Mexico drug lord Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman escapes from prison: Official

Mexican drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman (centre) is escorted by soldiers during a presentation at the Navy's airstrip in Mexico City on Feb 22, 2014.
Mexican drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman (centre) is escorted by soldiers during a presentation at the Navy's airstrip in Mexico City on Feb 22, 2014.PHOTO: REUTERS

MEXICO CITY (AFP) - Drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman escaped through a 1.5km long tunnel that was dug under the shower space of his prison cell in central Mexico, authorities said onSunday.

After security cameras lost sight of Guzman late Saturday, guards went into the cell and found a hole 10m deep with a ladder, said National Security Commissioner Monte Alejandro Rubido.

The hole led to the huge tunnel with a ventilation and light system, Rubido said, adding that its exit was in a building that was under construction. A motorcycle on a rail system was found in the tunnel and is believed to have been used to transport tools and remove earth from the space, which was 1.7m high and around 80cm wide.

Rubido said 18 prison guards will be interrogated by prosecutors in Mexico City.

Until Guzman escaped, Rubido said, “the day had gone on normally and at around 8.00 pm he was given his daily dose of medicine.”

The kingpin was last spotted by security cameras in the shower area of the Altiplano prison, 90km west of the capital, on Saturday night shortly before 9pm local time before disappearing, the National Security Commission said.

An alarm was issued after "he was not visible" for a while and "the escape of Guzman was confirmed", the commission said in a statement.

"An operation to locate him was deployed in the area and on roads of neighbouring states," it said, adding that flights were suspended at the nearby Toluca airport.

This jailbreak is Guzman's second in 14 years. His first escape from prison was in 2001, when he slipped past the authorities by hiding in a laundry cart.

Marines finally recaptured Guzman in February 2014 in a pre-dawn raid in a condo in Mazatlan, a Pacific resort in Sinaloa state.

The Altiplano prison houses the country's most notorious drug lords, murderers and kidnappers.

The security commission did not have more details about the escape, and scheduled a press conference for Sunday morning.

Guzman, 58, was considered the world's most-wanted drug lord, whose Sinaloa cartel shipped narcotics across the globe.

His second escape is sure to embarrass the administration of President Enrique Pena Nieto, who was flying to France for a state visit when Guzman fled.

Mr Pena Nieto's government had won praise for capturing the powerful kingpin, a diminutive but feared man whose nickname means "Shorty".

After his capture, the government had paraded Guzman in front of television cameras, showing the mustachioed mafia boss being frogmarched by two marines in front of television cameras before taking him to prison.

Guzman's Sinaloa cartel's empire stretches along Mexico's Pacific coast and deals drugs to the United States and as far as Europe and Asia. Before his last capture, the United States had offered a US$5 million reward for information leading to his arrest, while the city of Chicago declared him "Public Enemy Number One", joining American gangster Al Capone as the only criminal to ever get the moniker.

He used to be on Forbes magazine's list of billionaires until the US publication said in 2013 that it could not verify his wealth and that it believed he was increasingly spending his fortune on protection.

His cartel became entangled in brutal turf wars against the paramilitary-like Zetas cartel and other gangs for years.

More than 80,000 people have been killed in drug violence in Mexico since 2006.

The drug war began to escalate after former president Felipe Calderon sent the army and navy to rein in the cartels in 2006, a deployment that analysts say exacerbated the violence.

More than 10,000 were killed in Ciudad Juarez alone, in violence attributed to battles between Sinaloa and Juarez cartel members for supremacy in the key drug corridor at the border with the US state of Texas.