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Mexico Saves Infamous Island Prison

Islas Marias might have become a nature reserve but for the overcrowded penal system. Nation will spend $2 million to revive the institution.

March 13, 2005|Mark Stevenson | Associated Press Writer

MEXICO CITY — Bedeviled by killings, escapes and scandals at Mexico's prisons, authorities are trying a number of novel steps to regain control, including using soldiers in armored vehicles to guard the country's top-security prison.

But perhaps no measure is as striking as the decision to revive a once-dreaded island penal colony at a time when other nations are converting such prisons into nature reserves or tourist attractions.

Just a month after Panama closed the only other penal colony remaining in the Americas, Mexico announced it would spend $2 million to revive its Islas Marias jail.

Island penal colonies have been used around the world since the 1700s as remote, escape-proof places to "rehabilitate" inmates through hard labor. Most also tried to be self-supporting and to help settle remote territories.

Almost all gained reputations for harsh conditions, and almost none survived.

In the Americas, France shuttered its notorious Devil's Island off Guiana in 1946. Chile's Santa Maria prison closed in the late 1980s, Costa Rica's Isla San Lucas in 1991 and Brazil's Isla Grande in 1994. Peru dramatically ended its El Fronton island prison in 1986: Gunboats blew up most of the buildings to put down a riot, killing more than 100 inmates.

Panama is converting its Coiba Island penal colony to a nature reserve, exactly what many Mexican environmentalists had wanted to do with the four Marias islands, which lie 70 miles off Mexico's southern Pacific coast.

Buildings on the Marias colony were being closed, 80% of the prisoners were shipped back to the mainland and a cleanup was underway. But in December, Mexican officials did an about-face and sent 150 new prisoners.

"Given the problems of overcrowding, under-funding and corruption, we have to urgently restructure the country's prison system," said Public Safety Secretary Ramon Huerta. "The first step will be to revive the Islas Marias penal colony."

The decision reflected Mexico's struggle with jail overcrowding and inmates who continue criminal activities from prison. On Jan. 14, hundreds of soldiers and federal police surrounded La Palma Prison, just west of Mexico City, after investigators determined that drug lords were conducting business from the inside.

The problems have even touched the remote Islas Marias: Three inmates disappeared from the island in January, apparently escaping with help from a boat or aircraft.

The revival of the Islas Marias colony was a blow to environmentalists like Ramon Ojeda Mestre, who spent several years helping direct the complicated cleanup of the islands, which are home to unique yellow-headed parrots and brown hummingbirds.

But although Ojeda called the decision "infinitely sad," the prisoners weren't mourning. The odd truth is that many didn't want to leave. Despite its history of violence, disease and forced labor, the colony is a place where inmates can roam free, build their own houses, grow food, even distill liquor.

Ojeda recalled hearing complaints as the colony's population was reduced from 3,000 a few years ago to 600 today. "When we told some they were going to leave, they would often cry, or go hide in the hills," he said.

Panama saw the same thing at Coiba Island despite a fearsome past, including the decapitations of five inmates by other prisoners in 1998. Many of the final 27 prisoners didn't want to leave, said Lider Sucre, an environmentalist who hired one former inmate to stay as a park ranger in the new nature reserve.

"While Coiba was a hell for some, for others it represented a sort of paradise because here they had freedom of movement," Sucre said of the island 20 miles out in the Pacific. "They could hunt, farm, play basketball, do things they couldn't in a normal prison."

Prisoners on Mexico's Islas Marias must contend with scorpions, snakes, mosquitoes and, at one time, hard labor on the salt flats. But Ojeda said a school, a clinic and church made it somewhat homey.

Only inmates with good behavior are sent to the colony. They have to show up for roll call, but some are allowed to live with their families. Others openly brew moonshine. Children also have been born on Islas Marias, but they are sent to the mainland at age 11 -- an attempt to ensure they will not be corrupted.

Ironically, the penal colonies sealed their own fate by long keeping developers at bay.

A penal colony allowed an island "to remain in its natural state," said Panama's tourism chief, Ligia Castro. In the modern era of mass tourism, that made them more valuable as tourist sites or nature reserves than jails.

Huerta, Mexico's prison boss, thinks keeping the Islas Marias penal colony will be compatible with creating a nature reserve there.

"We're going to send prisoners there who have experience in farming," he said -- although many of the "farmers" in Mexican jails are there for growing marijuana, a crop rumored to grow abundantly on the Islas Marias.

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