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Maximum Security Not Enough As Mexican Drug Lord Stages Second Escape


Let's turn to Mexico and news of a dramatic prison break there. Some time Saturday night, Mexico's most notorious drug kingpin entered the shower in the maximum-security prison where he's been held for just over a year and then disappeared through an elaborate tunnel system. This is the second time Joaquin El Chapo Guzman, leader of the powerful Sinaloa drug cartel, has broken out of prison. As NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, his escape is a humiliating setback for a Mexican government that claims it's cracking down on cartels.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Jaws dropped and heads shook in disbelief as Mexico's national security commissioner described how the top drug trafficker in the world had slipped out of prison. Monte Alejandro Rubido said the great escape happened sometime around 9 Saturday night. Guzman went to take a shower, the only part of the cell not covered by the prison's video surveillance system.



KAHN: "After realizing he hadn't reappeared on the video, guards rushed into his cell to find it empty. Guzman had slipped through a 20-inch hole in the shower floor, climbed down a ladder some 33 feet and met up with a large tunnel, which ran nearly one mile straight out of the prison," says Rubido.


RUBIDO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "The tunnel had plastic piping throughout the length of it," says Rubido, "presumably to provide ventilation." Oxygen tanks were also found in a rail system with a motorcycle rigged up to run down the mile-long tracks. Rubido speculated to haul out dirt during the tunnel's excavation. Its exit point surfaced at an illegal construction site in the small town of Santa Juana, which sits in the shadow of the prison known as Altiplano.

Late yesterday, helicopters whirled around the prison and the town. Highways were heavily patrolled, and roadblocks went up in neighboring states. For a time, flights were delayed out of a nearby international airport. Fifty-seven-year-old Facundo Carmona, a local farmer, sat outside his house drinking beer with friends, shaking his head in disbelief.

FACUNDO CARMONA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "What's the point of all that security at the prison if the guy is just going to walk out," says Carmona. Like many in the town, he doesn't believe authorities' version that Guzman tunneled his way out. He speculated that the drug lord had a lot of help. Thirty employees of the prison have been detained for questioning.

ALEJANDRO HOPE: This escape could only have happened with some relatively high-level complicity.

KAHN: Alejandro Hope is a security expert and editor at eldailypost.com. He says Guzman's escape has been a big blow to President Enrique Pena Nieto's well-crafted reputation as someone who has cracked down hard on cartel kingpins. During Pena Nieto's administration, 11 top traffickers have been either killed or captured, including Guzman who was arrested after a spectacular manhunt last year. Pena Nieto had just arrived in France on the state visit when news broke of Guzman's escape condemned the breakout in an audio message sent to media outlets.


ENRIQUE PENA NIETO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "Without a doubt, this represents an affront to the Mexican states," said Pena Nieto. But he added he has confidence in the institution that Guzman will be recaptured. Attorney General Loretta Lynch offered U.S. assistance. Guzman is wanted in several U.S. cities on drug trafficking charges. His Sinaloa cartel is believed to be the major supplier of cocaine, meth and heroin across the U.S.-Mexico border and hasn't appeared to lose any of its power or reach since Guzman had been imprisoned for the past 16 months. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Mexico City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.