in league with cartels.
In September 2014, officers from the city of Iguala in Guerrero state intercepted 43 teachers’ college students and allegedly handed them over to a local drug gang to be murdered.
The students’ precise fate has never been definitively cleared up, and the case remains an open wound for their relatives, human rights activists and other Mexicans appalled by the disappearances.
Earlier this week state prosecutors ordered Tecalitlan’s entire 33-person municipal force to be sequestered at a police academy to prevent any interference in the investigation of the Italians’ disappearance, a measure usually taken in cases where corruption or irregularities are suspected.
Sanchez said Saturday that authorities were investigating whether other officers in the Tecalitlan area may also have criminal ties.
“This is not over,” he said, “and we continue to look for the Italians.”