Police searched Monday for six employees of a nationally prominent polling firm who disappeared in a western Mexican state plagued by drug-cartel violence while working ahead of the state's upcoming race for governor.
The Michoacan state Attorney General's Office has opened a kidnapping investigation into the disappearance of employees of Consulta Mitofsky, said a spokesman who could not be named because he wasn't authorized to speak on the record.
Both authorities and the company held out hope they may have simply become lost on the rural dirt roads of the area where they were polling when they went missing over the weekend.
"We hope to have good news today and so we hope to see them back again," Mitofsky president Roy Campos wrote in an email message. "The only thing we know is that we have not been able to contact them."
But others were already saying that their disappearance could have grave implications for security surrounding the Nov. 13 gubernatorial vote ahead of the presidential election in July 2012.
"This is an unheard-of event that should worry us all," said Jorge Esteban Sandoval, a leader of the former ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party in Michoacan. "It further exacerbates the situation of lack of safety we are experiencing."
The six pollsters were part of a team of about three dozen Mitofsky employees who arrived in Michoacan last week to conduct polls.
Three of the workers, who normally conduct interviews with potential voters in their homes, failed to return to their hotel Saturday in Apatzingan, a city near where they were working. Three of their colleagues set out to look for them, and nothing was heard of them, either, the prosecutor's spokesman said.
Michoacan was once known mainly for its pine-covered hills, lakes and Monarch butterfly wintering grounds. But in recent years it has become known for drug violence fueled by two Michoacan-based drug cartels, La Familia and The Knights Templar, which have fought police, each other and other gangs.
Apatzingan is considered a stronghold of both cartels. The leader of La Familia was killed in a shootout with police there on Dec. 9. At a demonstration against federal police last month in Apatzingan, some protesters adorned their placards and clothing with slogans supporting the Knights Templar, a group that split from La Familia.
The home state of President Felipe Calderon, Michoacan was the first place to which he sent army troops to battle drug cartels soon after taking office in December 2006. More than 35,000 people have died in drug violence since then, according to government figures. Some groups put the number higher than 40,000.
Calderon's sister, former Sen. Luisa Maria Calderon, is running for governor of the state as a candidate with the president's conservative National Action Party.
The attorney general's spokesman said teams of detectives have fanned out across the area to search for the missing employees. He said that the area where the pollsters had been working is crisscrossed by dirt roads, and that they may have simply gotten lost.
Last year, gunmen believed to be working for a drug cartel assassinated Rodolfo Torre, the leading candidate for governor in the border state of Tamaulipas, where the Gulf and Zetas drug cartels are engaged in bloody turf battles. But there have seldom been direct attacks against polling firms or voting officials in Mexican elections.
Sandoval called for strong security measures in Michoacan's upcoming elections.
"Measures should be put in place to maintain calm for the elections," he said.
Also Monday, federal police announced that they had arrested Nery Salgado Harrison, who allegedly served as head of the Knights Templars' operations in Apatzingan.
Salgado Harrison, who allegedly oversaw the production of methamphetamines at clandestine labs in the area and collected tips from corrupt local authorities about federal police movements, was arrested Sunday in possession of an assault rifle and a hand grenade, said Ramon Pequeno, head of the federal police anti-drug unit.
The federal police have joined the army in combating cartels operating in Michoacan.