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Manhunt Underway For 'El Chapo,' Who Escaped Maximum Security Prison In Mexico


Mexico's most powerful drug trafficker has escaped from prison again. Joaquin El Chapo Guzman escaped through an elaborate tunnel system from the country's maximum security prison. This is the second time Guzman has been able to get out of a Mexican prison. He escaped in 2001 before being captured last year in a spectacular dragnet that involved intelligence and agents from the U.S. We're joined now by NPR's Carrie Kahn in Mexico City. Carrie, this is just kind of incredible. How on earth was he able to escape?

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: It's just amazing. The national security commissioner was giving the press conference and describing these tunnels. Everybody was just shaking their heads and jaws were dropping. Chapo had a cell in the maximum-security prison, and he had his own shower area. And that was the only place that there was no video surveillance on him. He was in that area, I guess, for too long. And so then they decided they better go in and look for him, and he was gone by the time they went and noticed that.

There was opening they found, right there in the tunnel. They described it as a rectangle of 20 inches wide. That just seems amazing that he could fit through there. Then he drops down - 33 feet down. They found a ladder there that he walked down to that connected to the main tunnel. And now that tunnel was complete with lights, a rail system. It even had PVC piping there, presumably so that he could have ventilation. They even found oxygen tanks.

And that tunnel was nearly a mile long and connected to a home outside the prison in a little town that looked like it was a construction site. And there had been guards there and workers. And it was under construction, but it wasn't permanent. And this is the way he got out. That long tunnel was 5 feet 6 inches tall, and Chapo is 5-foot-5, so he could - he could go through it without even having to bend over. It's just an amazing feat.

RATH: It's almost unbelievable. Tell us about Guzman and the cartel he leads - the Sinaloa Cartel.

KAHN: The Sinaloa Cartel remains the largest and most powerful cartel. It is known to be the largest trafficker of heroine, marijuana, meth into the U.S. - controls most of the U.S. border crossing into the U.S. It hasn't lost any of that power since Chapo was arrested last year. And he's just notorious for these tunnels. He eluded escape last year through an intricate intricate tunnel situation in his home state of Sinaloa when they captured them. And he's also known for building elaborate tunnels with these rail systems and lights and everything into the U.S. border, usually around the California - Tijuana-San Diego area. So tunnels are his thing, and he did it again.

RATH: And, you know, we mentioned that he did escape previously back in 2001. It took 13 years to capture him again. He has charges pending against him in the United States. Why didn't Mexico just extradite him to the U.S. if he was such a flight risk?

KAHN: That's a great question. That is the question everybody's asking. Mexico insisted that they wanted to prosecute him in their own country. It was a right of national sovereignty. And we got assurances from the head of the attorney general's office here and from the president himself that he would not escape again. This is a major embarrassment for the Mexican government - a major embarrassment.

RATH: NPR's Carrie Kahn in Mexico City. Carrie, thank you.

KAHN: Thank you. You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.