Mention Isla Coiba to the average Panamanian and treasured marine park and abundant ecosystem are probably not the image that pops into their mind. For modern day citizens of Panama, stories of imprisonment, torture and death are more like to come to mind.
Coiba Island was Panama’s version of Devil’s Island. From 1919 to 2004, the penal colony on Isla Coiba was home to the country’s most dangerous criminals as well as home to many who found themselves on the wrong side of the political struggle. At its peak, The Coiba Island Prison housed 3000 inmates in about 30 camps spread around the islands.
“Los Desaparecidos” was the name given to the hundreds or even thousands who disappeared in Panama under dictators Omar Torrijos and Manuel Noriega, never to be seen again. It is believed that many of these unfortunate individuals either ended up in unmarked graves near the Coiba’s penal colony or to have been dismembered and fed to the abundant shark population in its surrounding waters.
After the fall of the dictatorship, Coiba resumed its role as a criminal prison camp rather than political prison. 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.
The prison is now closed. The prisoners have been relocated to other facilities and anything of value has been removed from the site. The remaining structure is slowly being reclaimed by jungle and the marine air. Its crumbling buildings and simply marked graves serve as the only memorial to Coiba’s dark history.
The fear of the prison and its inhabitants inadvertently resulted in preservation of the largest untouched rain forests in the Americas. Because of the deterrent of the penal colony, about 80% of the islands forest remains virgin and unmolested. A true silver lining in one of man’s most horrible moments. Of course, with the prison gone and the supervising staff woefully under funded, Coiba’s next challenge is fending off poachers preying on the abundant wildlife of the park.