José Benítez de la O finished working at his parent’s tortilla factory and left for the resort city of Veracruz on Saturday January 9. He was accompanied by four friends, and was planning on celebrating his birthday.
On Monday, when the group was returning to their homes in Playa Vicente, they were stopped by police in Tierra Banca, a municipality near the Veracruz and Oaxaca state border.
Security footage shows how officers put the friends in a police vehicle and drove off. Since then, their whereabouts are unknown.
“They were all friends of the same age, schoolmates, who never got into any trouble,” says José Benítez, the father of one of the missing.
Playa Vicente is a small municipality of about 8,900 residents. Because there was little to do in the town, the friends would often go to Veracruz for fun.
Traveling with Benítez’s son was his nephew Bernardo Benítez Arroniz, and friends Mario Arturo Orozco, Alfredo González Díaz and Susana Tapia Garibo.
“They were all friends of the same age, elementary schoolmates, who never got into any trouble”
They went to a disco in Veracruz called La Berrinchuda and later slept over at a cousin’s house.
On Sunday, 24-year-old José Benítez de la O called his father to tell him that he would return at around 11am the following day. They decided to stop in Tierra Blanca to get something to eat. It was only two hours from Playa Vicente.
Susana Tapia, 16, texted her mother that she would be home some after going for some tacos. But they never made it.
A neighbor witnessed how the officers questioned the young group of friends and approached. One of them told him it was just a routine stop.
But the neighbor became concerned and called the parents, who immediately tried to reach their children on their cellphones.
Images from a security camera in the area, which were later released, show how the police put the group inside a vehicle and drove down a main road. Since then, no one has seen or heard from them.
The incident has become bitter reminder of the still-unsolved case of 43 teaching students who went missing in Iguala, Guerrero state in September 2014.
“That police operation took place between 11 and 11.30am in broad daylight,” says Benítez. “We just want them back. They are good kids who graduated from school, so they can’t be involved in any drug-trafficking problems or mixed up with the cartels.”
Two days after they went missing, 33 police officers were arrested and taken to the Veracruz state attorney general’s office for questioning. As of now, seven of the officers have been charged with forced disappearance.
A video released later shows how the officers put the friends in a police vehicle and drove off
The parents spend their days meeting with local, state and federal authorities who promise they will find them.
“I don’t care who they arrested, all I want is my son back home,” says the desperate father.
Last weekend, authorities arrested an alleged hitman from the New Generation of Jalisco Cartel in Tierra Blanca. Authorities say that Francisco Navarrete Serna heads a group of drug distributors and kidnappers who are based in Veracruz’s main square.
Veracruz Governor Javier Duarte believes that Navarrete’s gang was responsible for kidnapping the five friends.
On Monday, 100 people – mostly family members of missing people in Veracruz – formed a symbolic circle around the attorney general’s offices. The protestors demanded the resignation of public security secretary Arturo Bermúdez and chief prosecutor Luis Ángel Bravo.
Located on Mexico’s Gulf coast, Veracruz is one of the states that has been under siege in the Mexican government’s war against drug traffickers.
Cartels have fought for control of the strategic port location, which is a transshipment point for narcotics. Many people have been killed in the bloody battles while hundreds have been reported missing.
Governor Duarte has also come under fire by his opponents, who have accused him of corruption. Recently he has been subjected to public scrutiny for the number of journalists who have been killed in his state since he came to office.
English version by Martin Delfín.