In a major embarrassment for Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, the country’s most notorious drug lord, Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman, broke out of a high-security prison on Saturday night for the second time, escaping in a tunnel built right under his cell.
Guzman was one of the world's top crime bosses, running the powerful Sinaloa Cartel, which has smuggled billions of dollars worth of cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamines into the United States and fought vicious turf wars with other Mexican gangs.
The flight of Guzman, who became a legendary figure in villages scattered in the sierra where he grew up in northwestern Mexico, seriously undermines Pena Nieto's pledge to bring order to a country racked by years of gang violence.
Guzman first 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.
For the past year and a half, Guzman had been incarcerated in the Altiplano federal facility that holds the top captured drug bosses and has been described as the country’s most impenetrable prison.
That changed late Saturday, when Guzman slipped out of the prison through a rectangular opening in the shower area of his cell that led to a nearly mile-long tunnel running out of the prison, underneath rolling corn fields and cow pastures and ending at a small cinder-block house decorated with Christmas lights that residents say was built after Guzmán’s imprisonment.
According to the Washington Post, Guzman's jailbreak could pose as a major irritant in relations between the US and Mexican governments. American officials had pressed for Guzmán’s extradition so that he could be prosecuted for drug crimes and held in a more secure facility.
But the Nieto administration refused to grant his extradition to the United States, insisting that it would prosecute Guzman at home, as a showcase of Mexican judicial independence.
Nieto, speaking to reporters on Sunday from France where he is traveling on a state visit, 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," the Mexican president said.
The US Justice Department describes Guzman's Sinaloa Cartel as "one of the world's most prolific, violent and powerful drug cartels."
"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.