Three Italian men who went missing in Mexico's Jalisco state last month were handed over to an "organized crime" group by local police, the state attorney general said Saturday.
Four police officers from the town of Tecalitlan — where the Italians were apparently abducted — have been arrested in connection with their disappearance, Raul Sanchez Jimenez, Jalisco's top law enforcement official, told reporters in Guadalajara, the state capital.
The four officers — three men and a woman — confessed to having turned over the three to an unspecified "organized crime" organization, the prosecutor said.
The four are suspected of the "forced disappearance" of the three, a crime that carries a prison term of 40 to 60 years upon conviction.
The three Italians — Raffaele Russo, 60, his son, Antonio Russo, 25, and his nephew, Vicenzo Cimmino, 29 — went missing on Jan. 31 in the farming town in southern Jalisco, a region known for its mariachi heritage and its narco-violence.
All three missing men were residents of the southern Italian metropolis of Naples, where family members and friends have publicly demanded their release and blamed Mexican police for their disappearance. The case has sparked outrage in Naples.
Authorities say a manhunt in the region has yet to turn up the missing men or the two vehicles that they were driving.
What the Italians were doing in isolated Tecalitlan — 100 miles south of Guadalajara — has remained a matter of mystery and conjecture. Police have deployed trained sniffer dogs in an effort to find them, officials said.
On Saturday, the prosecutor said the Italians were driven away in the direction of the nearby town of Jilotlan de los Dolores.
Jalisco is home to a number of organized crime groups, including the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, considered one of the country's most ruthless drug-trafficking organizations.
The motive behind the men's seizure by the Mexican police officers remains unclear, the state attorney general said.
But one theory in the case has been that local police were acting on orders from criminal elements. Corrupt Mexican police have sometimes served the role of foot soldiers for the country's powerful gangs.
The police chief of Tecalitlan has left town, his destination unknown, and about 30 members of the police force have been reassigned for "training," officials have said.
State police are meantime providing security in the town of 16,000, which subsists largely on agriculture and remittances sent home by former townsfolk now living in the United States.
While the three Italians were initially described as tourists, Mexican authorities now say the trio may have been part of a ring peddling fake machinery.
The father, Raffaele Russo, had been arrested in the southern state of Campeche three years ago for selling false goods, according to the Jalisco attorney general.
Another Italian man linked to the three was recently arrested in Guanajuato in central Mexico with "welding machinery ... and false invoices," the attorney general said.
Mexican police are requesting information on the missing men from Italian diplomatic and law enforcement officials, who are cooperating in the case, officials said. It is not clear if any of the men had a criminal record in Italy.
The family of the missing Italians says the men were not linked to Naples' infamous organized crime networks and that Raffaele Russo is a long-time salesman who has hawked generators and other items in various countries for years.
The father is a pensioner who suffers from hypertension and sold "jackets and perfume" in the streets before arriving in Mexico last year, his son, Francesco Russo, told Spain's EFE news agency.
On the day he disappeared, the father said in a cellphone conversation that he had gone to Tecalitlan to have a look and see if he could "earn something," though he didn't know anyone there, the son said. The family last contacted the father on his cellphone mid-afternoon on Jan. 31, his son said. Relatives became concerned when the father failed to respond to later calls.
"We thought maybe he had had an accident," Francesco Russo, speaking from Naples, told EFE. "But we never thought something like this would happen."
Antonio Russo and his cousin, Cimmino, drove to Tecalitlan later in the day to look for the missing man, Francesco Russo said. They had been staying in the city of Ciudad Guzman, 25 miles to the north. Police in Tecalitlan intercepted them, Francesco Russo said, citing telephone messages from his brother Antonio before he dropped from sight.
According to the family, Antonio Russo said in the messages that police stopped him and his cousin at a gas station, forced them to follow a motorcycle cop, and eventually surrounded them on a road. The family says it was subsequently unable to reach the pair.