2003International Reporting

Convicts are Condemned to a Paradise in Mexico

Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
February 3, 2002;
Page A22

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ISLA MARIA MADRE, Mexico -- Lorena Avila Suarez was 8 years old when she arrived by boat on this tiny Pacific island, coming ashore to be with her father, a convicted murderer.

She grew up among the other inmates and their children in one of the world's most unusual prisons, an island with a church, a bakery and a dance hall where convicts are allowed to serve sentences alongside their family members.

Then she fell in love with a convicted cocaine trafficker. So when her father was released a few years ago, and her mother and three sisters left with him, Avila Suarez stayed behind with her new husband. She still lives here in the prison where she has spent most of her life.

"Sometimes I would rather be on the outside. It is always the same here," said Avila Suarez, 25, nuzzling up to her husband, Jesus Lopez, 33, who has 18 years left to serve. "But when I leave, I would like it to be with him."

Isla Maria is a Mexican government prison experiment in the Pacific Ocean 95 miles south of Mazatlan. Started at the turn of the century as a Mexican version of Alcatraz, where the worst of the worst were condemned to a life of hard labor, it has been transformed into a relative paradise for inmates who have shown a willingness to reform.

Rehabilitation is a bedrock principle of the Mexican judicial system, so much so that neither the death penalty nor life imprisonment is allowed under law. Proponents say Isla Maria is a logical extension of that idea: If prisoners are going to have to return to life in a normal community one day, why not keep them in a prison that simulates a normal community?

There are no cells or bars here. The inmates are called "colonists." They wear no uniforms and live in ordinary housing on streets that look like those in any Mexican town. While navy officers on the perimeter of the 54-square-mile island carry machine guns, the prison guards carry no guns. About 600 children of inmates live in little houses with their parents and attend public schools on pretty, palm-lined streets.

"This prison used to be almost hell. The inmates were treated savagely and humiliated," said the warden, Raul Soto Calderon. Now, he said, "If you didn't know this was a prison, you wouldn't realize it. There is nothing like this in the world."

For one thing, it would be expensive to duplicate.

With an annual budget of $4 million for 1,600 inmates, the government pays about three times as much to handle each prisoner here as it does for those at any other prison. Transportation costs for supplies and people are high. The warden, for instance, recently had to rent a small plane to airlift a prisoner with a severe kidney problem.

Public Security Minister Alejandro Gertz Manero, whose department runs the prison, questions the wisdom of a cash-strapped government running what he calls a "paradise." He would like all Mexican prisons to focus on making criminals pay restitution for their crimes.

Some also question the wisdom of allowing children to grow up in prison. In several other Mexican prisons, children also live alongside their parents, usually their mothers. Although this practice is lauded for keeping families intact, it is also criticized because it means children are raised in a community of criminals, where everything from freedom to food is limited.

"For some children it can be a little damaging," said Oliva Suarez Ilago, Avila Suarez's mother, who now lives on a peach farm in central Mexico. "They see things they shouldn't. They become aggressive and badly spoken."

Avila Suarez, who does not have children, says other parents worry about having to wait for medicine that arrives on a weekly ship. "Some children are exposed to good people on the island who say to them, 'See where I am. Learn from me,' " she said. But other children live among "people who don't want to change."

Yet for some children, living here is far safer than it is in the rough neighborhoods they left behind, and the government white-washed housing is often better, too. "I like it here because I am here with my dad," Maribel Cisneros, 13, said recently as she sat at her desk in a history class. "My dad is here because of drugs."

The inmates clearly like it here.

"When I got here I cried. What beauty!" said Guadalupe Rodriquez Quiroz, a convicted heroin-seller who spent four years in a crowded, violent Tijuana prison before arriving here. There, she said, guards made inmates pay for everything, including use of the bathroom.

A key element of the Isla Maria experiment is to take power away from guards, who have often turned Mexican prisons into sewers of bribery and illegal punishments. Here there are only 36 guards.

Most of the inmates are at Isla Maria on drug convictions; the typical sentence here is 10 years for marijuana trafficking. But there are a few who committed robbery, assault or even murder. And the sight of Luis Oscar Mendez Juarez, who killed a man during a robbery in Mexico City, swinging on a hammock by the ocean can be a bit jarring.

The new warden said he is still weeding out the prison population. He said some of the inmates who have been sent here do not meet the island's current standards. He is in the midst of a major expansion, nearly doubling the inmate population this year to 3,000. He is also planning to order off the island any children over the age of 12.

All inmates have the option of bringing their families, but many spouses and children do not want to forfeit their jobs and routines on the mainland. For some, it is prohibitively expensive to get to Mazatlan, where a navy ship shuttles families to the island. Isla Maria has also been unable to completely shed its reputation for harsh treatment, so it has not been much in demand among the main prison population in Mexico. But word is getting out.

Avila Suarez and her husband share a one-bedroom home with a concrete floor and sparse furnishings: a double bed, a tiny television and a radio. They eat red snapper and other fresh fish caught by inmates. Their two lime-green parrots, Lino and Gustavo, fly freely about the house.

"They have never been caged," Lopez said.

Before being moved here, Lopez spent several years in a Guadalajara jail, where, he said, "you are obliged to be aggressive to stay alive."

"I would be a different person if I had to stay in Guadalajara," Lopez said. There he learned that "you rob or are robbed, you defend yourself or you are beaten. Here, it is so safe you can leave your bike outside for three days and nobody would take it."

Now the chatty Lopez is host of the island radio show, "Window by the Sea." He said people here "are afraid to make mistakes because they will be forced to leave the island."

Warden Soto Calderon said that in the nine months that he has been here, he has transferred 93 trouble-making inmates to mainland prisons. A few people have been punished for trying to ferment corn or rice to make moonshine or for smoking marijuana. Punishment is banishment to a camp on the far side of the island where there is no music, television or family life. In the old days, it used to be splitting rocks in the hot sun.

Suarez Ilago, Avila Suarez's mother, said there were many good things about Isla Maria. Her husband, who killed a man in a street brawl, had no formal schooling when he arrived, but spent his years on the island finishing primary school and learning to work a farm.

She said he now works hard on their little peach farm, no longer drinks and has had no more troubles with the law.

Despite the rehabilitative effect Isla Maria had on her husband, Suarez Ilago said, "I never forgot for a moment that I was in jail." During the decade she spent on the island with her four daughters, she would look out at the endless ocean and see it as invisible bars.

"I feel bad that I brought her to the island and then left her there," she said about her one daughter still in the penal colony. "It was like leaving half of my heart there."

But Avila Suarez said she does not feel like someone left behind. She has a job as a telephone operator, takes occasional vacations and lives what she considers a normal life. She said she misses the little comforts that the mainland provides, like variety of food, the sight of a mountain or a highway, the latest magazines.

But more important to her are the good times, and the lifetime of memories here. Nearly everyone on the island came to her wedding ceremony seven years ago. She was just 18, stepping lightly into marriage and adulthood in a prison dining hall with an inmate band playing salsa.

--Researcher Laurie Freeman contributed to this report.