– At least 75 members of a powerful Brazilian drug cartel escaped from a prison in northern Paraguay through a tunnel Sunday, pulling off an escape plan that officials had known about for more than a month but were unable to stop.

The breach is the latest and most serious sign that Brazilian cartels, which use Paraguay as a transit point to smuggle arms and drugs into Brazil, have penetrated the security agencies. "This is a prison break without precedent," Paraguay's justice minister, Cecilia Pérez, said Sunday. "This is the biggest prison break from our facilities."

Members of the cartel, the First Capital Command, had spent weeks digging the tunnel from their wing of the Pedro Juan Caballero prison, piling dozens of bags of dirt into a cell. On Sunday around 4 a.m., aided by prison guards, the cartel members sneaked out, officials said.

The prison is near the Brazilian border, and "by now they've probably crossed over to the other side," Pérez said. "This is very serious."

A month ago, Pérez announced that Paraguay's government had learned of a plot by the cartel — known as the PCC, its initials in Portuguese — to pay guards $80,000 to facilitate a cartel leader's escape.

Pérez said Sunday that it was clear that corrections officials had enabled the plan to be carried out. At least five prison guards have been suspended and are under investigation, she said.

Paraguay's interior minister, Euclides Acevedo, said the government was in a state of "maximum alert" and had dispatched its "best investigators" to the area in an effort to recapture the prisoners.

New York Times