This was the life of the prisoners who refused to leave the Marias Islands


Mexico – Prisoners and guardians living in prison Marias Islands in the Mexican Pacific Ocean weathered Hurricane Willa in October 2018, but not the Mexican government's decision to close this year penitentiary opened in 1905.

What was for 114 years a prison island will now become a cultural center that will bear the name of Jose Revueltas (1914-1976), which was held there twice in the 30's of last century.

Throughout its history, the prison housed 64,000 inmates living in semi-freedom, and on March 8 the last 584 went to a prison in the northern state of Coahuila.

This is the entrance to what was a federal prison in the Islas Marías, Isla María Madre, in the Pacific Ocean, about 240 kilometers off the coast of the state of Nayarit. Photo: AFP

The interior and exterior of the Marías Islands

Although the island, which is 132 km from the mainland, gets postcard images with calm seas and waves that barely touch the rocky surface of its beaches, there are the scars left by Willa: fallen roofs, palm trees torn from the ground and barbed wires in floor.

The prisoners, tasked with cleaning the island, did not have time to put everything in order in the four months after the hurricane.

A block of concrete houses forms the area where the less dangerous prisoners lived. Inside, there were rooms with room for eight prisoners with cement beds and a bathroom without a door.

The cells of the tropical prison. Photo: AFP

Outside, there was an outdoor gymnasium, an orchard for growing flowers and plants, and an abandoned workshop with remains of wooden figures, tools and paint.

Although Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has stated that the site "will be an island for children and young people," the guardians still waiting to be relocated comment that for many of the prisoners who enjoyed a semi-freedom, the news was not necessarily encouraging.

For many of them, it is a very drastic change. Here, in their semi-freedom process in which they lived, they were already adapted, "said Jose Becerra, a caretaker of the island, to AFP.

"They were somehow fulfilling the process very calmly, they were comfortable with the family, they were obviously surprised by the change and they were sad," he adds.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador announced on March 18 that the island's penal colony housing 600 prisoners will become a cultural center for children and youth. Photo: AFP

Now in a desolate place

The city where the guardians live in front of the pier seems almost empty.

Silence is interrupted only when the car goes through trash or golf carts used by the guardians to move.

The small cement constructions, with still vestiges of Willa's damage, are empty, such as Laguna del Toro, the area where the maximum security installations were located, with a capacity for 512 prisoners, but which housed 137 inmates in their last stage

Although routine protocols, such as the flag ceremony, cleaning of premises and other tasks, are fulfilled, the work for which the custodians were appointed is over.

The mural about the evolution of the island was painted in the multipurpose room of Puerto Balleto to commemorate the 110 years of the complex, during the Third Cultural Festival Islas Marías. Photo: Debate

A nature reserve

The staff wanders nervously through the unlit streets of the city, waiting for their transfer to the mainland.

"To stop living in a paradise because it is always difficult, it is always very difficult to assimilate back into society," says Ricardo Ramírez, coordinator of Civil Protection in the region.

In 2010, Las Islas Marías was declared a biosphere reserve by Unesco. They protect 54 species of terrestrial and marine fauna at risk.

The reserve is also an important refuge and nesting site for large colonies of seabirds.

Many birds find rest in this place, and others permanently inhabit the islands with iguanas, lizards, parrots, snakes and bats.

The yellow-headed parrot is one of the island's native birds. Years ago, there were visitors who carried them sedated and hidden in their luggage to sell on the continent. Photo: Debate

Only a few prisoners tried to escape the island throughout its history.

Some eventually wandered around its 20-kilometer-long, 10-mile-wide paradisiac perimeter, hunting for some of the animals that live there only to be recaptured later. Some dared to enter the sea surrounded by sharks.

"Here, as you can see, their rooms do not have a fence as such, so they could wander in the allowed hours, they could run, play basketball, football, their activities on television, come to the workshop to work," says Gregorio Lopez, of one of the sectors of the penitentiary.

In their spare time, detainees could do manual work or participate in the music workshop.

By 2013, however, some 650 inmates mutinied in the area of ​​maximum security, demanding better health and food conditions, revealing the dark side of the penitentiary. According to reports, the revolt left about 30 wounded.

The Navy ship that makes the trip to the island once a week takes between seven and 12 hours to reach the destination from the port of Mazatlan, 176 kilometers away. On one of these trips, you will receive the remaining guardians.

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