Islas Marías Federal Prison

The Islas Marías, which translates to “Mary Islands,” is a group of four islands, belonging to Mexico, located in the Pacific Ocean approximately 100 km (62 mi) off the coast of the Mexican state of Nayarit.

The most notable feature of the Islas Marías is the Islas Marias Federal Prison, which is located on Isla María Madre.

Built in 1905 under the government of Porfirio Díaz, the prison of las Islas Marías was “the pride of the government” becoming the most modern prison model of its time, “escape-proof”, which operated as an alternative to house the delinquents, who due to their profile and background, could not be held in the prison of Lecumberri.

Until 1950 this prison colony was known as a feared detention centre, due to violence, disease, and forced labour. It is calculated that the total number of prisoners to be housed there is above 29,000.

During the government of Ernesto Zedillo in the 1990s, the government decided to modernise the prison system and Islas Marias was deactivated. On 27 November 2003, it was declared a biosphere reserve but the prison system still exists.

Due to the overwhelming prison situation in Mexico, the government announced in 2004 that the Islas Marias prison would be reactivated to transfer 2,500 prisoners from other prisons across the country.

However, on 18th February 2019, Mexican President, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, declared the closure of the federal prison on the Islas Marías. López Obrador’s aim was to promote “more schools and fewer prisons” and to shift away from the traditional focus on punishment and towards rehabilitation.

Prison escapes

The prison has had at least 76 escapes in the last 25 years of which 29 took place in 1986 alone. According to newspaper reports, the causes are minimum vigilance, and a shortage of guards and equipment. Among the most dangerous to escape were criminals sentenced for drug trafficking, 28 murderers, and kidnappers. Of the 76 escapees from the Islas Marías, only 10 have been recaptured. According to one source, 95% of the escapes are due to corruption.

  • On 25 October 1986, an entire family of kidnappers escaped. The Reyes Servín brothers, from Michoacán, have never been caught.
  • On 16 January 2006, three drug dealers managed to escape. These were José Abraham González Salas, Fernando Méndez del Fierro and Luis Rey López Barrera. González Salas and Méndez del Fierro were sentenced in California, United States. Through the program of interchange, they were transferred to the state of Michoacán. González Salas had been sentenced to 24 years for the traffic of methamphetamines and heroin. Méndez del Fierro had been sentenced to 18 years for the possession and distribution of cocaine. Coming from San Luis Potosí, López Barrera entered the Islas Marías on 7 October 2000. He had been sentenced to 11 years and three months for possession and transport of marijuana.
  • On November 24, 2011, six inmates tried to escape using plastic containers as flotation devices. They were reportedly carried by currents about 60 miles south of the island. A passing boat tipped authorities and they were promptly returned to the island prison.