Islas Marías, once a prison island, will open to tourism in April

After a year delay in opening, the Marías Islands, off the coast of Nayarit, confirmed the opening to tourism in April of this year.

The Environmental and Cultural Education Center “Muros de Agua – José Revueltas”, as this island once served as a prison from 1905 to 2019, and as of March 8, 2019, thanks to a presidential decree, it ceased to be part of the Federal System, thus initiating the cultural and environmental transformation of this space.

The Comprehensive Project Islas Marías in a statement explained that it is made up of three elements: the protection and conservation of the archipelago as a Protected Natural Area; the Environmental and Cultural Education Center “Muros de Agua-José Revueltas”; and the opening of Isla María Madre to conservation tourism.

The Islas Marías archipelago was declared a Natural Protected Area with the character of a biosphere reserve, and in 2005 it was recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Within the ANP, CONANP has the mission of maintaining the environmental balance, as well as promoting the restoration and protection of the area.

The Ministry of Tourism, for its part, will design a set of activities and experiences that allow visitors to get to know and enjoy María Madre Island, guaranteeing adequate management of excursionists, the preservation of flora, fauna while showing the history of the island.

The president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, on transportation to visit the Marías Islands, stated that it will be from Mazatlán, Sinaloa; San Blas, Nayarit and Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco.

The prison of the Islas Marías was for more than a century one of the most feared places in the imagination of Mexicans.

The prison was established on María Madre, the largest of four beautiful islands in an archipelago where wildlife abounds.

Despite how feared it was, at different stages of its existence “the prison had different degrees of repression and prisoners of different dangerousness,” explains Diego Pulido Esteva, historian at the Colegio de México.

On the island, there were also female prisoners, although the number was always much lower than that of the men.

At first, people arrived who had committed repeated crimes, such as theft, circulation of counterfeit currency or “vagrancy”, says Pulido, author of the book “Las Islas Marías: historia de una colonia penal” which studies the first decades of its existence.

He says that at that time the inmates were the result “more of police practices than judicial ones: many times they were sent there without passing sentence. For example, in 1931, of 803 settlers, only 39 had a judicial conviction, the rest had been sent by arbitrary manner”.

Later, with the reforms to the penal code in 1929 and 1931, they began to send highly dangerous prisoners. Political prisoners were also sent. Not only in what is known as the “porfiriato”, but also in the post-revolutionary era, communists and cristeros were sent there.

In the Marías Islands, many lived in semi-liberty, that is, confined to the island, but without being behind bars and working outdoors in the different companies that were there, including a shrimp farm or a sawmill in the last stages.

Some also lived with their families, so there were times when there were hundreds of children on the island, up to about 600. Families could stay for periods of weeks or months to visit.

But in the last stages, the families were diminishing. In the final eviction, seven families left, including five girls and five boys.

One of the four complexes that were closed in 2019 was a high-security center. There, in cells of scarce square meters, the prisoners lived confined two by two. There was barely room for a metal bunk bed, two benches, and a latrine.

In this space, the prisoners could barely get sun in a fenced space where they could go out if their behavior was considered good.

They ate at tables that were just outside their cells and where the smell of excrement, even a week after the last inhabitants were evicted, is pervasive.

All inmates who arrived at the Islas Marías spent at least 30 days there before being classified for one of the other complexes.

Among the most famous prisoners who passed through María Madre Island is the thinker José Revueltas, who was inspired by his two stays (between 1932 and 1935) in prison, where he was charged for being a communist, and wrote his novel “The walls of water ” while in prison.

Another best-known prisoner is “Mother Conchita”, also known as the nun Concepción Acevedo. She was in prison between 1929 and 1940 accused of being the mastermind behind the 1928 assassination of then-president-elect Álvaro Obregón.

The “Sapo” was the supposed confessed murderer of more than 150 people. He arrived in Islas Marías in 1960 and there he approached religion thanks to the priest Juan Manuel Martínez known as “Trampitas”.

Ironically, “Sapo” was killed by other inmates when he had convinced himself that he was good and no longer carried machetes or daggers.

The religious felt guilty to the point of requesting that, upon his death, he be buried next to his friend.

Now their graves lie on the island side by side.

One of the most remembered violent episodes on the island is the February 2013 riot in which the prisoners rebelled because they were treated badly, the food and water being insufficient and of poor quality. Five prisoners and a custodian were killed, according to authorities.

There are also dozens of stories of attempted and probable escapes. One of the most notorious was in 2011 when six prisoners between the ages of 28 and 39 improvised a raft with plastic and wood drums and managed to get almost 30 kilometers away from the island, but were recaptured.

There are also stories about the “remontados”: the prisoners who decided to go live in the wild areas of the island to escape from the authority. Some, say the custodians, “resurfaced” when the time came for them to go free. They say they wanted to continue living on the island.

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