PIEDRAS NEGRAS, Mexico – Authorities suspect the Zetas drug cartel orchestrated the mass tunnel escape of 131 inmates at a northern Mexico border prison, apparently to replenish its ranks after suffering blows from a rival gang.
Two escapees have since been captured, according to El Universal newspaper, and three female inmates initially thought to have been fugitives were found hiding in a prison visiting area, where they took refuge after being threatened by the inmates who led the breakout.
U.S. border officials said they were on alert, and Eagle Pass Police Chief Tony Castaneda said his department had received the list of 87 escaped federal inmates. No escapees had been reported crossing the border.
The Zetas cartel has been fighting a bloody turf battle with the Sinaloa cartel in that border state. According to Jorge Luis Moran, public safety secretary of the northern border state of Coahuila, the Zetas controlled the drug corridor until 2010, when members of the powerful Sinaloa gang were sent to the state.
Moran said the Zetas have also been hit by arrests, fatal shootings and guns seizures. "They are running out of people," he 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 shootout.
The escape tunnel was 21 feet long and 4 feet 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.
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 Calderon called the jailbreak "deplorable" in a statement posted on his Twitter account Tuesday. He appeared to re-ignite a long-running dispute between federal and state authorities, writing that "the vulnerability of state law enforcement institutions must be corrected."
Federal authorities have been pushing to have all state and municipal police and law enforcement officials submit to background and anti-drug checks, as well as vetting for possible links to organized crime.
But state authorities have been dragging their feet. On Monday, federal Interior Secretary Alejandro Poire said that only 180,000 of the country's 430,000 city and state police officers had been vetted and checked and that about 65,000 of those tested had failed the tests.
Moran complained that Coahuila's attempts to comply with the vetting process may have been responsible for the low number of guards on duty at the Piedras Negras prison when the jailbreak occurred. Only 12 guards were watching over 734 inmates, after some guards and officials were dismissed after failing background checks, he said.
Monday's prison break was the biggest in Mexico since Dec. 17, 2010, when 141 inmates escaped from a penitentiary in Nuevo Laredo, a border city in the northeastern state of Tamaulipas.
Associated Press and EFE contributed to this report.
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