Panamá, domingo 13 de julio de 2008

LA PRENSA/David Mesa
Los custodios y funcionarios civiles de Corrección aquí vivían, trabajaban, descansaban y esperaban, cada 15 días, que terminara su turno para ser reemplazados y volver a casa.1056809
locked up:There are still remnants of Coiba’s past as a prison, but the plan for the island now is to attract voluntary visitors.
José Somarriba Hernández


Coiba, from penal colony to tourist’s paradise

Although Coiba Island now offers up its natural beauty for the benefit of biologists and pleasure-seeking tourists, it wasn’t so long ago that the island was the site of a notorious penal colony, where Panama’s criminals, misfits and political dissidents went to live off the land while serving out their sentence.

Rubén Blades’s song, “The Cazanguero,” which first aired in 1975, some 20 years before the colony was abandoned, describes the hard and cheerless life of the Coiba prisoner.

“Rising early’s the lament of the cazanguero in Coiba… Hurry, Chino Juan, they’ve called roll already, and the guard says you can’t stay behind this time.”

The salsa ballad details how, far from the mainland, the “cazangueros,” or convicts, often faced abuse at the hands of prison guards, their intense homesickness, which was mixed with the fear that if a guard didn’t mess with you, another inmate would.

Since the colony’s opening in 1919, prisoners were transported to Coiba on boats. Former director of Nacional de Corrección Rosa Cardenas explained that a fleet of barges, known as Tango-02, had been donated to the Servicio Marítimo Nacional by the U.S. for this purpose.

During World War II, the U.S. Army requisitioned the barges to serve in combat.

The prisoners’ journey began overland to Puerto Mutis, in Veraguas, snaking through the mouth of Río San Pedro until ending up in the Gulfo de Montijo. From there, they boarded barges for Coiba, a trip that in good weather could take eight hours; in rough seas, upwards of 11 hours.

Escape attempts, of course, also required a seaworthy vessel. Over the years, prisoners contrived makeshift boats and rafts from wood and flotsam held together with barbed wire.

“Some said that Coiba was freedom,” said Narciso Bastidas, a former inmate. “Which meant they had an escape plan.”

Prisoners were separated into camps of 30 or 35, which were set up around La Central, a larger camp where around 120 inmates lived. Torture by prison guards within the camps was common.

“In the “Machete” camp, there were vestiges of torture,” said Luis Lasso, who was the civilian director of the colony for three years, between 1992 and 1995. “We found holes in the ground where we learned they’d buried up to their necks rebel members of the Fuerzas de Defensa, who’d attempted to overthrow General Noriega on March 16 and October 3, 1989.”

Homosexual prisoners were interned in the camp known as Río Amarillo, where they were beaten with hoses or sticks and forced to load gravel into large cans and haul them to La Central Catival, a distance of 5 kilometers.

“How many cans of gravel are there from here to La Catival?” muses Blades in “The Cazaguero.”

“The gravel, which was found everywhere in Coiba, was used to plug holes in the roads, to fill in land or for construction,” explained Lasso.

Despite being a penal colony, the tropical island had its benefits. Lasso described how prisoners concocted moonshine by fermenting coconut water. Others planted crops, such as rice, yucca and yams, and herded cattle. Some even found a trade.

An inmate known as Phillip, who served a 30-month sentence for drug charges, worked as a cook at the residence for civil servants.

“I knew how to cook from what I’d learned on the street, but I perfected my skills on Coiba. I became an expert in shellfish and cooked cazón [a fish dish] with cream, corn, lobsters, prawns, all of which I got straight from the sea,” he said. “When I was released I felt both joy and sadness, not knowing what was going to find. But [the experience] had remade my life.”

Since the government converted the island into a national park in 2004 following the colony’s closing, tourism in Coiba has been on the rise. Recently, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute has been collaborating with the park’s management director, Juan Maté, to develop sustainable tourism plan for the island.

“Traditionally, Parque Nacional de Coiba has only been known for the penal colony that was there,” said Maté. “But the grand attraction has always been its natural beauty, scenery, and the park's unique species. We want to revive the historical and cultural heritage, which is very valuable and that in danger of being lost.”


EL EDÉN. Coiba fue declarada Patrimonio Mundial de la Humanidad por la Unesco, gracias a la riqueza de su flora y fauna.
JUEGO. Las olas causadas por cualquier embarcación son aprovechadas por los delfines. En los límites del parque normalmente se aprecian dos especies: nariz pico de botella y moteados.


LA 12 de octubre. Era uno de los 23 campamentos que hubo en el penal. Hoy alberga la estación de la Anam y los seis dormitorios para visitantes. Allí laboran unos 14 guardaparques que hacen turnos de 15 días.
POTRERO sin límites. El deterioro de las cercas provocó que las más de dos mil cabezas de ganado, que se cree hay actualmente, vaguen por la isla sin más barrera que el mar.

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