PIEDRAS NEGRAS, Mexico - Officials said Tuesday they suspect the brutal Zetas drug cartel orchestrated the mass tunnel escape of more than 130 inmates 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, told The Associated Press 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," 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 shootout.
State officials said Monday night 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, 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 21 feet (6 1/2 metres) long and 4 feet (1.2 metres) 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 Guzman.
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 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.
In February, nine guards at a prison near the northern city of Monterrey confessed to helping 30 Zetas drug gangsters escape. Not only did the Zetas flee, but during their jailbreak, other Zetas slaughtered 44 inmates who belonged to the rival Gulf cartel.
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 that escape.
State authorities complain that their relatively low-security prisons are forced to hold dangerous inmates being held on federal charges like drug trafficking and organized crime.
They have called on federal officials to take federal inmates out of state prisons, and some of the most dangerous federal inmates had been transferred out of the Piedras Negras prison in recent months.
Coahuila Attorney General Homero Ramos said 86 of the escaped inmates were serving sentences or awaiting verdicts for federal crimes, such as drug trafficking, and the rest faced state charges.
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.
Associated Press writer Oscar Villalba reported this story in Piedras Negras and E. Eduardo Castillo reported from Mexico City.