from prison to tourist destination

A few days ago the president, Andres Manuel López Obrador, announced that in 3 months it will open to the public Mary Motherthe greatest of Maria Islands, as a recreational and cultural center. This site is known to have hosted a prison for more than a century.

The archipelago is accessible by ferry from San Blas, Nayarit (2h30) or from Mazatlán (3h). According to the official statement, “The Secretary of the Navy will be responsible for providing tourist packages where short stays will be offered so that more visitors can access without harming nature”.

For you to know a little about the history and the ecological importance of the Maria Islands, so we tell you 13 data about them.

1. The archipelago of Maria Islands It is located in the Mexican Pacific, 132 kilometers from San Blas and 176 kilometers from Mazatlán.

It is made up of 4 islands: María Madre, María Magdalena, María Cleofas and San Juanito. In total, its land area is 24,295 hectares, according to the National Commission for Protected Natural Areas (Conanp). To give you an idea of ​​its size: the forest of Chapultepec covers 686 hectares, it could fit more than 35 times.

Photo: AP. Edouard Bourreau

2. The Maria Islands They were discovered between 1526 and 1527, and were once disputed by Hernán Cortés and Nuño de Guzmán, explains anthropologist Martín Luis Guzmán in a publication of the Mexican Bulletin of Comparative Law.

There is no information indicating that they belonged to Cortés or Nuño de Guzmán, but it is known that they had several owners and were not used until the 19th century.

3. In 1905, by presidential decree of Porfirio Díaz, the archipelago was designated for the establishment of a penal colony. The prison, is mainly based on Maria Madre Island, it ran until 2019.

4. Early in its history, a reform of the Penal Code stipulated that they could only be brought before Maria Islands people sentenced to the penalty of relegation: repeat offenders of offenses such as theft, vagrancy, begging and forgery, indicates the General Archives of the Nation in its blog. The sentences were between 2 and 6 years.

Over the decades, the population has diversified greatly. According to historian Diego Pulido told the BBC, in 1931 only 39 out of 803 settlers had been sentenced by the courts; the rest had been sent arbitrarily.

With the Penal Code reforms of 1929 and 1931, they began to send very dangerous prisoners, and there were also political prisoners.

There were female detainees, but the number was still much lower than that of males.

isla_marias_carcel_2.jpgPhoto: AP. Edouard Bourreau

5. Probably the most famous inhabitant of the Maria Islands It is the writer José Revueltas who wrote the book “Les Murs d’Eau” from his own experience confined to the archipelago for his political activism.

However, there are many anecdotes related to the inmates. For example, the BBC picks up the story of “Sapo”, the supposed confessed murderer of more than 150 people and who approached religion thanks to the priest Juan Manuel Martínez, “Trampitas”. The “Sapo” was killed by other inmates when he stopped carrying machetes or knives, in his attempt to be good. Feeling guilty over his death, the priest requested that after his death he be buried next to his friend; currently their tombs are side by side.

There are also violent stories like the 2013 riot, in which 5 prisoners and a guard died. And in 2011, 6 prisoners escaped aboard a raft made of plastic and wooden barrels; they managed to get 30 kilometers away when recaptured.

isla_marias_carcel_3.jpgPhoto: AP. Edouard Bourreau

6. In the Maria Islands there was a system of semi-liberty, in which prisoners could live with their families, in conditions recreating a “normal” routine.

Anthropologist Martín Luis Guzmán spent several spells in prison as part of an investigation that began in 1986 and continued through the 1990s; in the publication of the Mexican Bulletin of Comparative Law, he recounts part of his experience.

The penal colony had 10 camps, all located in the Mother Mary Island and communicated by a dirt road that covered 50 kilometers. The fact that there were families softened life in the prison, says the anthropologist, but in the most isolated camps there were many acts of violence.

isla_marias_carcel_4.jpgPhoto: AP. Edouard Bourreau

7. For the prisoners, it was obligatory to work in the penal colony without financial remuneration, but compensated by vouchers redeemable in the stores inside the camps. They worked, for example, in lime kilns, cutting henequen leaves or in agricultural work; there were also jobs in administrative offices and in the restaurant.

One of the heaviest jobs, says Martín Luis Guzmán, was in the general kitchens; it was necessary to cover the night shifts because the first meal was served at 5 am. These kitchens were intended for inmates who lived alone, referred to as “singles”.

Every day there was a roll call 3 times: at 5:00 a.m., at 2:00 p.m. and at 8:00 p.m. At 9 a.m. the curfew began.

8. The Islas Marias Prison it also had a high security centre, where new arrivals spent at least 30 days before being reassigned, according to the BBC.

In the high security centre, there were cells of a few square meters, each for 2 detainees; they had a metal bunk bed, two benches and a latrine. It was only possible to receive some sunshine in a fenced space if the behavior of the prisoner was good.

9. During the period the prison was in operation, it housed approximately 45,000 prisoners. At the time of its closure, 624 inmates lived there.

10. The Maria Islands They have the designation of biosphere reserve both at the national level and by UNESCO, at the international level. It has been a protected natural area since 2000.

isla_marias_carcel_5.jpgPhoto: OVC Riviera Nayarit

11. The archipelago has various ecosystems, such as lowland jungle, mangroves and reefs. On the islands María Magdalena and María Cleofas there is a volcanic topography.

12. On the islands, 54 species of fauna are protected in one category of risk, and 19 of them are endemic.

Among its inhabitants we can mention the green iguana, the black iguana, the boa constrictor, the yellow-headed parrot of the Marías Islands, the American crocodile and the hawksbill turtle. It is also a feeding site for birds such as the blue-footed booby.

It is a migratory passage for marine animals like the orca, the humpback whale and the whale shark.

13. The area of ​​human settlements represents 2% of the Mother Mary Island and 0.04% of the entire protected natural area (which includes land and sea surface).

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