Three Italian Men Went Missing in Mexico. What Were They Doing There?

The case of three Italians allegedly sold to Mexico’s most infamous cartel, and government-run “death squads,” highlight the endemic corruption of Mexican police.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

CALI, Colombia—When someone goes missing in a foreign country, the loved ones are almost always told by their embassies to contact local law enforcement. But when authorities themselves are implicated in the abduction there’s no one left to trust.

This is a nightmare that many in Mexico have lived in recent years, including three Americans who were last seen with police in 2014 and later found shot to death. But of late the crimes have grown more common and in some instances more complex.

One recent case with conspicuous subplots involved a trio of Italian citizens, Neapolitans, who went missing in western Jalisco state on January 31.

One might ask what they were doing there, as many people have. But first let’s see what’s known about the investigation into their disappearance.

At least seven Mexican police officers stand charged with the kidnapping of Raffaele Russo, 60, Antonio Russo, 25, and Vincenzo Cimmino, 29, all originally from Naples. Four members of the municipal police force from the town of Tecalitlán, a small farming community, have been arrested and three more, including the local police chief, are still being sought for allegedly detaining the men and then turning them over to the powerful Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación (Jalisco New Generation Cartel) or CJNG.

Nothing has been heard of the three men since their disappearance.

“The surprising aspect of these crimes is not that they occurred, nor that the police were involved,” Duncan Wood, a Latin American specialist with the Woodrow Wilson Center, told The Daily Beast in an email. “What is shocking is that foreigners were targeted so brazenly and that police forces have been openly used in ways so reminiscent of the dark old days of Mexican authoritarian abuses.”

Anatomy of a Kidnapping

The elder Russo went missing first, apparently while driving to Tecalitlán in a rental car from nearby Ciudad Guzmán, where all three men had been staying. When they lost contact with Rafael, his son Antonio and nephew Vincenzo set out to look for him.

In a voice message sent to his older brother Francesco Russo, who was in Mexico City at the time, Antonio indicated they had been intercepted by a motorcycle cop at a gas station and told to follow him. The last message Antonio sent indicated they were surrounded by patrol cars and officers on motorcycles who had forced them to pull over and stop. Then the younger Russo’s phone apparently was switched off, never to be turned on again.

Satellite tracking devices in both of the family’s rental cars corroborated that they were left at the side of the highway near Tecalitlán, although neither vehicle has since been recovered.

When Francesco called authorities in Jalisco he claims he was told by a female dispatcher that she had “heard on the radio that the police had detained two young Italian men.” When he called back, however, the dispatcher denied having said it.

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“The two young men have children,” Francesco told Mexican reporters, shortly before fleeing the country due to concerns for his own safety. “What our families are living through is unfair,” he said.

By February 24 four officers had confessed to state prosecutors that they “sold” the Italians to the CJNG. Within days the precinct chief and two other cops were being hunted for their involvement, and the rest of the force had been recalled for additional training protocols.

“Mexican police officers sold my relatives for 43 shitty euros [about $53],” Francesco Russo said during an interview with an Italian radio station, in the wake of the police confessions. “They sold three of our countrymen––43 euros!––what an unheard of shame.” (The figure is based on 1000 pesos, but it is not clear how he arrived at that number.)

The Jalisco case has already been compared to the disappearance of more than 40 student protestors during a single evening in Mexico’s Guerrero state in 2014. In that incident, regional politicians and police worked closely with cartel foot soldiers to perpetrate and cover-up the mass kidnapping.

“It is relatively common for municipal and some state police to operate directly for the cartels in certain tasks,” Gustavo Fondevila, a criminology professor at the Center for Economic Research and Teaching in Mexico City, told The Daily Beast. Such illicit work can include “information gathering, intelligence, kidnapping of people, detention of members of another cartel, [and] extortion.”

Low wages, lack of education, and simply being outgunned by Los Narcos all make it hard for local law enforcement to resist cartel influence.

In some cases police collusion with organized crime in Mexico “stems from the survival instinct, in others from a desire to make money, and often from both,” said Wilson Center analyst Wood.

According to criminologist Fondevila, the Mexican military now makes it a policy to automatically disarm local police and seize their radios and cell phones during joint operations, so as to prevent them from compromising the mission at hand.

“There have been many cases of torture of municipal police by the army precisely because they are considered to be direct collaborators of the cartels or informants,” Fondevila said.

Italian Mafia vs Mexican Cartel?

On February 20, about three weeks after the three Neapolitans were reported missing, Jalisco District Attorney Raúl Sánchez announced he’d requested a criminal background check on the men from Italian authorities.

A day later, the Mexican press reported that the Russos and Cimino were part of an offshoot of the Italian mafia known as the Magliari, a term used, sometimes pejoratively, for peddlers who are known for selling false or fraudulent merchandise.

For decades, according to the Italian press, magliari have been known as the relatively low ranking vendors of counterfeit products produced or distributed by the Neapolitan mob known as the Camorra (made famous and infamous by the book, film and television series Gomorrah that grew out of reporting by Roberto Saviano.)

Typically the magliari sold fake luxury goods and clothes, but Sánchez said these were pushing bogus generators and soldering equipment to unsuspecting Mexican business owners. The machinery was supposedly tricked up with the labels from companies like Bosch and Caterpillar, while in fact being generic knockoffs.

“They sold them as originals of recognized prestigious brands but they were, apparently, Chinese [imitations],” Sánchez said in a statement. Furthermore, the DA indicated that Raffaele Russo had been arrested in the Mexican state of Campeche some three years earlier for similar activity.

For their part, the families of the victims say such claims are being made by officials trying to deflect or downplay the police officers’ clearcut involvement with CJNG, the nation’s fastest-growing cartel, perhaps by suggesting they were involved with narcotics themselves.

“Us, drug dealers? It’s a lie,” said another of Raffaele’s sons, Daniele Russo, quoted in the Mexican press.

The family maintains they were in Mexico for tourism and deny any criminal involvement with either Italian or Mexican mobsters.

“[The Jalisco police] are the criminals, not my brother, father, or cousin,” Francesco Russo said.

Mexican journalist Emmanuel Gallardo, who specializes in cartel coverage, told The Daily Beast a grift operation could have been, at least potentially, what caused their disappearance.

“If they were doing business—maybe funny business—in an area that is controlled by organized crime then anything can happen,” Gallardo said. “Especially if they ripped off the wrong person at the wrong time.”

But Gallardo is quick to point out that passing off falsely branded goods in no way excuses police collusion with the cartel in the mens’ alleged kidnapping.

“It doesn’t matter if they were legit businessmen or not, those people should be protected,” he said. “The authorities’ duty is to provide safety to the population. It’s to protect and to serve. But in Mexico it’s different, because the police do not protect anyone but themselves.”

Given the CJNG’s fearsome reputation, and the lack of ransom demands received by the family, Gallardo said he fears the worst for the vanished Neapolitans.

“I’m pretty positive that these three people are dead,” he said.

“Death Squads” and “Social Cleansing”

In mid-February, not long after the Italians were reported missing, another scandal rocked Mexican law enforcement. On the other side of the country from Jalisco, in Veracruz state, more than 19 officers were indicted for running state-sponsored “death squads” that targeted innocent civilians.

At least 15 people were abducted, tortured, and killed, and their bodies done away with since 2013, including five youths who were, like the Italian victims, turned over to the CJNG in 2015. A female police officer was also accidentally snared by the extrajudicial death patrols in Veracruz, which allegedly took their marching orders from currently imprisoned governor Javier Duarte.

Mexico-City-based Fondevila said there is a common thread linking the 43 lost students in Guerrero, the missing Italians in Jalisco, the Veracruz killings under Duarte, and many similar cases across Mexico.

“If you look carefully, the [police] death squads. . . do not confront the cartels directly but are instead functioning as [agents for] ‘social cleansing,’” Fondevila said. “They criminalize poverty and youth [and] roam the streets to arrest ‘suspicious’ people. The vast majority of missing persons have no direct link with any cartel. The general idea was to ‘clean the streets’ rather than face the problem of drug trafficking in the region.”

In such cases, Fondevila said, police units act as “franchises or sub-contractors” of organized crime groups, who “detest” petty crimes in places where they operate.

Drug-War violence in Mexico is at an all-time high. There were more than 25,000 murders in 2017, as larger cartels fragmented and battled rivals in heated turf wars. But endemic police corruption means law enforcement is often as much a part of the problem as any solution.

In fact, victims of violent crimes often “bury their own dead without reporting the homicide for fear of reprisals if they were to contact the local authorities,” said Duncan, who travels often in Mexico.

“International opinion considers Mexico a country that respects human rights. But this not a fair country,” explained journalist Gallardo. “The corruption here is like a monster with so many hands, like an octopus that controls everything,” he said.

“That is the true story of Mexico.”