132 prison inmates escape near U.S.-Mexico border

PIEDRAS NEGRAS, Mexico — More than 130 inmates escaped through a tunnel from a prison in northern Mexico on Monday, setting off a massive search by police and soldiers in an area close to the U.S. border.

Authorities in Coahuila state said Tuesday that the 132 inmates fled the prison in Piedras Negras, a city across the border from Eagle Pass, Texas, through a tunnel that was 21 feet long and 4 feet in diameter, then cut their way through a chain-link barrier and escaped onto a neighboring property.

But later Tuesday, officials said they had found three of the missing inmates, all women, hiding in a prison visiting area — bringing to 129 the number of still-escaped prisoners.

Coahuila Attorney General Homero Ramos Gloria said the director and two other employees of the state prison have been detained for an investigation into the escape and are being questioned about possible involvement by authorities at the penitentiary.

The prison houses about 730 inmates, and the escape represented almost a fifth of its population.

The tunnel “was not made today. It had been there for months,” Mr. Ramos told the Milenio TV station. “The prison was not overcrowded, none of our prisons are. We have 132 inmates escaping through a tunnel, and it doesn’t make sense.”

Authorities say they also found ropes and electric cables they think were used in the break.

Federal police units and Mexican troops were deployed to search for the inmates, and authorities in Coahuila state offered rewards of up to $15,000 for information leading to the arrests of each prisoner.

Mr. Ramos said 70 members of an elite military special forces unit had been sent to search for the prison along with federal police.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection said it was aware of the prison break and officials were in communication with Mexican law enforcement, according to an emailed statement.

Mr. Ramos said in a news conference that police were investigating a shootout 160 miles south of Piedras Negras after the prison break to determine if any of the four people killed were fugitives.

He said 86 of the escaped inmates were serving sentences or pending trials for federal crimes, such as drug trafficking, and the rest faced state charges.

Other Mexican states have said in the past that they are not prepared to handle highly dangerous federal prisoners.

It was one of the larger prison breaks to hit Mexico’s troubled penitentiary system in recent years.

In December 2010, 153 inmates escaped from a prison in the northern city of Nuevo Laredo, across from Laredo, Texas. Authorities charged 41 guards with aiding the inmates in that escape.

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