Nuevo Laredo, Mexico — Some 5,000 Mexican troops and police officers hunted for 132 inmates near the U.S. border Tuesday after the group escaped in broad daylight through a tunnel dug under their prison.
Backed by a helicopter, soldiers, and officers fanned out across a region bordering Texas, causing traffic jams as they inspected trucks and cars, one day after the massive prison break in the northern state of Coahuila.
"There are some 5,000 soldiers and police officers in the operation and authorities in four Mexican states and Texas have been alerted," Coahuila public security chief Jorge Luis Moran told Milenio radio.
The prisoners escaped one-by-one Monday through a seven-meter-long (22-foot-long) tunnel that started in the carpentry workshop and hit surface at the prison's northern watchtower in the border city of Piedras Negras.
After emerging from the tunnel, the inmates cut through a perimeter fence and slipped away through a vacant lot, Coahuila state attorney general Homero Ramos Gloria said in a statement.
He was quoted as saying in El Universal newspaper that the breakout was believed to have occurred shortly after 2:00 pm local time, but it was at least another hour before guards discovered the inmates were gone.
The prison's director, security chief and shift guard have been detained and all of the penitentiary's guards will be summoned for questioning over possible complicity in the escape, Ramos told broadcaster Televisa.
The guards must explain "why nobody found out that this tunnel was being built," he added.
The prison is across the border from Eagle Pass, Texas, and U.S. Border Patrol agents joined the manhunt for the escapees, Ramos said.
Several prison escapes have taken place in the last two years in Mexico, a country struggling to stem a relentless wave of murders and kidnappings committed by warring drug cartels.
The Piedras Negras prison break was the second biggest since December 2010, when 141 inmates fled from the Nuevo Laredo prison in the northeastern state of Tamaulipas.
"The escape from the Piedras Negras state prison is deplorable," President Felipe Calderon wrote on Twitter. "The vulnerability of state judicial institutions must be corrected."
Authorities in Coahuila said they were investigating whether escaped convicts were involved in a shoot-out with a special police unit in the nearby town of Castanos in which four suspects were killed.
The prosecutor's office said 86 of the escaped inmates were in prison for federal crimes while the other 46 faced a variety of charges.
The Piedras Negras prison, with a capacity for 1,000 prisoners, was housing 734 inmates when the escape took place, the attorney general was quoted as saying.
The state government offered rewards of 200,000 pesos ($15,600) for information leading to the capture of each inmate.
The tunnel entrance was in an area of the prison that had been used as a carpentry shop. Authorities said it was 2.90 meters (9.5 feet) deep, 1.20 meters wide.
Prosecutors investigating the escape found fragments of a BlackBerry phone, pieces of a SIM card, a pair of flip-flops, two other flip-flops, three 1.20-meter-long pieces of rope, an electric wire, and a broken padlock.
Mexico's prisons are often the scene of riots and murders, and 171 people were killed in the institutions in 2011, according to the National Human Rights Commission.
Last February, 30 members of the Zetas drug gang escaped from a prison in the northern state of Nuevo Leon during a prison massacre that left 44 inmates from the rival Gulf cartel dead.
Some prison guards confessed to taking part in the plot.
"The drug cartels have taken their internal wars into the prisons," said Jose Luis Musi, a prison issues expert at the United Nations University.
© AFP 2013