In a scheme befitting a crime novel, Mexico's most powerful drug lord, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, escaped from a maximum security prison through a 1.5-kilometer (1 mile) tunnel that opened into the shower area of his cell, the country's top security official announced Sunday.
The elaborate, ventilated escape hatch 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.
Eighteen employees from various part of the Altiplano prison 55 miles (90 kilometers) west of Mexico City have been taken in for questioning, Security Commissioner Monte Alejandro Rubido said in a news conference without answering questions.
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 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 airport near the penitentiary in the State of Mexico, and civil aviation hangars were being searched.
Guzman was last seen about 9 p.m. Saturday 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 administration of President Enrique Pena Nieto, 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. Murillo Karam said sending Guzman to the United States would save Mexico a lot of money, but keeping him was a question of national sovereignty.
He dismissed concerns that Guzman could escape a second time. That risk "does not exist," Murillo Karam said.
It was difficult to believe that such an elaborate structure could have been built without the detection of authorities. According to Rubido, the tunnel terminated in a house under construction in a neighborhood near the prison. Guzman dropped by ladder into a hole 10 meters (yards) deep that connected with a tunnel about 1.7 meters (yards) high that was fully ventilated.