Mexico hunts for drug lord after escape as 1.5km-long tunnel found under prison

Mexico's Attorney General Arely Gomez Gonzalez (second from right) looks into the entrance of a tunnel connected to the Altiplano Federal Penitentiary and used by drug lord Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman to escape.
Mexico's Attorney General Arely Gomez Gonzalez (second from right) looks into the entrance of a tunnel connected to the Altiplano Federal Penitentiary and used by drug lord Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman to escape. PHOTO: REUTERS

ALMOLOYA DE JUAREZ, Mexico (AFP) - Mexican security forces hunted on Sunday for drug kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman after he escaped through an elaborate tunnel under his prison cell's shower, dealing a blow to the government.

The massive manhunt was launched after Guzman vanished late on Saturday from the Altiplano maximum-security prison, some 90km west of Mexico City, in his second jailbreak in 14 years.

Prosecutors questioned some 30 prison employees of various ranks, including the warden, the attorney general's office said, signaling suspicions of a possible inside job.

The Sinaloa cartel kingpin, whose empire stretches around the globe, had been in prison for 17 months, since his recapture in February 2014.

After security cameras lost sight of Guzman, guards found a hole 10m deep in the shower with a ladder, National Security Commissioner Monte Alejandro Rubido said.

The gap led to a 1.5km-long tunnel with a ventilation and light system that was apparently dug with the help of a motorcycle mounted on a rail to transport tools and remove earth.

The tunnel was 1.7m high and around 80cm wide, culminating in a gray brick building on a hill surrounded by pastures in central Mexico State.

Prosecutors released a video showing the hole inside the building's dirt-covered floor. A bed and kitchen were in the facility, indicating that people lived there.

As investigators tried to figure out how Guzman fled again, the police and troops manned checkpoints and search cars and trucks on nearby roads.

"If he's not captured in the next 48 hours, he will have completely regained control of the Sinaloa cartel," Mr Mike Vigil, a retired United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) international operations chief, told AFP.

"If he is able to make his way to Sinaloa, his native state, and gets into that mountainous range, it's going to be very difficult to capture him because he enjoys the protection of local villagers."

Several states, including Sinaloa, set up checkpoints on roads. Central Puebla state said it was using X-ray technology at toll booths to see through cars.

Troops in Guatemala launched a special operation at the border with Mexico. It was in that country that Guzman was first arrested in 1993.

Guzman's first escape was in 2001, when he slipped past the authorities by hiding in a laundry cart in western Jalisco state.

Marines had recaptured him in February 2014 in a pre-dawn raid in a condo in Mazatlan, a Pacific resort in Sinaloa state, with the DEA's help.

He was then jailed at Altiplano, which houses several other infamous drug capos captured during President Enrique Pena Nieto's administration.

"El Chapo surely planned this from the time he was jailed and had very large internal and external support to escape," said Mr Raul Benitez Manaut, security expert at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

"There certainly was corruption inside and outside the prison," he told AFP. "It was a film-like escape."

The authorities had already investigated a strange prison visit to Guzman in March, when a woman managed to see him by using a fake ID to enter the jail.

His second escape was a major setback for Mr Pena Nieto, overshadowing a state visit to France.

Mr Pena Nieto's government has won praise for capturing a slew of kingpins, and Guzman, a diminutive but feared man whose nickname means "Shorty", was his biggest trophy.

Speaking in Paris, Mr Pena Nieto said Guzman's escape was "an affront to the state" and demanded an investigation into whether prison guards helped him.

US Attorney-General Loretta Lynch voiced "concern" about Guzman's escape and offered Mexico help for his "swift recapture."

Some US prosecutors wanted to ask for his extradition following last year's arrest, but Mexican officials insisted on trying him first.

The United States had offered a US$5 million bounty prior to his last arrest, while Chicago - a popular destination for Sinaloa narcotics - declared him "Public Enemy Number One".

In his Sinaloa fiefdom, folk ballads known as "narcocorridos," tributes to drug capos, sang his praises.

The rich kingpin - he was once on Forbes magazine's billionaire list - married an 18-year-old beauty queen, Ms Emma Coronel, in 2007 and is believed to have 10 children with various women.

Ms Coronel was with him when he was arrested last year. His capture sparked small protests by supporters in Culiacan, Sinaloa's capital, where Guzman nurtured a Robin Hood image.

In Culiacan, authorities found a home with a bathtub that rose up electronically to open a secret tunnel that he used to escape the authorities.

More than 80,000 people have been killed in drug violence in Mexico since 2006, when then president Felipe Calderon deployed soldiers to combat cartels.