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AMLO: Prison island will become tourist paradise

Mexico's version of Alcatraz enters a new era under president's plans

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The Maria Madre federal prison is guarded by 49 guards and 80 Navy personnel. Photo: Archive

Islas Marias, a chain of Pacific islands off Nayarit, will go out of the prison business and go into tourism.

Its main island, Maria Madre, houses 3,000 prisoners. But the island, which enjoys optimal weather, will be transformed into a money-making tourist resort under plans announced by President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. The mean temperature of the island is between 84F/29C and 89F/32C throughout the year.

“It is a penitentiary that dates from the time of Porfirio Diaz, 1905, and it has had a history of punishment, torture and repression for more than a century,” said the Mexican president.

An official and more detailed announcement is planned Tuesday.

The prisoners enjoy certain freedoms within the island due to their isolation, and are guarded by only 49 guards and 80 members of the Navy. The real enforcers are the sharks and 100 kilometers / 62 miles of sea that separate María Madre from the mainland.

It’s not paradise for the prisoners. In 2013, Animal Político reported a riot after prisoners complained about the lack of water and food, and the difficulty of receiving visits from relatives. Visitors pay high travel costs and endure a tedious verification process to enter the island.

In March 2018, Lopez Obrador met with Nayarit businessmen and raised the possibility of turning the island into a tourist complex.

In addition to the federal prison, Maria Madre island is the site of several federal institutions, such as the Secretariat of Public Education, the Secretariat of the Environment, the Secretariat of Communications and Transport, the post office, and the Secretariat of the Navy.

Catholic Church officials, nuns and teachers also live there in a colony governed by a state official who is both the governor of the islands and chief judge. The military command is independent and is led by a Navy officer.

When built, the prison was hailed as an escape-proof complex, much like Alcatraz. Until 1950, the prison was a feared detention center. Over 29,000 prisoners over time were subject to violence, disease and forced labor.

Its boast of escape-proof captivity was countered with a series of prison breaks. At least 76 escapes in the last 25 years include 29 in 1986 alone.

Corrupt guards were largely blamed for the escape of 28 convicted murderers and kidnappers. Only 10 escapees were ever captured.

In the 1990s, the prison was deactivated, but by 2003, despite the island becoming a biosphere reserve, the prison system lingered.

The federal penitentiary there was reactivated in 2004, and prisoners from around the country were transferred there.

Sources: Info Bae, Diario de Yucatan

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