Being isolated from a society between large walls, guards and several other prisoners is surely one of the strongest human experiences. Have you ever imagined what that same situation would be like, but on an island with the blue sea as the only limit to your freedom? The records of the General Archive of the Nation (AGN) allow us to navigate through the operation of a penitentiary center of these characteristics.
In 1905, the government of Porfirio Díaz established the Islas Marías Federal Penal Colony in the archipelago of the same name, whose center was located on the largest island called Isla María Madre. From the first years, it was sought to prevent the prison from being used to deport indigenous rebels for forced labor until their extermination, as in the case of Quintana Roo.
On June 20, 1908, a reform to the Penal Code stipulated that only people who had been sentenced to relegation, which had to be served in colonies and prisons located on islands or places of difficult access and communication with the rest of the country, could be taken to this site.
Those sentenced to this penalty had reoffended in minor crimes such as theft, vagrancy, begging, and forgery, so they were sentenced to relatively short sentences, but thanks to the reform a maximum sentence of six years and a minimum of two years was established. Prisoners who observed good conduct and obtained their freedom could choose to settle on the island with their families.
After the fall of the Porfirian regime, the Islas Marías Federal Prison was scrutinized and examined under the critical eye of the legislators of the Constituent Congress of Querétaro. The deputies had divided positions on the subject: some considered the Islas Marías to be a place similar to Siberia where the undesirables and opponents of the "czar" Porfirio Díaz were transferred.
Others believed that the State had the right to maintain these spaces to guarantee justice, punishment, and regeneration through work. The latter view prevailed and was legislated in the second paragraph of Article 18 of the 1917 Constitution: "The Governments of the Federation and the States will organize, in their respective territories, the penal system -penitentiary colonies or prisons- based on work as a means of regeneration".
During the 1920s and 1930s, the Islas Marías Federal Prison underwent a series of restructurings. New interim prison regulations were enacted in 1921 and a decade later the Penal Code for the Federal District and Territories was reformed. The main change was that control of the Tres Marías archipelago was granted to the figure of the captain of the penal colony, who had broad powers of political jurisdiction as he was a representative of the Ministry of the Interior.
It was also determined to maintain confinement on the site for those sentenced to relegation. This had a negative effect by perpetuating the stigmatization of beggars, vagrants, and recidivists in the crime of theft, the main condemned and marginalized sectors in that colony whom General Francisco J. Múgica tried to reintegrate during his administration.
They were joined by political prisoners, including communists and trade unionists persecuted in the early 1930s. The young José Revueltas was one of those sent because of his social commitment, militancy, and Marxist thought, and he left testimony of his time in the penal colony in his work entitled Los Muros del Agua (The Walls of Water).
During the last years of the government of President Lázaro Cárdenas, the territorial jurisdiction of the federal government over the archipelago was reaffirmed through the Ministry of the Interior, a State agency that decided the type of prisoner or person that could be sent to the site, as well as the organization and exploitation of the economic activities of the prison.
In this context, two projects were presented aimed at confining two types of population. The first was presented in 1939 by the General Directorate of Population of the SEGOB to transfer the so-called gypsy population, considered by the State as a "race" or "tribe" that constituted a "social danger and an obstacle to the economic and educational progress of the country". Once these communities were established on the island, they would be introduced to the work of the henequen and salt industry, activities that were mainly developed in the area "for the benefit of the national economy".
The project did not specify the type of crime that was considered as "antisocial conduct". However, it contemplated that all these individuals would fall under the Law of Suspension of Individual Guarantees established by decree of June 1, 1942, which indicated its application to persons who committed espionage, treason, conspiracy, rebellion, sedition, public disorder, the revelation of secrets and crimes of social dissolution.
To select the prisoners to be transferred to the archipelago, it was determined that the Department of Social Prevention of the SEGOB and the Federal District police should generate lists of the individuals to be isolated. At the beginning of February 1943, it was agreed to send the first contingent of deportees, made up of 255 men and women. To these deportations was added, in the middle of that same year, a group of about 50 foreigners, who had been investigated and pointed out as "dangerous" persons by the Executive Power and the Department of Political and Social Investigations.
The registration of people to be deported to the Islas Marías continued at the end of the World War II conflict. The archipelago continued to function as a penitentiary complex until its closure in 2019. Then, the process of re-signifying the space to turn it into a site for culture and environmental protection began. However, part of the dark side of its history will continue to be preserved in the archives of the AGN.