MEXICO CITY • Shortly before 9pm last Saturday, Joaquin Guzman Loera, the Mexican drug kingpin whose capture last year had been trumpeted by his country's government as a crucial victory in its bloody campaign against the narcotics trade, stepped into the shower of his cell in the most secure wing of the most secure prison in Mexico.
He never came out.
When guards later entered the cell, they discovered a 60cm by 60cm hole, through which 58-year-old Guzman, known as El Chapo, or Shorty, had disappeared.
The prison break humiliated the government of Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, which had touted the arrest of Guzman and leaders of other drug cartels as a crucial achievement in restoring order and sovereignty to a country long beleaguered by the horrific violence associated with organised crime.
FAMOUS LAST WORDS
It is the government's responsibility to ensure that the escape that occurred a few years ago is never ever repeated.
PRESIDENT ENRIQUE PENA NIETO, after Joaquin Guzman Loera was arrested last year, referring to an escape by the drug lord from a Mexican prison in 2001
The opening in the shower led to a nearly 2km-long tunnel leading to a construction site in the nearby neighbourhood of Santa Juanita.
The tunnel was more than 60cm wide and more than 1.5m high, enough for Guzman to walk upright, and was burrowed more than 9m underground. It had been equipped with lighting, ventilation and a motorcycle on rails that was probably used to transport digging material and cart the dirt out.
A few days after Guzman's arrest in February last year, President Pena Nieto told the Univision television network that he would be asking his interior minister every day if Guzman, who had famously broken out of a Mexican prison once before, in 2001, was well guarded.
"It is the government's responsibility to ensure that the escape that occurred a few years ago is never ever repeated," Mr Pena Nieto said.
A video camera watched the cell, but apparently did not record how Guzman tunnelled out undetected.
In the hours after the breakout, the government began a sweeping manhunt, calling a state of emergency in the surrounding areas and shutting down the airport in the nearby city of Toluca.
The police and military personnel stopped vehicles near Altiplano prison, which is about 88km west of Mexico City, and tightened security along the borders of Mexico state, where the prison is located.
The authorities also held 30 prison employees for questioning.
Mr Pena Nieto, who is on a state visit to France, issued a statement on Sunday saying that the escape "represents, without a doubt, an affront to the Mexican state".
Mr Eric Olson of the Mexico Institute of the Wilson Centre, who follows crime trends in Latin America, said the prison system in Mexico often takes a back seat as "the last thing in the chain of law enforcement".
The escape also displayed for many the challenge of applying justice against overwhelming narcotics wealth.
Days before Guzman's capture last year, Mexican marines and United States law enforcement officers raided the home of his former wife only to find that he had fled though a secret door beneath a bathtub that led to a network of tunnels and sewer canals connecting to six other houses. Guzman was finally caught in an apartment he used in a Pacific resort city.
In the years following his 2001 escape from prison, he became a mythical figure. Security agents closed in a couple of times, only to find that he had slipped away, often through tunnels.
Before his arrest, Guzman presided over a vast network that smuggled cocaine and marijuana into the US and as far as Europe and Africa. His wealth was estimated by Forbes magazine at more than US$1 billion (S$1.35 billion).
Guzman faces indictments in at least seven US federal courts on charges that include narcotics trafficking and murder.
NEW YORK TIMES