SANTA JUANA, Mexico — After Mexico’s most notorious drug lord stepped into a shower and slipped into a tunnel to escape from a maximum-security prison, authorities vowed it wouldn’t be long before the Sinaloa cartel chief was behind bars again.
Prison security cameras last recorded images of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman on Saturday night, just before he apparently crawled through a hole in the shower area of his cell block at the Altiplano Federal Prison.
Authorities said they later discovered a lighted and ventilated tunnel nearly a mile long that stretched from the prison to a half-built house, where investigators were searching for signs of Guzman’s whereabouts Sunday.
Now a massive manhunt is underway to find Guzman, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto said.
Speaking to reporters Sunday from France, where he is traveling on a state visit, Peña Nieto avoided mentioning the drug lord by name, but he said he was closely following news of the escape of a man who has been among the most wanted criminals in Mexico and around the world.
Peña Nieto said he was “deeply troubled” by “a very unfortunate event that has outraged Mexican society.” He vowed that his government would recapture Guzman, step up prison security and investigate whether any prison workers helped the kingpin break out.
“This represents, without a doubt, an affront to the Mexican state, but also I am confident that the institutions of the Mexican state, particularly those in charge of public safety, are at the level, with the strength and determination, to recapture this criminal,” Peña Nieto said.
Guzman is the storied boss of one of the world’s most powerful and deadly drug trafficking operations.
He escaped in 2001 from a high-security prison in a laundry cart and was not apprehended again until 2014, when he was arrested at a Mexican beach resort.
News that he’d somehow managed to break out again drew sharp condemnation at home from Peña Nieto’s political opponents and abroad from U.S. officials, who’d pushed for his extradition.
“One would have assumed that he would have been the most watched criminal in the world, and apparently, that just didn’t happen. This is a huge embarrassment for the Mexican government,” said Ana Maria Salazar, a security analyst and former Pentagon counternarcotics official. “Obviously it’s going to raise a lot of questions as to what’s happening with the Mexican criminal justice system.”
Cartel chief cultivated Robin Hood image
‘The world’s most powerful drug lord’
Guzman heads the Sinaloa Cartel, which the U.S. Justice Department describes as “one of the world’s most prolific, violent and powerful drug cartels.” It says Guzman was “considered the world’s most powerful drug lord until his arrest in Mexico in February 2014.”
“The Sinaloa Cartel moves drugs by land, air, and sea, including cargo aircraft, private aircraft, submarines and other submersible and semi-submersible vessels, container ships, supply vessels, go-fast boats, fishing vessels, buses, rail cars, tractor trailers, trucks, automobiles, and private and commercial interstate and foreign carriers,” the Justice Department said earlier this year.
The trafficking network keeps U.S. drug agents busy. In January, the Justice Department unsealed indictments naming 60 members of the cartel, including Guzman’s son, Ivan Archivaldo Guzman-Salazar, aka “El Chapito.”
The main indictment said the cartel imported cocaine, methamphetamine, marijuana, other drugs and the chemicals necessary to process methamphetamine into Mexico from various countries, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of California said in a news release.
The drugs were then smuggled into San Diego for distribution throughout the United States, the statement said, adding that money was then laundered through a variety of means.
In just one phase of the investigation, which the Justice Department said spanned eight countries and a dozen U.S. states, authorities seized more than 1,400 pounds of methamphetamine, almost 3,000 pounds of cocaine, 12.2 tons of marijuana and 5,500 oxycodone pills, along with $14.1 million.
Also this year, federal authorities announced: Thirty-one people were charged in February with conspiring to launder $100 million for the Sinaloa Cartel in a cash-for-gold scheme; Jose Rodrigo Arechiga-Gamboa, an alleged Sinaloa kingpin who goes by “Chino Antrax,” pleaded guilty in federal court in May to helping coordinate the shipment of tons of marijuana and cocaine into the U.S.; and last month, U.S. officials announced indictments against a Baton Rouge, Louisiana-based trafficking network with ties to Sinaloa.
Toluca International Airport closed
In Mexico, the diminutive Guzman became a larger-than-life figure as he eluded authorities while expanding a drug empire that spanned the world. His life story became the topic of best-selling books and the subject of adoring songs known as narcocorridos.
In the United States, he is wanted on multiple federal drug trafficking and organized crime charges.
His nickname, which means “Shorty,” matches his 5-foot-6-inch frame.
The statement from the National Security Commission said that, at 8:52 p.m. Saturday, surveillance cameras at the Altiplano federal prison saw Guzman approaching a shower area in which prisoners also wash their belongings.
When Guzman was not seen again for some time, officials checked his cell, found it empty, and issued an alert.
Altiplano is a maximum security prison in south central Mexico.
Officials not only launched a manhunt, they also closed Toluca International Airport, a 45-minute drive away.