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132 inmates tunnel out of Mexico prison near US border

Adriana Alvarado / AP

A group of Mexican federal police stand in front of the prison in Piedras Negras, Mexico, late Monday.

MEXICO CITY -- More than 130 inmates escaped through a tunnel from a Mexican prison on the border with the United States in one of the biggest jailbreaks the country's beleaguered penal system has suffered in recent years.

Homero Ramos, attorney general of the northern state of Coahuila, said 132 inmates of the Cereso prison in the city of Piedras Negras had escaped through the tunnel in an old carpentry workshop, then cut the wire surrounding the complex.

Corrupt prison officials may have helped the inmates escape, said Jorge Luis Moran, chief of public security in Coahuila, adding that U.S. authorities had been alerted to help capture the fugitives if they try to cross the border.

Eighty-six of the escaped prisoners were serving sentences or pending trials for federal crimes, including drug trafficking, the Zocala newspaper reported. The rest faced state charges, it said.

Many challenges for incoming president
The jailbreak is a reminder of the challenges that await Enrique Pena Nieto, the incoming president, who has pledged to reduce crime in the country after six years of increased gang-related violence under President Felipe Calderon.

Many of Mexico's prisons are overcrowded and struggle to counter the influence of criminal gangs that can use their financial muscle to corrupt those in charge.

Ramos said that the state government of Coahuila was offering a reward of $15,700 for information leading to the capture of each fugitive.

Mexico's drug war: No end in sight

The Piedras Negras complex housed a total of 734 inmates, and the tunnel through which the prisoners escaped was about four feet wide, 9 1/2 feet deep and 23 feet long, Ramos said.

Piedras Negras is about 150 miles southewest of San Antonio, Texas.

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Mass breakouts
There have been numerous mass breakouts in the last few years from Mexico's penal system, and prison officials are frequently accused of complicity with drug cartels.

A video "mockumentary" that shows children as kidnappers, corrupt cops and drug traffickers sparked a fierce debate in violence-torn Mexico. Msnbc.com's Dara Brown reports.

At the end of 2010, more than 140 inmates escaped a prison in the border city of Nuevo Laredo. This February, at least 44 people died in a fight between rival gangs at an overcrowded prison in northern Mexico.

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Pena Nieto has pledged to reform the prisons, though experts say he will struggle to make an impact unless he combines this with root-and-branch reform of the justice system.

Pena Nieto, 46, of the centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party, will take office in December. The party was widely accused of corruption during its long rule between 1929 and 2000, and he has promised to break with that checkered past.

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Gang violence
Northern Mexico has been hit particularly hard by violence stemming from brutal turf wars between drug gangs that have overshadowed Calderon's conservative administration.

Calderon has used the military to try and crack down on the gangs, and has captured or killed many of the top drug lords.

President: Mexico gang-related deaths fall by 15 percent in 2012

But his efforts have come at a price.

Mexico's drug war is also part of a drug culture with roots in music, movies and even religion

Gang-related violence has surged on Calderon's watch, and fighting between cartels and their clashes with security forces have claimed more than 55,000 lives over the past six years.

Last week the Mexican Navy captured one of the biggest kingpins active near the U.S.-Mexican border, the leader of the Gulf Cartel, Jorge Costilla, known as "El Coss."

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Analysts forecast this would lead to an increase in criminal activity in northern Mexico as rival gangs fought for control of lucrative smuggling routes in the area.

Reuters and WOAI.com contributed to this report.

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