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Mexico drug lord escapes prison through underground tunnel

12 July 2015, 17:21

Mexico City - Mexican drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman has escaped from a maximum-security prison for the second time in 14 years, sparking a massive manhunt Sunday and dealing an embarrassing blow to the government.

The kingpin was last spotted by security cameras entering the shower area of the Altiplano prison, 90 kilometers (55 miles) west of Mexico City, on Saturday night before disappearing, the National Security Commission said.

An alarm was issued after "he was not visible" for a while and his cell was empty, the commission said in a statement in the early hours of Sunday.

"An operation to locate him was deployed in the area and on roads of neighboring states," it said, adding that flights were suspended at the nearby Toluca airport.

Soldiers manned checkpoints at a toll booth of the Mexico City-Toluca highway, using flashlights to look at the faces of car passengers and searching car trunks and the backs of trucks.

The Altiplano prison in central Mexico State houses the country's most notorious drug lords, murderers and kidnappers.

The security commission did not have more details about the escape and a spokesman declined to comment, telling AFP a press conference was scheduled for Sunday at 1200 GMT.

Guzman, 58, whose Sinaloa cartel shipped narcotics across the globe, was considered the world's most wanted drug lord before his arrest.

His 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.

This time around, Guzman managed to give the slip after spending just 17 months in prison.

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.

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. The prison break will now certainly overshadow his trip.

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 $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.

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