Coiba Deadly Prison

Former Coiba Deadly Prison now is just a Paradise

Former Coiba Deadly Prison now is just a Paradise

Until just two decades ago, Coiba Island was one of the largest operating island prison systems in world history — next to only Australia.

Just a few persons want to talk about what they saw inside the island’s prison, the scene of unimaginable horrors. It really was the devil’s island.

Built-in 1919, Coiba Island Prison housed approximately 3,000 inmates at its peak, in about 30 camps. At first, only Panama’s worst dangerous criminals were sent them there. When the militaries controlled Panama, many opponents of the military regimes were sent as political prisoners to disappear there, to never be seen again.

The prisoners live in men made structures out of natural materials or in cells with no windows, furniture, or bathrooms.

The prison was self-sustaining, the prisoners should work the land, harvest, and raise animals such as chickens, ducks, pigs, cows, even buffaloes. The island provided all the food for the penal and public health system in Panama.

Coiba’s prisoners didn’t need bars to be imprisoned

Cocodrile Tito - Coiba National Park

With almost 80% of the island is made up of “virgin” rainforest, with poison snakes, gigantic crocodiles, and ferrous sharks swimming around the island, It was virtually inescapable.

Even if you managed to escape from the deadly animals, the strong ocean currents do not allow you to swim comfortably and fatigue led you to death.

In some cases, dying was the only way to escape from Coiba Island, inmates were severely tortured and systematically abused by their jailers. Some inmates just vanished when caused some troubles, now they are known as “Los Desaparecidos”, or “The Disappeared” — held in secret and never to return.

In the camps, the prisoners formed tribes and would engage in raging gang wars. There were also reports of cannibalism and massacres.

The Coiba’s guards were particularly brutal and used torture tactics

Those who tried to escape were shot in the jungle. When prisoners killed each other the prison guards looked on and did nothing.

During the dictatorships of Omar Torrijos and Manuel Noriega, prisoners sent to Coiba Island disappeared in masse.

Some government official reports talk about the guards had a ritual for new prisoners, the guards would take them into the jungle, blindfold them, line them up and have a mock execution. They would put guns to them, count down ‘three, two, one, fire’, intimidating them.

Legends talk about a few mass graves where it’s believed guards had been killing prisoners for sport and throwing them into a pit.

Time is burying out for the second time those who lie in these unmarked graves. Probably nobody will know their stories.

Crumbling structures work as the only memorial to Coiba’s dark history

Coiba History - Baico

Slowly the jungle is eating the remaining structures, but our history shouldn’t be forgotten.

A former island prisoner Narciso Bastidas know as “Mali Mali”, wrote two books about his Devil’s Island experiences, the first book called “Baico”, you can find it in local bookstores, like “El Hombre de la Mancha Bookstore“.

If you believe the stories, the ghosts of the people who died there, wait until the sun goes down to walks around the island, some of them looking for justice, others still trying to escape.

Coiba Island, From Hell to Paradise

The fear of the Coiba deadly prison kept away so many people and unintentionally resulted in the conservation of the largest untouched and undisturbed jungle in the Americas.

The island is also host to many endemic species, which means many of the species found on the island were unique to Coiba and not found anywhere else in the world.

Since 2003 the island is no longer a penal colony, two years after became UNESCO World Heritage Site. Most tourists who visit its beautiful pristine beaches don’t suspect the horrors where occurred a few meters from where they are.