updated 9/21/2006 6:38:21 AM ET 2006-09-21T10:38:21

Investigators questioned relatives of six escapees from a South Texas jail and trolled the fugitives’ known hangouts as the hunt for the men stretched into a third day Thursday.

Investigators said they were working nonstop to find five alleged members of a violent drug gang and a former police officer about to face trial on drug charges. All escaped from a privately run federal jail near the Mexican border late Tuesday.

The men overpowered a guard and cut through several fences to escape, officials said. The fugitive group was thought to have split up but the men probably remained in South Texas, said Deputy Joe Magallan of the U.S. Marshals Service.

“The investigators still believe they’re here within the country,” Magallan said late Wednesday.

More than 60 local and federal law-enforcement officers using helicopters and bloodhounds searched Wednesday near the East Hidalgo Detention Center, about 20 miles north of the border.

A four square-mile security perimeter was set up around the area during the initial investigation but was later lifted.

Door-to-door search
Officers searched door-to-door Wednesday, residents were asked to stay home with their doors locked, La Villa schools were searched by the sheriff’s department and closed for the day, and a highway near the detention center was shut down.

“A lot of people are scared. They canceled school and everything,” said Raul Castillo, a 26-year-old clerk at a Quick Mart in this town of 1,300 about 220 miles south of San Antonio.

Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Trevino said in a press release that the men were likely picked up in a vehicle on state Highway 107, which runs in front of the facility.

“This conclusion was arrived at because the ’hot trails’ tracked by the bloodhounds all led to the roadway where the scent stopped,” the statement said.

Among the escapees was former McAllen police officer Francisco Meza-Rojas, whose trial was scheduled to begin Oct. 3 on federal drug trafficking charges. The other escapees were illegal immigrants from Mexico alleged to be members of Raza Unida, a violent drug gang.

‘Very dangerous and armed’
Authorities determined that the inmates gained access to several exit doors after overpowering a guard with a homemade knife and locking him in a room, then used “some sort of wire cutter” to breach the fence lines, the statement said. No alarm was sounded.

The guard was not injured, Trevino said.

“We’re considering all six individuals very dangerous and armed,” Trevino said.

The facility is a minimum-to-maximum security unit with 950 beds, about 800 of which are federal. LCS Corrections Services Inc., of Lafayette, La., bought the jail about five years ago.

Magallan said authorities had received some reports of sightings of the escapees, but none were confirmed. Investigators interviewed the fugitives’ families, friends and acquaintances, he said.

“We have requested for Mexican authorities to assist us in the investigation,” he said. “Right now we don’t have too much information on the family members in Mexico.”

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