Mexican authorities have launched criminal proceedings against four police officers over the disappearance of three Italian men.
The missing men – all from Naples – were last seen on 31 January in Tecalitlán, in the western state of Jalisco.
The state’s governor said the officers had confessed to handing the Italians over to a local criminal gang.
The police had allegedly arrested them at a petrol station beforehand.
The son of one of the disappeared earlier told Italian radio that the men had been “sold to a gang for €43” ($53; £38), but regional officials said they could not confirm that information.
It is not entirely clear what Raffaele Russo, 60, his 25-year-old son Antonio, and his nephew, Vincenzo Cimmino, 29, were doing in the agricultural town of Tecalitlán. The area is controlled by the Jalisco New Generation cartel, one of Mexico’s most powerful criminal gangs.
Jalisco State Prosecutor Raúl Sánchez said he had information showing the three were selling cheap generators and agricultural machinery which they passed off as high-quality branded goods.
But relatives in their home town denied the three were doing anything illegal in Mexico.
Following the trio’s disappearance, the town’s entire police force was sent for retraining, although some local media speculated that they were sent away so that they could not be intimidated by local cartel members into changing their story.
Who are the Jalisco New Generation Cartel?
- A government crackdown on drug cartels since 2006 led to fragmentation, internal conflicts and new groups forming
- The cartel was founded when Milenio Cartel, originally a branch of Sinaloa syndicate, split
- It was created in 2011 in south-western Jalisco state and is notorious for violent attacks on security forces, including the shooting down of a government military helicopter
- It’s led by Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes, alias El Mencho, 53. The group has fought for supremacy with Zetas Cartel in Veracruz state, leaving dozens dead
- It presents itself to residents in its territory as a force to rid them of other crime gangs
- Its interests include opium and marijuana growing, with assets estimated in the billions of dollars
Mexican media have drawn parallels between this case and that of 43 Mexican students who disappeared from the town of Iguala in 2014.
The state prosecutor in that case said that the students were handed by corrupt local police to a criminal gang, who killed them and burned their bodies.
Local police, who are poorly trained and poorly paid, are often threatened or bribed by criminal gangs to turn a blind eye or even do their bidding.
For that reason, federal authorities often send federal police forces and even soldiers to the most violent areas.