MEXICO CITY » Mexico mounted an all-out manhunt Sunday for its most powerful drug lord, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, who escaped from a maximum security prison through a 1-mile tunnel from a small opening in the shower area of his cell, according to the country’s top security official.
The elaborate underground escape route, built allegedly without the detection of authorities, allowed Guzman to do what Mexican officials promised would never happen after his re-capture last year — slip out of one of the country’s most secure penitentiaries for the second time.
"This represents without a doubt an affront to the Mexican state," said President Enrique Pena Nieto, speaking during a previously scheduled trip to France. "But I also have confidence in the institutions of the Mexican state … that they have the strength and determination to recapture this criminal."
If Guzman is not caught immediately, the drug lord will likely be back in full command and control of the Sinaloa Cartel in 48 hours, said Michael S. Vigil, a retired U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration chief of international operations.
"We may never find him again," he said. "All the accolades that Mexico has received in their counterdrug efforts will be erased by this one event."
Thirty employees from various part of the Altiplano prison, 55 miles (90 kilometers) west of Mexico City, have been taken in for questioning, according to the federal Attorney General’s Office.
A manhunt began immediately late Saturday for Guzman, whose cartel is believed to control most of the major crossing points for drugs at the U.S. border with Mexico.
Guatemala’s Interior Ministry said a special task force of police and soldiers were watching Mexico’s southern border for any sign of fugitive drug lord.
To the north, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch issued a statement offering "any assistance that may help support his swift recapture,"
Associated Press journalists near Altiplano saw the roads were being heavily patrolled by federal police, with numerous checkpoints and a Blackhawk helicopter flying overhead. Flights were also suspended at Toluca’s international airport near the penitentiary in the State of Mexico, and civil aviation hangars were being searched.
Guzman was last seen about 9 p.m. in the shower area of his cell, according to a statement from the National Security Commission. After a time, he was lost by the prison’s security camera surveillance network. Upon checking his cell, authorities found it empty and a 20-by-20-inch hole near the shower.
Guzman’s escape is a major embarrassment to the Pena Nieto administration, which had 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 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.
After Guzman was arrested on Feb. 22, 2014, the U.S. said it would file an extradition request, though it’s not clear if that happened.
The Mexican government at the time vehemently denied the need to extradite Guzman, even as many expressed fears he would escape as he did in 2001 while serving a 20-year sentence in the country’s other top-security prison, Puente Grande, in the western state of Jalisco.
Former Mexican Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam told the AP earlier this year that the U.S. would get Guzman in "about 300 or 400 years" after he served time for all his crimes in Mexico.
He dismissed concerns that Guzman could escape a second time. That risk "does not exist," Murillo Karam said.
"It wasn’t overconfidence; it was Mexican judicial nationalism," said Raul Benitez, a security expert at Mexico’s National Autonomous University. "First he had to pay his debt in Mexico and then in the U.S. Now it’s very evident that it was a mistake."
It was difficult to believe that such an elaborate structure could have been built without the detection of authorities, though photographs show the corrections facility surrounded by construction, with large open ditches and lots of metal drainage pipes that could have camouflaged such a project.
Guzman dropped by ladder into a hole 30 feet deep that connected with a tunnel about 5 feet-6 inches high that was fully ventilated and had lighting, Rubido said.
Authorities also found tools, oxygen tanks and a motorcycle adapted to run on rails that they believe was used to carry dirt out and tools in during the construction.
The tunnel terminated in a half-built house in a farm field, according to radio transmissions among authorities, who cordoned off the structure that sits atop a small rise with a clear view of the prison. They would not confirm the location of the end of the tunnel directly to the AP.
A 74-year-old rancher whose home is about 400 yards (meters) from the cordoned property said he had seen a couple in their 30s start building on the property about a year ago. He did not want to be named for safety reasons. He said they were very friendly and not from the area.
"One day my cows made it over to the house and I didn’t see anything strange," said the rancher, whose home sits between the prison and the other property.
Guzman’s cartel is known for building elaborate tunnels beneath the Mexico-U.S. border to transport cocaine, methamphetamines and marijuana, with ventilation, lighting and even railcars to easily move products.
He was first caught by authorities in Guatemala in 1993, extradited and sentenced to 20 years in prison on drug-trafficking-related charges.
Many accounts say he escaped in 2001 in a laundry cart, although there have been several versions of how he got away. What is clear is that he had help from prison guards, who were prosecuted and convicted.
Guzman was finally re-captured in February 2014 after eluding authorities for days across his home state of Sinaloa.
Born 58 years ago, according to Interpol, he and allies took control of the Sinaloa faction when a larger syndicate began to fall apart in 1989.
During his first stint as a fugitive, Guzman transformed himself into arguably the most powerful drug trafficker in the world. His fortune was estimated at more than $1 billion, according to Forbes magazine, which listed him among the "World’s Most Powerful People," ranked above the presidents of France and Venezuela.
He finally was tracked down to a modest beachside high-rise in the Pacific Coast resort city of Mazatlan, where he had been hiding with his wife and twin daughters. He was captured in the early morning of Feb. 22, 2014, without a shot fired.
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 the same kind of lighted, ventilated escape tunnels.
Even after his 2014 capture, Guzman’s Sinaloa Cartel empire continues to stretch throughout North America and reaches as far 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 an estimated 100,000 lives or more.
Altiplano, considered the 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.
Associated Press writers Cristian Kovadloff in Toluca, Mexico, Maria Verza in Almoloya, Mexico, Christopher Sherman in Mexico City and Alicia A. Caldwell in Washington contributed to this report.