MEXICO CITY – A small archipelago off Mexico’s Pacific coast that had been home to an island prison colony is finalizing preparations to receive tourists.
Getting to Islas Marias, however, is currently a challenge for even the sturdiest tourist: a 4-hour boat ride in often choppy waters. But Mexico's government plans to make things easier, putting the country's navy in charge of tours in the latest new function assigned to Mexico's armed forces under President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
Some people, like Beatriz Maldonado, are already imagining the voyage. When Maldonado was imprisoned between those “walls of water” — as a Mexican writer also confined there described it — she thought she would never see her mother again.
Maldonado only spent one year of her six-year sentence there for drug and weapons possession, but it was the most painful. “I lost my smile, my happiness,” she said. Now at age 55, a laundry worker and an activist advocating for other imprisoned women, she wants to return to close wounds.
The Islas Marias prison colony was founded in 1905 on Mother María Island, the largest of the four islands and the only inhabited one more than 60 miles off the coast of Nayarit state. Frequently buffeted by hurricanes scraping along Mexico’s coast, the government closed the prison in 2019.
López Obrador had it converted into an environmental education center, though which some 150 youths have passed. Now the government wants to make it an ecotourism destination where visitors can watch sea birds and enjoy the beaches and local history.
On Saturday, Mexico's president announced that the navy will be in charge managing tours, the island's airport will expanded and two ferries will be added that can make the trip in 2.5 hours.
Visitors will stay in the old houses - of prisoners or workers - that are being rebuilt to avoid having to construct new buildings that could damage the archipelago's nature reserve.
Everything could be ready in three months, López Obrador said. But it is unclear when tours will start because hurricane season begins in June. Many wonder whether Islas Marías will become a tourist draw like Alcatraz, the infamous prison accessed from San Francisco, or a place like the Panamanian island prison colony Coiba, closed in 2004, which became a natural paradise that is being reclaimed by the jungle.
Although the government has been criticized for giving many functions to the military, from construction works or plant nurseries to controlling Mexico City's new airport, Maldonado sees nothing wrong with the navy taking charge of tourism.
“I hope there is no nepotism and we all have the opportunity to visit it,” she said in a message after the announcement.
The island now is nothing like the dirt-floored warehouse-like prison dorms with five bathrooms for 500 women that Maldonado remembers. “We lived in a chicken coop,” she said.
Now a colorful mural of former South African leader Nelson Mandela, himself held for years on an island prison, welcomes visitors to remodeled buildings, a whitewashed church and a museum with the Mexican writer José Revueltas, imprisoned there during the 1930s for his work in the Communist Party, as main character.
“What was a hell is becoming a paradise,” López Obrador said.
There was a time when it was considered the “tomb of the Pacific.” Revueltas said the prison was much more terrible than he could describe in his book “Walls of Water.” The worst couldn’t be described, he said, because of modesty or because you don’t know how to show that it’s really true.
Island prison colonies were common around the world to make escapes nearly impossible or to rehabilitate through forced labor. Most tried to be self-sufficient.
Prisoners on Mother María Island harvested salt and farmed shrimp. They tried to make a little money brewing their own alcohol from fermented fruits, illegally trading exotic birds or killing boa constrictors to make belts.
In later years, it was known as a “prison without walls” where some prisoners lived with their families in semi-freedom and relatively good conditions.
That changed when President Felipe Calderon launched the war against the drug cartels in 2006 and hundreds of new prisoners were sent there. In 2013, the inmate population reached 8,000.
Maldonado served her time during that era. She said the women, who were the minority, were the worst treated. Unlike the men, they weren’t allowed outside the fences even though they had skills and barely received enough food. Maldonado’s weight dropped to about 45 pounds. “They didn’t pay attention to us when someone got sick,” she said. “My friend’s gallbladder ruptured.”
The extreme isolation was the most punishing part, broken only on the 15th of every month when they were allowed a 10-minute phone call with a relative. Some who tried to escape drowned. Occasionally the Navy rescued others who set out on improvised crafts.
“The boats came on Thursdays to bring us supplies and letters, and I saw the tears of my mother on the stained pages,” Maldonado said. “The worst was thinking that I would never see her again.”
Infrequently some relatives made visits that then involved 12 hours at sea.
Maldonado’s one colorful memory was of a tube of red lipstick, the only personal item she took. When it ran out she solemnly buried it because she felt like it gave her life.
A year after Maldonado was transferred to a prison in Mexico City, six people died on the island in a riot sparked by a lack of food.
It was closed in 2019 because of the high operating costs, some $150 a day per prisoner, which was much higher than on the mainland. Prison reform had also significantly reduced its inmate population.
Devil’s Island in French Guiana, immortalized in the film “Papillon,” closed in 1946. Alcatraz 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 gun boats to put down a riot, killing more than 100 inmates.
Maldonado applauded the Islas Marias closure and supports the idea of inviting visitors. She said the proceeds should go to re-insertion programs for inmates.
She has already written to former cellmates to see if they’d like to go with her to the place she thought she’d never see again.