MEXICO CITY – Top drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman escaped through a 1.5-kilometer (1 mile) tunnel that opened into the shower area of his cell, Mexico’s top security official announced Sunday.
With the elaborate escape hatch built allegedly without the detection of authorities, Guzman has done what Mexican authorities promised would not happen after his re-capture last year – slipped out of a maximum security prison for the second time.
Eighteen employees from various part of the Altiplano prison 90 kilometers (56 miles) west of Mexico City have been taken in for questioning, Security Commissioner Monte Alejandro Rubido said in a news conference Sunday.
A manhunt began immediately late Saturday for the head of the powerful Sinaloa Cartel, which has an international reach and is believed to control most of the major crossing points for drugs at the U.S. border with Mexico.
Associated Press journalists near the Altiplano said the roads were being heavily patrolled by Federal Police, who had also set up checkpoints. Flights were also suspended at Toluca airport near the penitentiary in the state of Mexico.
Guzman was last seen about 9 p.m. Saturday in the shower area of the Altiplano prison, according to a statement from the National Security Commission issued early Sunday. After a time, he was lost by the prison’s security camera surveillance network. Upon checking his cell, authorities found it empty.
Guzman’s escape is an embarrassment to the administration of President Enrique Pena Nieto, which has received plaudits for its aggressive approach to top drug lords. Since the government took office in late 2012, Mexican authorities have nabbed or killed six of them, including Guzman.
Guzman was caught by authorities for the first time in Guatemala in 1993, extradited and sentenced to 20 years in prison on drug-trafficking related charges. He escaped from Puente Grande, another Mexican maximum-security prison in western Jalisco state, in 2001 with the help of prison guards. The lore says he escaped in a laundry cart, although there have been several versions of how he got away.
He was re-captured in February 2014 after eluding authorities for days across his home state of Sinaloa, for which the cartel is named. He was listed as 56 years old last year, though there are discrepancies in his birth date.
Guzman faces multiple federal drug trafficking indictments in the U.S. as well as Mexico, and was on the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s most-wanted list. The U.S. has said it would file an extradition request, though it’s not clear if that has already happened.
Former Mexican Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam told The AP earlier this year that sending Guzman to the United States would save Mexico a lot of money, but said Mexico would prosecute him at home as a matter of national sovereignty.
He dismissed concerns that Guzman could escape a second time. That risk “does not exist,” Murillo Karam said.
During his first stint as a fugitive, Guzman transformed himself from a middling Mexican capo into arguably the most powerful drug trafficker in the world. His fortune grew to be estimated at more than $1 billion, according to Forbes magazine, which listed him among the “World’s Most Powerful People” and ranked him above the presidents of France and Venezuela.
Guzman has long been known for his ability to pay off local residents and even authorities, who would tip him off to security operations launched for his capture. He finally was tracked down to a modest beachside high-rise in the Pacific Coast resort city of Mazatlan on Feb. 22, 2014, where he had been hiding with his wife and twin daughters. He was taken in the early morning without a shot fired.
But before they reached him, security forces went on a several-day chase through Culiacan, the capital of Sinaloa state. They found houses where Guzman supposedly had been staying with steel-enforced doors and elaborate tunnels that allowed him to escape through the sewer system.
Even with his 2014 capture, Guzman’s Sinaloa Cartel empire continues to stretch throughout North America and reaches as far away as Europe and Australia. The cartel has been heavily involved in the bloody drug war that has torn through parts of Mexico for the last decade, taking at least an estimated 100,000 lives.
Altiplano, which is considered the main and most secure of Mexico’s federal prisons, also houses Zetas drug cartel leader Miguel Angel Trevino, and Edgar Valdes Villarreal, known as “La Barbie,” of the Beltran Leyva cartel.