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COLUMBUS, Ohio – Authorities arrested two Columbus police officers Tuesday on allegations that they distributed several kilograms of the synthetic opioid fentanyl, according to the Department of Justice.

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The officers, who are members of the Columbus Division of Police’s drug cartel unit, were identified Wednesday as Marco Merino, 44, of Columbus, and John Kotchkoski, 33, of Marengo. Authorities allege that in June and August, Merino distributed about seven and a half kilograms of fentanyl which he got from Kotchkoski. Officials estimate the drugs would have been worth between $60,000 and $80,000.

Authorities said Merino is also accused of accepting bribes to protect the transportation of cocaine.

“Specifically, it is alleged that, in March, April, May, August and September 2021, Merino accepted a total of $44,000 in cash in exchange for the safe transport of at least 27 kilograms of cocaine,” according to DOJ officials. “Unbeknownst to Merino, there was no actual cocaine and each of the transactions was controlled by federal law enforcement.”

Authorities said Kotchkoski “made himself available by radio to make any calls that Merino might need” during the purported cocaine transport. In an affidavit, investigators said cell phone data placed Kotchkoski near Merino during the time of the alleged transports.

Officials said in court records that Merino tried to recruit a confidential informant to traffic drugs with him, with a promise of law enforcement protection and assurances that he could intervene if other law enforcement agencies tried to investigate the informant. As part of a plan to launder their drug proceeds, Merino intended to gain Mexican citizenship and buy properties in the country to run as Airbnb rentals, investigators said.

In a statement, Columbus police Chief Elaine Bryant called the allegations against Merino and Kotchkoski “beyond disturbing” and said the officers have been relieved of duty pending the outcome of the cases.

“If proven, such actions would violate the oath our officers take, the standards we must hold ourselves to, and the trust of the public,” she said. “This alleged conduct does not reflect the values of this division, or the excellent work being done by its employees. I will say it again: when my officers do what’s right, I will always have their back. When they don’t, they will be held accountable.”

Possessing 400 grams or more of fentanyl with the intent to distribute the drug is a federal crime that carries a sentence of 10 years to life in prison. Federal program bribery carries a sentence of up to 10 years in prison, according to officials.