Mexico’s converted island prison is ready to receive tourists

MEXICO CITY – A small archipelago off Mexico’s Pacific coast that was once home to an island prison colony is now ready to welcome tourists.

Getting to Islas Marias, however, will be a challenge for even the fittest tourist: a five-hour boat ride in often choppy waters.

But some people, like Beatriz Maldonado, already envision the journey. When Maldonado was imprisoned between these “walls of water” – as described by a Mexican writer who was also imprisoned there – she thought she would never see her mother again.

Maldonado only served one year of her six-year sentence there for drug and gun possession, but it was the most painful. “I lost my smile, my happiness,” she said. Now, at age 55, a laundry worker and activist standing up for other jailed women, she wants to return to mend 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 hit by hurricanes along the Mexican coast, the government closed the prison in 2019.


President Andrés Manuel López Obrador had it converted into an environmental education center that around 150 young people went through. Now the government wants to turn it into an eco-tourism destination where visitors can watch seabirds and enjoy the beaches.

Last year authorities said they would now allow camping or build hotels because it is a protected reserve. It was unclear whether accommodation would be provided in the existing buildings, but without them it could be difficult to attract tourists. It’s not as accessible as Alcatraz, the infamous prison accessible from San Francisco. It could end up like the 2004-closed prison colony of Coiba on the Panamanian island being reclaimed by the jungle.

Maldonado planned to follow López Obrador’s visit to the island this weekend. “I would have liked to put myself in his pocket,” she said.

The island is now nothing like the warehouse-style, dirt-floor, five-bathroom prison dormitories 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 in an island jail for years, welcomes visitors to converted buildings, a whitewashed church and a cultural centre.

“What was hell becomes paradise,” said López Obrador.

There was a time when it was considered the “Tomb of the Pacific”.

Writer José Revueltas, imprisoned there in the 1930s for his work for the Communist Party, said the prison was far more horrific than he was able to describe in his book Walls of Water. The worst shouldn’t be described, he said, out of modesty or because you don’t know how to show 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 take care of themselves.

Prisoners on Mother María Island harvested salt and farmed shrimp. They tried to make a little money by brewing their own alcohol from fermented fruits, illegally trading in exotic birds, or killing boa constrictors to make belts.


In later years it was known as the “prison without walls” where some prisoners lived with their families in semi-liberty and relatively good conditions.

That changed when President Felipe Calderon launched the war on the drug cartels in 2006, sending hundreds of new prisoners there. In 2013, the inmate population reached 8,000.

Maldonado served her time during this period. She said the women, who are the minority, are treated the worst. Unlike the men, they were not allowed to leave the fences, even though they had skills and were rarely fed. 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 worst part, broken only on the 15th of each month when they were allowed a 10-minute phone call to a relative. Some who tried to escape drowned. Occasionally the Navy rescued others who embarked on improvised crafts.


“The boats came on Thursdays to bring us supplies and letters, and I saw my mother’s tears on the stained pages,” Maldonado said. “The worst part was the thought that I would never see her again.”

Rarely did some relatives make visits, which then took 12 hours at sea.

Maldonado’s only colorful memento was a tube of red lipstick, the only personal item she took with her. When it was used up, she solemnly buried it, feeling it would take 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 closed in 2019 because of the high operating costs, about US$150 per day per inmate, which was much higher than on the mainland. Prison reform had also significantly reduced the inmate population.

Devil’s Island in French Guiana, immortalized in the film “Papillon”, was closed in 1946. Alcatraz closed in 1963. Others later closed in Chile, Costa Rica, and Brazil. Most abrupt was El Fronton in Peru in 1986, when the government used gunboats to put down a riot that killed more than 100 inmates.


Maldonado welcomed the closure of the Islas Marias and supports the idea of ​​inviting visitors. She said the proceeds would be used for inmate rehabilitation programs.

She has already texted former cellmates to take her to the place she thought she would never see again.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed without permission. Mexico’s converted island prison is ready to receive tourists

Jaclyn Diaz

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