Thursday, August 18, 2011

A Prisoner's Dilemma

My favorite pic from this series.  A former cell with an old shower are reminders that a prison once existed.

Considered the "Alcatraz" of Panama, Coiba island for many years was a penal colony held only for the most dangerous of criminals from the country.  Unfortuneatly, it was also reserved for those on the wrong side of Panama's political struggles.  There were even cases of people who were framed for another man's crimes.  Only one truth was certain. Coiba island was not a place you wanted to end up.

The buildings now from our boat.
The prison began in 1914 and remained open until 2004 when it closed its doors.  An unintentional thing happened. Fear, from the mainland, kept people away from the island known for its' captive killers, rapists and thieves.  In fact, there had been stories of people vacationing off the beautiful waters of Coiba island on their sailboats who were found murdered by prisoners attempting to escape.  These rumors and stories kept Coiba island free from deforestation and other outside interests.
Sandwich Terns
Back on the island, many prisoners would "disappear" from either one killing the other or prison officials executing them on the spot.  Two similiar stories were told to me by both our guide and another local from Santa Catalina.  A prisoner was forced to climb a coconut tree where he was shot and killed by a prison guard.  This was a common place occurence among both prisoners and the administration.  Today, these undocumented criminals are called, "los desaparecidos" or the missing. Gravesites can be found on the grounds taken over by the forest.
If an opportunity presented itself for escape, prisoners would try to flee on rafts created from the jungle.  Most of these prisoners would drown and die from starvation and dehydration.  Due to the strong current near the island, criminals sometimes would be found near the Galapagos islands.  And every once in awhile, a prisoner would make it to the mainland, but locals not recognizing the person in rags, would call officials right away.
Food was given through the bars and water was piped in through the walls.   A farming area was created around the penal colony for prisoners to make their own food.  Cattle, pigs, and chickens were raised along with corn and other vegetables and fruits.  Some people were innocent of their crimes as they had been framed for whatever reasons which included being on the wrong side of the political table of dictators like Manuel Noriega.  These people were given a bit more freedom and allowed to work outside and move about the island with less restriction.  Today, one of those former inmates works as a park ranger for ANAM.  He even has a coral reef named after him!  Great guy with lots of information!  At one point, the colony held around 3000 prisoners.
Today, the island is a UNESCO site protecting not only the island but the marine corridor between Costa Rica's Coco islands to the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador.

I had expected the area to be dead with empty buildings falling apart.  But it appears that the prison may be wiped completely off the island as Panama is creating a navy patrol station for the drug runs that are happening in large numbers from Colombia.  This was actually quite interesting.  At night, drug runs on high speed boats fly at a high velocity past several patrol areas.  If the Panamanian navy catches these vessels on the water, the drug runners will sink the vessel and hide out in the Coiba rain forest where they will be picked up later when no one is watching.  These drug runners are trained in jungle operations and many times have high tech equipment pieces like GPS which helps in their rescue.  Today, it appears that the US and Panama may be getting rid of the entire prison area to use  for a base.  Several buildings have already been renovated.  Not only does Coiba face this drug issue but now, since the prison has been shut down, poachers are entering the island in certain locations.  I believe this base will be good for the entire area.  Currently ANAM does a great job monitoring  the seas around Coiba and has a plan in effect for large fish vessels who try to illegally poach large quantities of marine life from the water.  Local fishermen will report any odd vessel activities off the waters of the Pacific ocean to ANAM or local Panamanian officials.  In return, they are allowed to fish within the limits and regulations agreed upon by the national park system and fishermen around the waters of Coiba.
Our trip to this part of the island was really interesting and quite beautiful.  The buildings were haunting with marks from prisoners on the walls.  You may wonder if this Navy base will cut down more trees to expand on the old penal colony.  Well the answer is a definite NO.  They are only allowed to work within the area that was used for the prison.  Everything else is to be left alone. 
While I was there, I got the impression that Coiba was well protected and will be around for future generations to enjoy.  In its final days, prisoners were the run of the mill thieves, murders and rapists serving their debt to society by farming and ranching the island to provide for their own existence. Today most of the cattle are gone and very little remains of this colony.  Secondary vegetation has taken over the land and is erasing mankind's marks from the island.  Eighty percent of this paradise is untouched, but that percentage is rising with the penal colony gone.    
I'm not sure if these building will be kept here once the Navy starts adding more buildings or if they'll keep a few buildings for historical reference. I'm thinking they will convert the jail cells to lock and hold captured drug runners and poachers. 

If ever there was a feel good story about the preservation of an island untouched by humankind, it's Coiba.  With the eventual addition of the Navy base to stop illegal drug trafficking, local fishermen watching out for poaching in the ocean water, the Smithsonian observing and studying the wildlife, and ANAM maintaining security around the island, it appears that this place is secured and in good hands.  Until tomorrow.....


  1. Looks like a hot place. The cells must have been quite hot for the prisoners.

  2. I remember that place....1982. They shot Tom after escaping.


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