Saturday, 29 January, 2022

Mexico hunts for drug lord after prison tunnel escape

Mexico hunts for drug lord after prison tunnel escape

ALMOLOYA DE JUAREZ, MEXICO:  Mexican security forces hunted Sunday for drug kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman after he escaped through a long tunnel under his prison cell's shower, dealing a blow to the government.

The massive manhunt was launched after Guzman vanished late Saturday from the Altiplano maximum-security prison, some 90 kilometers (55 miles) west of Mexico City.

Prosecutors took in some 30 prison employees of various ranks for questioning, including the warden, the attorney general's office said, signaling possible suspicions of an 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 went into the cell and found a hole 10 meters (33 feet) deep with a ladder, National Security Commissioner Monte Alejandro Rubido said.

The gap led to the 1.5-kilometer tunnel with a ventilation and light system, Rubido said, adding that its exit was in a building that was under construction in central Mexico State.

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 1.7 meters high and around 80 centimeters wide.

The construction site where Guzman's tunnel ends has a gray brick building on an isolated hill surrounded by pastures.

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."

Police and troops guarded the outskirts of the vast prison, surrounded by cornfields, while helicopters flew overhead.

Soldiers manned checkpoints on the nearby highway, searching car trunks and the backs of trucks.

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

Flights were suspended at the nearby Toluca airport overnight.

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

The Altiplano prison in central Mexico State houses several other infamous drug capos captured during President Enrique Pena Nieto's administration.

Guzman's first break from prison was in 2001, when he slipped past 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 help of the US Drug Enforcement Administration.

Wanted in US 

"El Chapo surely planned this from the time he was jailed and had very large internal and external support to escape," said 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."

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 Pena Nieto, overshadowing a state visit to France.

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, Pena Nieto said Guzman's escape was "an affront to the state" and called for 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.

'Public Enemy Number One' 

Guzman's Sinaloa cartel empire stretches along Mexico's Pacific Coast and deals drugs to the United States and as far as Europe and Asia.

The United States had offered a $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.

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.

He married an 18-year-old beauty queen, Emma Coronel, in 2007 and is believed to have 10 children with various women.

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 before being caught in Mazatlan.

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.