San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Officials See Promising Future For Island with Murky Past

ISLA SAN LUCAS, Puntarenas – From the twomoldy solitary confinement cells that tower over the dockat the entrance to the former penitentiary, to the forgottenprisoner cemetery near the shores of Playa El Coco, the airof neglect and despair that hangs over this Pacific island isas noticeable as the haunting graffiti left behind by inmatesof the prison that operated here from 1873 to 1989.However, the dismal, uninhabited island’s environmentaland historical value may soon make it a sustainabletourism destination, located a 10-minute boat ridefrom the Pacific port city of Puntarenas, in the Gulf ofNicoya.Because of its remoteness and the alleged torturemethods used on the island, San Lucas Penitentiary shutdown in 1989, and the island became the center of alegal struggle between the Ministry of Environment and Energy (MINAE) and the PuntarenasMunicipality, two institutions that contendedfor management of the state-ownedisland.The municipality’s plans to build amega tourism complex on the island, completewith an airport, were shot down whenthe government placed the island in thehands of the Environment Ministry anddeclared it a national wildlife refuge in2001.CEREMONIES in San Lucas andPuntarenas, scheduled for July 30,National Wildlife Day, will make officialthe island’s transformation into a nationalwildlife refuge and inaugurate a projectthat aims to restore San Lucas and prepareit for low-impact tourism.President Abel Pacheco, the ministersof Environment, Justice and Culture, andlegislators from the area are expected toattend the ceremony, which will includethe liberation of species that once aboundedin San Lucas but whose populationsthere have been reduced or eliminated bypoachers after the prison closed, such asdeer and turkeys, explained Eduardo Lara,marketing and tourism chief for theEnvironment Ministry’s Central PacificConservation Area (ACOPAC).After the symbolic liberation ofspecies, officials will return to Puntarenasand continue the ceremony at thePuntarenas House of Culture, Lara said.THE San Lucas restoration projectconsists of a planning stage and the elaborationof a management plan for the island,according to Renato Sánchez, conservationarea legal advisor.The planning stage, which concludedlast week, included a series of workshops,organized by ACOPAC with assistancefrom the nonprofit marine conservationorganization MarViva and the NationalBiodiversity Institute (INBio), to train personnelin the areas of flora and fauna reinsertioninto island habitats, tourism,archaeological and historical restorationand the project’s general vision and objectives,Sánchez said.Restoration of the prison infrastructure,which most likely will not be ready byNov. 15, the date scheduled for the firsttourist visits to the island, will cost approximately¢350 million ($729,000), accordingto Sánchez.THE three institutions will also collaboratein the elaboration of a San Lucasmanagement plan, a task that will extendfrom August to November, Sánchez said.When San Lucas was declared anational wildlife refuge, its administrationshifted from the hands of the PuntarenasMunicipality, which wanted to develop amega tourism project on the island, to theEnvironment Ministry.This change did not please the municipality,which fired back by filing a lawsuitbefore the Constitutional Chamber ofthe Supreme Court (Sala IV) in 2003,according to Puntarenas Mayor OmarObando.Sala IV rejected the lawsuit, ruling infavor of MINAE’s administration of theisland, in August 2004.However, Obando maintains the re-appropriationof the island stripped themunicipality of land that is rightfully underits administration.“Their talk that the San Lucas restorationproject will generate profits is a sheerlie. They are taking a good that belongs tous. The government has abandonedPuntarenas,” said the mayor, adding that he“will continue fighting” and is “only waitingfor this administration to end (nextMay) to be able to talk to a less headstrong(Environment) Minister.”ACCORDING to ACOPAC legaladvisor Sánchez, the municipality’s interestin the island lies in developing atourism project that will only benefit a fewpeople, while MINAE’s sustainabletourism project will benefit the entirePuntarenas community.Obando explained that the megatourism project favored by the municipalitywas developed by the Costa RicanTourism Institute (ICT) and included anairport, a marina, golf courts, resorts,restaurants and a primary forest reserve, allon the 472-hectare island.The Environment Ministry’s projectwill contribute to the Puntarenas communityby employing a Puntarenas woman’scooperative, Coopeprogreso, to managewaste through a recycling center to beinstalled on the island, Sánchez said.A Puntarenas transport association willbe in charge of boat travel from the port cityto San Lucas, home to eight archaelogicalsites from indigenous cultures thatinhabited the island between 1,000 and1,500 A.D.The Environment Ministry and thePuntarenas Tourism Chamber plan to trainarea fishermen to work as tour guides,Sánchez added.ACOPAC is accepting donations tocarry out the San Lucas restoration project.Volunteers, technical assistance and constructionmaterials are all accepted. Formore info, call the conservation area at416-7068.History of Isla San LucasThe San Lucas prison was modeledafter a British penitentiary system that,starting in 1858, used islands as prisonsas an alternative to the death penalty.Australia is perhaps the best-knownexample of this practice; the British populatedthe island with criminals whoseoffenses were catalogued as “verygrave.”Before San Lucas, the Costa Ricangovernment opened a penitentiary colonyon Isla del Coco, approximately 36 hoursby boat from the country’s Pacific coast.However, this island’s remote locationelevated operating costs and led to anevaluation of other options, and to theopening of San Lucas penitentiary in1873.In 1958, the San Lucas penitentiarywas transformed into an agricultural penitentiarycolony, with a cattle farm, school,library, chapel and medical facility.By 1989, the island penitentiary systemwas highly criticized for the prisoner’sisolation, breaking of family ties and theconstant threat to guards. That year, theprison shut down, leaving only a fewremaining minimum-security prisoners inSan Lucas, the last of whom left theisland by 1991.Torture chambers still stand at SanLucas, such as el disco (the disk), a circular,underground cell at the center ofone of the prison’s courtyards. Guardsallegedly forced misbehaving prisonersinto the non-ventilated cell and left themfor days in the suffocating island heat.Prisoners referred to a cell adjacentto the medium-security pavilion as laplancha (the iron). It allegedly was coveredin metal sheets and sealed tight toproduce elevated temperatures; prisonerswere burned when they came intocontact with the hot metal.Today, the walls, floors and ceilings ofthe cells at San Lucas are still coveredwith graffiti that displays motifs of love,death, sex, religion and despair. Onedrawing, of a woman in a red bikini, issupposedly colored in blood.A message inscribed on the wall ofthe maximum-security area reads,“Plague, plague, 8 years of prison on IslaSan Lucas 17-5-83,” and another, “Whatmisery you see in prison.”Life at the penitentiary inspired CostaRican author and former San Lucasinmate José León Sánchez to write “LaIsla de los Hombres Solos” (The Isle ofLonely Men), a novel, translated into 15languages, published in 1984.University of Costa Rica professorIlse Marie Bussing-López published ananalysis of San Lucas graffiti entitledCuando las Paredes Hablan (When theWalls Speak) in 2004.Source: MarViva, the NationalBiodiversity Institute and the EnvironmentMinistry.

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