Mexico’s most famous drug trafficker escaped from prison for the second time, undermining President Enrique Pena Nieto’s efforts to boost security in a nation where crime-related violence has claimed more than 70,000 lives since 2006.
Joaquin Guzman, known by his nickname “El Chapo,” vanished from a maximum-security prison about 50 miles (80 kilometers) west of Mexico City late Saturday, the Mexican government said in a statement. Guards found an almost mile-long tunnel leading away from the prison with lighting, ventilation and a motorcycle on rails, National Security Commissioner Monte Alejandro Rubido told reporters.
The escape of a man the U.S. once called the world’s most powerful drug trafficker deals a crippling blow to Pena Nieto’s attempt to strengthen law and order, said Jorge Chabat, a security analyst a the Center for Economic Research and Teaching. Guzman was captured in February 2014, 13 years after his earlier escape from a high-security prison using a laundry cart.
“This shows the serious and profound institutional weakness and corruption in Mexico,” Chabat said in a telephone interview. “It’s much worse that he was detained and escaped again. All the effort Pena Nieto has done to create an image of fighting organized crime is completely destroyed.”
Security officials mobilized military personnel to hunt for Guzman, and 18 prison employees were being questioned in Mexico City, Rubido said.
Pena Nieto arrived today in Paris, where he’s starting a State visit. Interior Minister Miguel Osorio Chong is flying back from France to Mexico, El Financiero reported.
“It’s a responsibility of the government of the republic to assure that the escape occurred some years ago will never happen again,” Pena Nieto said in an interview last year with Univision. “It would be unforgivable.”
Guzman’s Sinaloa cartel, named after his home state and known for beheading its enemies or hanging their bodies in public places, built tunnels under the U.S.-Mexico border to move marijuana. Guzman himself regularly used sewer tunnels to evade authorities before his arrest last year.
The tunnel from Mexico’s Altiplano prison led to a construction site, Rubido said. It measured about five feet, seven inches (1.7 meters) high and as much as two feet, seven inches wide, Rubido said. The rail-borne motorcycle may have been used to move equipment and carry away dirt, he said.
A narrower passageway from a prison shower area led to a vertical shaft of more than 30 feet that connected with the tunnel and was equipped with a ladder, he said.
The circumstances of the escape suggest that Guzman may have received help from officials with information on the prison’s floor plan and security cameras, said Alejandro Hope, a former Mexican intelligence officer.
“The jewel of the crown of captured kingpins is out of jail,” Hope, who works as an editor at eldailypost.com, an English-language news website specializing in Mexico, said by telephone. “It will put a lot of political pressure on Pena Nieto. At best, it is just embarrassing. At worst, it could lead to some significant questions from those inside and outside of Mexico about what’s being done in terms of his security strategy.”
Guzman’s drug-trafficking empire helped him amass a personal fortune of about $1 billion, according to Forbes magazine.
After Guzman’s arrest in 2014, Mexico’s attorney general at the time, Jesus Murillo Karam, said he wouldn’t accept El Chapo’s extradition to the U.S. until after he’d completed his sentence in Mexico.
“I could accept extradition, but at the time that I choose. ’El Chapo’ must stay here to complete his sentence, and then I will extradite him,” Murillo Karam told The Associated Press in an interview at the time. “So about 300 or 400 years later — it will be a while.”