Top drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman has done what Mexican authorities promised would not happen again after his re-capture last year — escaped for a second time from a maximum security prison.
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.
The roads around the Altiplano prison, which is 56 miles (90 kilometers) west of Mexico City, were being heavily patrolled by Federal police, who had also set up checkpoints, according to Associated Press journalists. Flights were also suspended at Toluca airport near the penitentiary in the state of Mexico.
According to Mexico’s top security official Sunday, Guzman escaped through an elaborate 1 mile (1.5 kilometer) tunnel that opened into the shower area of his cell.
Security Commissioner Monte Alejandro Rubido said during Sunday’s news conference that 18 employees from the Altiplano prison have been taken in for questioning.
Guzman’s escape is an embarrassment to the administration of President Enrique Pena Nieto, which has received plaudits for its aggressive approach to top drug lords.
Since the government took office in late 2012, Mexican authorities have arrested or killed six of them, including Guzman.
Guzman was caught by authorities for the first time in Guatemala in 1993, brought back to Mexico and sentenced to 20 years in prison on drug-trafficking related charges.
He escaped from Puente Grande, another Mexican maximum-security prison in western Jalisco state, in 2001 with the help of prison guards. Most believe he escaped in a laundry cart, although there have been several versions of how he got away.
He was re-captured in February 2014 after eluding authorities for days across his home state of Sinaloa, for which the cartel is named.
Former Mexican Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam dismissed concerns earlier that Guzman could escape a second time. That risk “does not exist,” he said.
During his first stint as a fugitive, Guzman transformed himself into arguably the most powerful drug trafficker in the world. His fortune grew to be estimated at more than $1 billion, according to Forbes magazine, which listed him among the “World’s Most Powerful People” and ranked him above the presidents of France and Venezuela.
Guzman has long been known for his ability to pay off local residents and even authorities, who would tip him off to security operations launched for his capture.
Altiplano, which is considered the main and most secure of Mexico’s federal prisons, also houses Zetas drug cartel leader Miguel Angel Trevino, and Edgar Valdes Villarreal, known as “La Barbie,” of the Beltran Leyva cartel.