Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman escaped through a lengthy tunnel under his prison cell’s shower, authorities have said, marking his second jail break and an embarrassing blow to the government.
A massive manhunt was launched after Guzman vanished late on Saturday from the Altiplano maximum-security prison, some 90km west of Mexico City.
The Sinaloa cartel kingpin, whose empire stretches around the globe, had been in prison for 17 months after spending 13-years on the lam.
After security cameras lost sight of Guzman, guards went into the cell and found a hole 10m deep with a ladder, National Security Commissioner Monte Alejandro Rubido said.
The gap led to the 1.5km 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 1.7m high and around 80cm wide.
Rubido said 18 prison guards will be interrogated by prosecutors in Mexico City.
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.”
Some 250 police and troops guarded the outskirts of the vast prison, surrounded by corn fields, while a helicopter hovered overheads.
Soldiers manned checkpoints on the nearby highway, using flashlights to look at the faces of car passengers and searching car trunks and the backs of trucks.
Flights were suspended at the nearby Toluca airport.
The Altiplano prison in central Mexico State houses the country’s most notorious drug lords, murderers and kidnappers.
Guzman’s first break from prison was in 2001, when he slipped past authorities by hiding in a laundry cart. He had been arrested in Guatemala in 1993.
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.
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 get in.
His second escape is sure to embarrass the administration of President Enrique Pena Nieto, who was flying to France for a state visit when Guzman fled.
Pena Nieto’s government had won praise for capturing the powerful kingpin, a diminutive but feared man whose nickname means “Shorty.”
After his last capture, the government had paraded Guzman in front of television cameras, showing the mustachioed mafia boss being frogmarched by two marines before taking him to prison on a helicopter.
The US government had hailed his capture as “landmark achievement” while some US prosecutors wanted to ask for his extradition, but Mexican officials insisted on trying him first.
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.
His legend grew in the years that followed his first escape.
The United States had offered a US$5 million reward for information leading to his arrest, while the city of Chicago — a popular destination for Sinaloa narcotics — declared him “Public Enemy Number One,” joining American gangster Al Capone as the only criminal to ever get the moniker.
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 and that it believed he was increasingly spending his fortune on protection.
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.
His cartel became entangled in brutal turf wars against the paramilitary-like Zetas cartel and other gangs for years.
More than 80,000 people have been killed in drug violence in Mexico since 2006.
The drug war began to escalate after former president Felipe Calderon sent the army and navy to rein in the cartels in 2006, a deployment that analysts say exacerbated the violence.
More than 10,000 were killed in Ciudad Juarez alone in violence attributed to battles between Sinaloa and Juarez cartel members for supremacy in the key drug corridor at the border with the US state of Texas.