Mexican cops again at center of a mass disappearance

Tierra Blanca (Mexico) (AFP) - For more than two weeks, the parents of five missing young people have been living inside a Mexican state prosecutor's office in an attempt to pressure authorities to find their children.

The parents spent the first night sitting on cold plastic chairs. Then they brought mattresses, a microwave oven and a television set inside the government building.

"It's our home now," said Columba Arroniz Gonzalez as she heated up some tortillas and soup for her gaunt-looking husband in the patio of the prosecutor's office in Tierra Blanca, in the eastern state of Veracruz.

Their son, Bernardo Benitez, 25, is among the five young people, including a 16-year-old girl, who disappeared after state police officers detained them in gang-plagued Tierra Blanca on January 11.

The case has become a symbol of Mexico's growing number of "forced disappearances" -- a term used for abductions committed by authorities.

Their plight has been compared to the disappearance of 43 students in southern Guerrero state in September 2014, when municipal police attacked the young men and delivered them to a drug cartel, which allegedly killed them.

At least 275 complaints of forced disappearances were lodged between 2006 and September 2015, according to figures from the attorney general's office obtained by AFP though a freedom of information request.

It started with four complaints in 2006, when the government declared a war against drug trafficking, and soared to 68 in 2014. There were 41 complaints in the first nine months of 2015.

But the attorney general's office has launched only 15 legal proceedings.

In the case of the 43 students, the police who were detained were charged with kidnapping instead of forced disappearance.

- Arrests and bodies -

In Veracruz, seven state police officers, including a regional commander, have been charged with the forced disappearances of the five young people.

The officers told investigators that they delivered the five -- Susana Tapia, 16, Bernardo Benitez, 25, Jose Benitez, 24, Mario Arturo Orozco Sanchez, 28, and Jose Alfredo Gonzalez, 25 -- to a gang.

Last weekend, the local leader of the Jalisco New Generation drug cartel was arrested in connection with the case.

The reason behind the disappearance remains a mystery.

A half-dozen bodies have been found in the search. While none belonged to the five missing young people, the discoveries highlighted the extent of violence in Veracruz, a state plagued by cartel turf wars for years.

The five are now among the more than 26,600 people who are reported missing across Mexico.

Since their families took over the prosecutor's office, mothers of other missing people have come to visit them in solidarity with their cause.

- Birthday turned into tragedy -

The five victims, who lived in Playa Vicente, had spent a weekend in the port of Veracruz to celebrate a birthday.

After the party, in the morning of Monday, January 11, they took a detour to have breakfast in Tierra Blanca, their relatives said.

Dionisia Sanchez, mother of Mario Arturo, said police stopped them for speeding, but for unknown reasons, two officers got into their car while two of the young people were put in a police pick-up truck.

Part of the scene was captured by surveillance cameras.

The area where they were detained has two service stations and a supermarket, just 100 meters (yards) from a state police facility.

Service station workers said they did not see anything, but neighbors who declined to give their names said that state police offices had "take over the town."

A friend of the missing five who happened to be at the supermarket witnessed their arrest.

The witness was able to call Jose Benitez, who told him that it was just a "routine" police stop. But when he saw his friends being taken away, he called again. The phone, however, had been turned off.

When their parents heard the news, they rushed to Tierra Blanca to look for them and contacted the authorities, thinking that they were merely held by the police.

If they had been taken by a gang, "we would have thought that it was a kidnapping," said Bernardo Benitez, 54, who has the same name as his missing son. "But if it's the police, what are you supposed to think?"

The elder Benitez went through a similar drama before. Seven years ago, he paid a ransom after his father was kidnapped. But he never reappeared and, like his son, remains missing to this day.