x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Mexico's Zetas drug cartel behind mass prison break

Mexican officials say the cartel orchestrated a tunnel escape of more than 130 inmates, possibly to replenish its ranks.

PIEDRAS NEGRAS, MEXICO // Mexican officials said they suspect the brutal Zetas drug cartel orchestrated a mass tunnel escape of more than 130 inmates on Monday at a northern Mexico border prison, possibly to replenish its ranks after suffering blows from a rival gang.

Jorge Luis Moran, public safety secretary of the northern border state of Coahuila, said that inmates inside the prison reported that those who plotted the escape were Zetas members and that some prisoners not in the gang were forced to go along.

"Clearly, the Zetas are behind this escape," Mr Moran said.

Police are also investigating whether the prison break might be linked to seizures of empty passenger buses in the region that could have been used to pick up the escapees and an attack on police officers deployed to the prison Monday, he said. Four alleged criminals were killed in that shoot-out.

State officials said that 132 inmates had escaped through a tunnel from the prison in Piedras Negras, a city across the border from Eagle Pass, Texas.

On Tuesday, Mr Moran revised the total to 131. He said three female inmates initially thought to have been fugitives were found hiding in a prison visiting area, but two other prisoners not initially included in the original tally were discovered to have escaped as well.

Late Tuesday, Moran announced two of the inmates were captured after a shooting with state police. They were armed in an SUV driving about 40 miles away from the prison, Moran told the Milenio TV station.

The escape tunnel was 6.5 metres long and 1.2m in diameter, and after passing through it, the prisoners cut their way through a chain link barrier, authorities said.

Federal police units and Mexican troops, including 70 members of an elite military special forces unit, were searching Tuesday throughout the state of Coahuila for inmates who fled the prison.

The Zetas cartel has been fighting a bloody turf battle with the Sinaloa cartel in that border state. Moran said the Zetas controlled the drug corridor until 2010, when members of the powerful Sinaloa gang were sent to the state. The Sinaloa cartel is led by Mexico's most wanted man, Joaquin Guzmán.

Moran said the Zetas have also been hit by arrests, fatal shootings and guns seizures. "They are running out of people," he said.

Collusion between guards and drug gangs has played a role in past Mexican prison escapes. Following the mass break in Piedras Negras, the director and two other employees of the state prison were detained for an investigation.

President Felipe Calderón called the jailbreak "deplorable" in a statement posted on his Twitter account. He appeared to reignite a long-running dispute between federal and state authorities, writing that "the vulnerability of state law enforcement institutions must be corrected".