By RICARDO CASTILLO
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) announced on Monday, Feb. 18, that the group of islands off the country’s Pacific coast known as the Islas Marías, which, in the 1940s were transformed from a high-security federal penitentiary into a low-security prison for nonviolent offenders with a minimum two-year sentence, will soon become a cultural center and nature reserve open to the general public.
During his regular early morning press conference, López Obrador said that he had issued an executive order decree to repurpose the notorious archipelago, which has in the past been labeled “Mexico’s Alcatraz” and which the president himself referred to as “infamous.”
Located 70 nautical miles west of the port of San Blas in the northern coasts state of Nayarit, AMLO said that the Islas Marías will now become a “natural reserve,” as national parks are officially known in Mexico. .
The archipelago is actually made up of four islands. out of which only one – Mother Mary (Isla Madre) Island — serves as a prison. Founded in 1905, this prison immediately gained a nefarious notoriety since only the worst of the worst of criminals were sent there. The one reality of the prison was that escape attempts are futile because the island is surrounded by the” Water Wall” and guarded by the Mexican Navy marines. An old Islas Marías adage went: If you try to escape, the marines are sure to get you, but if they don’t, then the sharks will.
“The Water Walls,” incidentally, is a novel written by José Revueltas in 1940, who narrated the ordeal five communists (one of whom was the author) underwent at the prison. Tales of horrific mistreatment at Islas Marías abound.
It is a fact that, for years on end, Mexican presidents used the prison to house political prisoners. Of particular notoriety during the Catholic rebellion against President Plutarco Elías Calles and his “boss” Alvaro Obregón, known as the Cristera War (1926-1929), Islas Marías prison population soared as the Cristeros were sent there to “pay for their crime.”
By 1940, then-President Lázaro Cárdenas turned the prison into a “colony,” where the families of prisoners could come to join the convict in order to preserve the family structure. Prisoners are labeled as colonos, or residents. Ironically, Revueltas’ novel did not have anything to do with the change as to how prisoners were treated, since it was published in 1941.
Beyond the poor prestige the Islas Marías boast, they are considered a sub-tropical paradise. In fact, in 2010, the UNESCO labeled the place a world environmental reserve given the large amount of flora and fauna.
AMLO, who visited the main and largest island on Sunday, Feb. 17, explained that the prison is being closed because it represents a model of punishment that no longer conforms with the standards of human rights.
He also announced that there are currently 656 prisoners still in the islands, and that 200 of them will be freed “because they’ve done their time according to the law.” The rest, AMLO said, will be relocated to other mainland prisons right along with the wardens, who will go to places close to their homes.
“This is an homage to all the prisoners of the world and two very distinguished of them: José Revueltas and Nelson Mandela,” he said.
“It is also a recognition to human rights.”
Revueltas, incidentally, became a political prisoner after the 1968 student revolts. His second stay as prisoner was in a Mexico City penitentiary known as the Black Palace of Lecumberri, which was shuttered over 20 years ago (the building now houses Mexico’s national archives). Revueltas’ second stay as political prisoner produced another novel, “Apando” (“Punishment Cell”).
Environment and Natural Resources (Semarnat) Secretary Josefa González Blanco announced that Islas Marías will now be converted into a survival training center for young people, flora and fauna monitoring, and creative writing and theater training activities.
The four-island cluster in the past had also been eyed as a potential tourist resort. Nevertheless, for now, that idea is not being considered, mainly because massive visiting would be a threat to the islands’ fragile environment.