Mexico: Drug Lord 'El Chapo' Guzman Escapes; Manhunt Begins

Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman

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 1.5-kilometer (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 (50-by-50 centimeter) 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.

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