Penal Colony Islas Marias: Drug Cartel Members Need Not Apply

Shark infested waters Our happy chatter inside the small Cessna puddle-jumper aircraft is abruptly amputated. “Look down,” one Mexican official cries, pointing out to the vast Pacific blue, “it’s infested with sharks.”

Startled, I look at his face. The man, sporting a dark moustache under expensive sun glasses, appears to be somber. Then he continues, sticking his face against the window: “It’s impossible to escape. They were probably slashed to pieces ,” and the rest of us crane our necks at the little windows to look down. An effervescent Pacific Ocean battling wave against wave didn’t allow the sight of any fin. But while the predators might have nestled deep into the Pacific Ocean, a question surfaces at the top of my brain: In what state of terror might one be when a hungry shark approaches?

Began in Hell, ascending to Heaven

It was 2007 when I had a once in a lifetime chance to visit the Penal Colony Islas Marias. I was invited by Mexican officials in a public effort to promote the benefits of a revolutionary attitude towards prisoners: one based on rehabilitation, and not punishment.

Like any other Penal Colony, Islas Marias rose directly proportionate with its infamy. Purchased in 1905 by Porfirio D­az, the jail hosted political dissidents and, later, opposition revolutionaries. Porfirio D­az allowed prisoners some rights, like walking freely on the Island and wearing civilian clothes but life, nonetheless, mirrored Purgatory.

In 1970 President Echeverria noticed the Island Prison’s unique features. That’s when he had the revolutionary idea to exploit the beauty of this natural setting to the benefit of the convicts. Rehabilitation, and not punishment, was the new orientation.

Escaped or not escaped

During its 106 years of existence, there have been over 70 inmates that attempted escape. However, given the fact that escape was possible only through the shark infested waters, there is little chance any of these made it alive to the Mexican shore.Otherwise, movement on the Island is unrestricted. Prisoners can walk, jog or ride their bicycles anywhere, as long as they report in person for the three daily official calls beginning at 5 AM and ending at 10PM when a curfew takes effect. About 40 Marines, the only force allowed to carry fire-arms, protect the Island from the outsiders. They don’t interact with the prisoners.

Restricted access

Many Mexicans don’t know about the existence of this little paradise, riddled with exotic birds, plants and prisoners. Visitation by family members is allowed weekly and some dependents reside permanently. There are also the Island’s officials, some doctors, teachers and NGO representatives. Occasionally, the Mexico Bureau of Prisons invites groups of Media to spend time on the Island, documenting the rehabilitation method’s positive results. In some cases, local and foreign journalists spend weeks with the inmates, eating together, socializing and interviewing. The inmates love the attention.

Prisoners, bring the knives!

Seconds after landing, our group is identified and matched against the official list and a middle-aged man, tall and stiff, greets us. He offers to take the group into the Governor’s mansion, where hot-steaming breakfast is awaiting. Francisco has been the director of security for more than a year and he considers the Island his home away from home. “I have peace of mind here,” he says pointing to the vast paradisiac view with blue shores, green palm-trees, red and yellow birds and apparently content prisoners.

A long, white table and jars of freshly squeezed orange juice is set at the Governor’s house. While we all take a seat, two men appear dressed in white butcher’s robes and tall chef’s hats. ”¹…”They couldn’t make their mind up?’ ‘”I ask myself quietly. ”¹…”We’re about to be carved into fish bait — ‘

“They are my helpers,” Enrique Chi says as he enters with a booming voice that is as large as his physical frame. He greets everybody and, as he lets himself fall heavily on the big chair, he claps his hands. “They are prisoners,” he says as the men clear the room, “but for non-violent crimes — ,” he continues, putting everyone at ease.

No sooner did he finish the sentence, then the chefs return with a handful of shiny knives, meticulously arranging each piece precisely. Emily Post herself, the queen of etiquette, couldn’t have been happier with the presentation. Clearly, Islas Marias was not going to be your typical prison visit.

Around the Island

As we wrap up our breakfast and exit the heavily shadowed, fishy-smelling mansion only to face the bright light outside, Francisco invites us to a ride in his Jeep. The Governor, knowing better, retreats for his siesta.

“It’s only 32 miles around,” we are told. The yellow-greenish vegetation seems to be absorbing with thirst the scorching April sun but our curiosity burns deeper and so we proceed to embark in two cars.

Most prisoners are down for their siesta as well, we are informed. After about 15 minutes I see a man at the second floor of a white, peeling house. “He’s among the veterans on the Island,” Francisco explains, “he spends most of his time at his balcony.” The man seems frozen on his feet, with a stoned face watching well beyond the Ocean’s depths. Only the movement of small flies, slashing the air across his face, makes one think this is not a painting.

Soon we arrive in the largest of the camps, Bugambilias. Francisco stops in front of a tienda to purchase some refreshments. The vendor, another prisoner, knows exactly what we want him to talk about: “I have a better life in here than outside,” he says, referring to the external world of the free.

Who is being held prisoner today, in modern Mexico?

Perhaps the prisoners feel even luckier to be here, knowing that the ”¹…”admission’ probe is not an easy one. There are many requirements: murderers and sex offenders and drug cartel chiefs are out of the question; the age has to be between 20 and 50 years old; the financial status has to be low. So, the majority here has been convicted of minor drug-related crimes like possession of small quantities.

As the sun eases its grasp on the air, more people are coming out to greet us. Families, men and women, young and older, they are all polite and hospitable, willing to share their stories and be photographed.

Some neighborhoods appear in desolate shape and buildings stinking with old urine ‘”a sharpening contrast against the turquoise waters- but there are others which look like regular places where families live a decent life. A revised attitude towards prisoners, when the authorities submit to sequester their batons and adopt the more humane methods of rehabilitation is working miracles in this prison. They receive educations. They work jobs. They learn to function as contributors in a community.

“This way,” Herrera Chi concludes the day, “the prisoners have a better chance of reshaping their lives once they get out in the free world. They will not be as hardened as when they would have spent years between four walls and under harsh supervision. Their kindness will improve while their outlook for the future becomes optimistic. This is our concentrated effort.” Francisco adds: “Things are not all honey and milk on Islas Marias. But the mere fact that most prisoners are crying and begging to stay when they are told their sentence is fulfilled, should say a lot about our progress.”

And what should that say about Mexico today, when prisoners and their families prefer the security of a Penal Colony to freedom among drug cartels and poverty.

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