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With the headcount complete, the two guards pulled away from a state correctional center near Roswell with five prisoners and all of their belongings in tow for the last leg of what had already been a long journey.

It wasn’t long before they stopped in Artesia to put gas in the van. After leaving the convenience store, the guards turned off the main highway and crossed through nearly 200 miles of desert and a mountain range before arriving at their final destination in Las Cruces around 1 a.m. Thursday.

Then came the startling discovery. Undeterred by shackles, two prisoners — a convicted murder and another convict with a violent history — somehow slipped away in white prison jumpsuits and vanished into the night with no one noticing, possibly for hours. They hitched a ride and made it to Albuquerque around the same time that authorities notified the public of the escape.

Now, following their apprehension, corrections officials are still struggling to answer embarrassing questions about the missteps that were made, including how the men could escape when authorities say they were last accounted for in leg irons and belly chains. The questions only helped to highlight concerns raised in recent months as the department struggles with a budget crisis, a guard shortage, overworked employees, and other problems.

Gregg Marcantel, the state corrections secretary, said the two unidentified guards were placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of the investigation into the escape.

“Anything less would be remiss,” he said as he left Friday’s briefing. State Police Chief Pete Kassetas wouldn’t say whether investigators had determined how Cruz, convicted in the death of a man over drugs in Raton, and Clah, who was serving time for armed robbery and shooting at a police officer, escaped the fortified prison van that was transporting them from the state penitentiary in Santa Fe to Las Cruces.

Authorities raised the likelihood the getaway was planned and that the fugitives were receiving assistance from others. But they wouldn’t disclose what surveillance video from the Artesia gas station may have revealed.

“We’re definitely talking to family members, friends, associates, whatnot. They’re getting help, no doubt about it,” Kassetas said.

Standard precautions for transporting prison inmates include a search of each prisoner and the vehicle at each stop for clandestine tools or weapons, said Gary Klugiewicz, a former inmate transport trainer with security consultant Vistelar in Wisconsin. He said officer fatigue and complacency can undermine security at the end of long a long trip.

High-risk inmates should rarely — if ever — be allowed out of sight.

“What if they have a medical emergency?” he said. “If you’re sitting in a van, the point is, and you have a murderer behind you, how much would you have visual contact?”