The police chief of a city in the Mexican Gulf state of Veracruz has disappeared, co-workers and relatives said Tuesday.

Gregorio Juarez Vazquez was in charge of the police force in Cosautlan, a city in the mountainous central region of Veracruz.

Juarez Vazquez was last seen riding with his driver in a patrol car around 1:00 a.m. Monday, people close to the chief said.

The police chief's patrol car was found several hours later abandoned on the Teocelo-Cosautlan state highway, but his whereabouts is unknown. Juarez Vazquez's driver is also missing.

State and municipal police have launched a search for the police chief and his driver.

Cosautlan is about 60 kilometers (37 miles) from Xalapa, the capital of Veracruz state, in a coffee-growing area.

Veracruz has been plagued by a turf war between rival drug cartels that has sent the state's murder rate skyrocketing over the past two years.

The federal government launched "Operation Safe Veracruz" last October in an effort to stem the wave of drug-related violence in the Gulf state.

On June 12, police found the remains of 14 people stuffed into an abandoned SUV on the Alamo-Potrero del Llano state highway near Los Cuates, a ranch in northern Veracruz close to the border with Tamaulipas.

The Gulf, Los Zetas and Jalisco Nueva Generacion cartels, as well as breakaway members of the once-powerful La Familia Michoacana organization, are fueling the violence in the state.

Veracruz, Mexico's third-most populous state, is coveted as a key drug-trafficking corridor to the United States, officials say.

President Felipe Calderon declared war on Mexico's drug cartels shortly after taking office in December 2006, deploying tens of thousands of soldiers and Federal Police officers across the country to combat drug cartels and other criminal organizations.

The death toll in Mexico's drug war stands at more than 50,000 since 2006. EFE