Mexican security forces hunted early Monday for drug kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman as authorities investigated whether he had inside help to escape prison through a tunnel under his cell\’s shower.
It was the second time in 14 years that Guzman, the head of the powerful Sinaloa drug cartel, managed to flee a maximum-security prison, dealing an embarrassing setback to President Enrique Pena Nieto.
Troops and police were deployed to find Guzman after he vanished late Saturday from the Altiplano prison, some 90 kilometers (55 miles) west of Mexico City, after just 17 months behind bars.
Prosecutors questioned some 30 prison employees of various ranks, including the warden, the attorney general\’s office said, signaling suspicions of a possible inside job.
On a state visit to Paris, Pena Nieto said Guzman\’s escape was "an affront to the state" and demanded an investigation into whether prison guards helped him.
Guzman was able to slip out even though surveillance cameras were trained on his cell. After he never returned from the shower, guards found a hole 10 meters (33 feet) deep with a ladder in it, officials said.
The gap led to a 1.5-kilometer long tunnel with a ventilation and light system that was apparently dug with the help of a motorcycle mounted on a rail to transport tools and remove earth.
The tunnel led to a gray brick building on a hill surrounded by pastures in central Mexico State.
Prosecutors released a video showing the hole inside the building\’s dirt-covered floor. A bed and kitchen were in the facility, indicating that people may have lived there.
As investigators tried to figure out how Guzman fled again, police and troops manned checkpoints and searched cars and trucks on nearby roads.
"If he\’s not captured in the next 48 hours, he will have completely regained control of the Sinaloa cartel," Mike Vigil, a retired US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) international operations chief, told AFP.
"If he is able to make his way to Sinaloa, his native state, and gets into that mountainous range, it\’s going to be very difficult to capture him because he enjoys the protection of local villagers."
Several states, including Sinaloa, set up checkpoints on roads. Central Puebla state said it was using X-ray technology at toll booths to see through cars.
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 alleged end of the tunnel through which Mexican drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman could have escaped from prison, at a house in Almoloya de Juarez, Mexico, on July 12, 2015 (AFP Photo)
Guzman\’s first escape 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 DEA\’s help.
He was then jailed at Altiplano prison, which houses several other infamous drug capos captured during Pena Nieto\’s administration.
"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.
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 his 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.
A general view of the perimeter of the Altiplano Federal Penitentiary, where the drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman escaped, in Almoloya de Juarez, on the outskirts of Mexico City, July 12, 2015. REUTERS/Tomas Bravo
US Attorney General Loretta Lynch said she shared Mexico\’s "concern" about Guzman\’s escape and offered 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.
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."
The rich kingpin — he was once on Forbes magazine\’s billionaire list — 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 last year.