Mexico’s prison paradise retreat emerges in the Pacific

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A colorful mural of former South African leader Nelson Mandela, himself held for years on an island prison, welcomes visitors to remodeled buildings at the main island at Islas Marías, Mexico. The entrance leads to a whitewashed church and a museum featuring the Mexican writer José Revueltas, who was imprisoned there during the 1930s for his work in the Communist Party. Photo: Getty

Islas Marias, an island chain off the Mexican start of Nayarit, is a Pacific Island paradise. Especially now that the prison is gone.

Its main island, Maria Madre, housed 3,000 prisoners since the 1905, during the repressive Porfirio Diaz era. Its optimal weather, however, makes it more suitable for more privileged guests, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador announced back in early 2019 when plans for a tourist destination were unveiled. That same year is when the prison closed as a cost-cutting measure and following a series of penal reforms.

It’s still emerging as a viable destination. The prison is being converted into an environmental education hub, the Muros de Agua-Jose Revueltas Environmental and Cultural Education Center, named after the prison’s most famous inmate.

Protecting wildlife remains a priority on Islas Marias. Photo: Getty

For now, overnight stays are not allowed, however. Officials are very cautious about preserving its ecology. The reserve is a prime spot for spotting whale sharks or parrots and is an important nesting site for a variety of birds, sharks, and sea turtles.

The UNESCO Natural Heritage Site, home to species such as the yellow-headed parrot, is a prime spot for bird watching. Its coral reefs and surfing conditions are also said to be splendid.

Its history with humans, however, may seem odd and often dark. Its first prisoners were opponents of the Porfirio Díaz regime and endured brutal conditions. Its most recent prisoners enjoyed certain freedoms within the island due to its isolation  — it’s a four-hour boat ride from the mainland — and were guarded by only 49 guards and 80 members of the Navy. The real enforcers were the sharks and choppy waters.

But Animal Político reported a riot in 2013 after prisoners complained about the lack of water and food, and the difficulty of receiving visits from relatives. Visitors paid high travel costs and endured a tedious verification process to enter the island.

When built, the prison was hailed as an escape-proof complex, much like Alcatraz. Still, at least 76 escapes were reported in the last 25 years, including 29 in 1986 alone. Corrupt guards were largely blamed, and only 10 were captured.

Perhaps island prisons are going out of fashion. Devil’s Island in French Guiana, immortalized in the film “Papillon,” closed in 1946. Also movie-famous, Alcatraz in San Francisco closed in 1963. Later, others in Chile, Costa Rica and Brazil were shuttered. The most abrupt was Peru’s El Fronton in 1986 when the government used gunboats to put down a riot, killing more than 100 inmates, the Associated Press reported.

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

“What was a hell is becoming a paradise,” López Obrador said.

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