Coiba Island, located off the Southern coast of Panama in the Pacific, is best-known locally for being in waters rich with big fish and seasonal whale populations, being the only place in Panama where scarlet macaws still fly free breeding in the wild, and the site of a former Devil’s-Island-style prison compound. Now some of the smaller cruise ships are beginning to venture to stop at Coiba.
The island is a national park and is located in the Bay of Chriqui National Marine Sanctuary. A beautiful island, but one with a scary past, as described in this piece by
AT FIRST glance it appears to be a pristine stretch of coastline where cruise ships full of excited tourists dock.
Here, they grab the chance to stretch their legs while taking in the beauty of Central America’s largest island, Coiba, which seems like a typical, secluded tropical getaway.
But they daren’t wander too far from the shore.
Because little do they know that they’re only seeing a tiny part of the picture. The tourist part of this island in Panama is located to the north, it’s a tiny section that’s well-maintained and secure. It has great diving spots, and even a pet crocodile trained to fetch your soccer ball (yes, really, but good luck trying to get it back).
But those who venture just outside of the touristy area — which is very few as a permit is required — step into a whole other world.
Here, paradise morphs into a place that’s straight out of a nightmare.
Adventurer, war correspondent and former US Army Ranger Chuck Holton, has been to Coiba around eight times in recent years and knows the area well.
“The island is absolutely malicious, I’ve been around the world and I’ve never been anywhere where I felt so much like nature was trying to kill me,” Mr Holton tellsnews.com.au.
“Everything on that island wants to bite you, everything is poisonous. It’s not a fun place to go camping. It’s probably the most Indiana Jones-style adventurous place I’ve ever been in my life.”
Mr Holton visited as recently as last year, and is planning another expedition there in 2016. What he has discovered was so fascinating and disturbing that he started writing a book about his time in this forgotten world of terrors.
Essentially it’s a huge, unforgiving landscape which can turn on you in an instant.
“The island is quite large (503 square kilometres), it’s the size of a country, yet it’s never been formally explored,” Mr Holton said.
“For the last 10 years we’ve been running expeditions into the interior of the island, exploring places where no human being has ever been.
“It is like the land before time — it’s amazing, and beautiful.
“There are cruise ships that stop there, they stop at the north end of the island where they keep it trimmed and nice … but the real interesting part of the island is further south.”
We’re talking about a place with mutant animals, trees that can hurt you and crocodiles that lay hiding in wait.
“There are lots of species of animals that exist there — there are mice the size of watermelon, deer with short legs, strange lizards you don’t see anywhere else, as well as gigantic bats.
“There are trees that when it rains, as the water filters down it produces an acid that will burn you if you’re standing underneath. There are also snakes that fall out of the trees.”
But the one thing that will be forever burned into his memory is what he saw inside the island’s prison, the scene of unimaginable horrors.
Until just over a decade ago, Coiba was one of the largest operating island prison systems in world history — next to only Australia.
Built in 1919, the now-abandoned Coiba Island Prison housed 3000 inmates at its peak — many political prisoners — in about 30 camps.
It was virtually inescapable, with some known as los desaparacidos, or “the disappeared” — held in secret, never to return.
It was a place of great torment.
This extract from a Human Rights Watch report is the tip of the iceberg: “Credible reports indicate that inmates at the Coiba Island facility were also severely and systematically abused by their jailers in 1991.
“Two inmates at Coiba who died in July are believed to have been victims of torture by prison officials, and more than 170 fellow inmates have complained of serious physical and psychological abuse.
“Government sources have acknowledged that abuses at the Coiba facility were confirmed in reports by lower-ranking prison officials that were later suppressed by the Ministry of Government and Justice.”
Mr Holton said he first learnt of the prison when he was involved in the American invasion of Panama in 1989.
He heard stories of its history, where prisoners formed tribes and would engage in raging gang wars. There were also reports of cannibalism and failed escapes.
“Prisoners would sometimes escape in 80s, tired of forced labour. The guards wouldn’t even bother to look for them, as they’d either die or come crawling back in.
“The guards were notoriously brutal, and used torture tactics.
“They had this ritual for new prisoners, the guards would take them into the jungle, blindfold them, line them up and have a mock execution. The would put guns to them, count down ‘three, two, one, fire’, intimidating them.”
When Mr Holton saw the prison for the first time, he was on a team mission to search the entire building. What they found was shocking.
“There were some political prisoners there who were being held there on the island, but what we didn’t know was there were a few cells that were packed with people,” he said. “The guards that were left there told us not to go in as they all had AIDS.
“We realised that several of the men in the cell had perished in the days before we got there. The dead had been left with the living, you can imagine the smell of several corpses that had been rotting.”
And then, a sight of utter despair.
“There was also a man who had been put in a cell, essentially a concrete box with no windows, light, toilet, or furniture. He was fed once a day through the bottom of the door.”
They had to pull him out, and after having been in there for seven months he couldn’t cope.
“He had gone insane, and was living in 8 inches (20cm) of his own filth. He was rolled up in a ball, screaming and demanding to be put back inside as the sun hurt him.
“There was a lot of misery there.”
“The guards had fled so the prisoners were roaming around the island freely in probably the worst living conditions I’ve ever seen,” he said.
What happened to the animals on the island is also disturbing.
“The scariest thing on the island now is the prisoners had some livestock, when they closed the prison in 2004 and took prisoners away, much of livestock wandered off and turned feral.
“Several times we went to settle down for the night in our camp, and heard bulldozer-like sounds, as mutant animals ran past.”
He said it’s incredibly difficult to explore the island, and you never know what you’ll come across.
“The first time we tried to cross the island in 2007 we failed. We had tried to go in a straight line over the land, but the foliage is so thick that we were making less than a mile a day, it was like hacking through a brick wall.
“So the second time, a year later, we decided to wade in one of the creeks and follow it to its source and jump over one mountain range then follow another creek.
“We didn’t have to use the machetes too much, we stuck to the sandbars. But the danger in that is there were a lot of caiman crocs, laying in the bottom, waiting for someone to walk along then drag it underwater, so we had a couple of close calls, stepping close to them and seeing them at the last minute.”
“There are scary lizards that hang out on the bank of the river, when they get startled they run across the water fast, explosively, so you don’t notice them there until you get close and they decide it’s time to run away. It’s heart attack after heart attack.”
“There’s also a large flock of scarlet macaw here. They are the most beautiful things you’ve ever seen, but we found out the hard way at night they roost in the trees and if they get startled they call out with a sound like a pterodactyl that’s going to eat you.
“They also have bugs that are like sand fleas and because there’s not much to eat out there, when you show up on the beach, after about 3pm it’s like someone sprinkled pepper on your skin. They’re tiny, but they must be nothing but teeth, it’s like being stung by a bee.
“There’s 500 of them that descend on you at the same time. We wore gloves, long pants and head nets, they are horrific.”
He said as the area is so little explored, that it’s become a haven for drug runners — many of them armed — who use it to refuel.
“There are still a detachment of Panamanian coastguard staying on the island to keep squatters and drug runners away. The narco traffickers like to use the island as a stopover for their fast boats going there.
“Last time I was there they’d found a drug runners camp, they saw from the plane. They ran off into the jungle so the coastguard took their boats, food, everything, left them in there.
“The day before we showed up on our last trip they came stumbling out of the jungle and gave up.”
It’s not all horror here — some remarkable discoveries have been made in recent years, including what Mr Holton says is evidence of a secret CIA base built after WWII.
In the 1980s it was turned into a base for Panama’s special forces but they abandoned it when the American invasion happened, booby-trapping it with landmines.
But the most exciting find of all could end up rewriting history.
“In the 1990s some of the prisoners started finding these artefacts in one of the river beds on the island. Somehow one of them got to someone from the Smithsonian (the world’s largest museum and research complex) who said they were pre-Colombian tools.
“They believe somewhere on the island there’s a lost city.”
Panama sent a group 150 explorers out there after the discovery, who stumbled across a large, recent mass grave where it’s believed guards had been killing prisoners for sport and throwing them into a pit. So they abandoned the mission.
It’s hoped next year will be the year the ruins are discovered.
David E. Pitt of THE NEW YORK TIMES filed this report about Coiba Prison January 7, 1990, two weeks after the US Invasion of Panama.
In many ways, it is the same place but with different names: Devil’s Island, the Gulag – any of history’s most nightmarish penal colonies. In Panama, they call it Coiba.
From the air, this hilly green Pacific island could be mistaken for an out-of-the-way tropical resort.
Towering palms frame a cluster of red-and-white colonial-style buildings overlooking a turquoise sea. In the hills beyond, thick stands of trees are interspersed with fields of rice and yucca and what appear to be bungalow-style compounds.
But appearances can be deceiving, as an initial element of 100 United States combat troops found when they landed here aboard helicopter gunships on Dec. 30, 10 days after an American invasion force toppled the military Government of Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega.
Called a Slave-Labor Camp
Inmates and Panamanian human rights groups say Coiba, 18 miles off Panama’s rugged southwest coast, was a virtual slave-labor camp where political opponents of the Noriega Government were beaten and tortured. They were housed with violent criminals and forced to work 12-hour days growing crops sold at a profit on the mainland by the general’s favorites in the Panama Defense Forces.
Founded in 1919 as a rehabilitation camp for criminals serving sentences of two years or more, Coiba under General Noriega ”instead became a money-laundering food-export business for the military,” said Otilia Koster, head of the Center for the Investigation of Human Rights and Judicial Aid.
The political prisoners – human rights workers say they believe that there were fewer than 100 in the six years that Mr. Noriega was in power – included former loyalists who had run afoul of the Government, among them 74 officers arrested after a bungled military coup on Oct. 3.
The 18-mile-long island was also the site of a commando training school where, some Panamanian officials assert, Israeli mercenaries helped instruct General Noriega’s most promising young soldiers, including members of a ”special anti-terrorism unit” whose real mission was to terrorize the general’s political opponents.
‘Right Out of Papillon’
”There are 100 stories about what went on in this place,” said Lieut. Col. Jeff Rock, commander of a 214-member infantry unit from Fort Ord, Calif., who arrived here on Dec. 31. ”It’s right out of Papillon.”
Most of the inmates who spoke to a reporter appeared to be common criminals serving sentences ranging from six months to life. Some told of comrades left hanging by wrist shackles from the backboard of a basketball court for hours. Others said they were forced to sleep in excrement-filled cells and fed little more than burned rice and contaminated water.
”The military prisoners were treated much worse than us,” said 22-year-old Gonzalo Escudero, an inmate who said an American medic had helped set two shattered fingers on his left hand, broken by a guard before the United States troops arrived.
Mr. Escudero, who said he had been sent to Cuiba on trumped-up charges of theft because ”I talked too much about how much I hate Noriega,” said that while most of the inmates worked in the fields from 6 A.M. until noon six days a week, military prisoners were forced to work until 6 P.M. every day, and were fed worse food.
Escape to Santiago
When the first American troops flew in, Colonel Rock said, they found 700 of Coiba’s 904 inmates wandering aimlessly around the island, along with 40 of the original complement of 130 armed military guards, who were warily keeping their distance from their former charges.
The others, including scores of prisoners, were either unaccounted for or were last seen fleeing to the mainland ahead of the American forces.
Inmates said the escapees included Coiba’s newly appointed commandante, Capt. Bernardo Castillo, and seven officers who left aboard the island’s four inflatable Zodiac boats on Dec. 20; 26 instructors from the commando training camp, and all 74 survivors of the October coup.
One of the military prisoners, a naval officer who identified himself as Capt. Jose Luis Sanchez, 42, said in an interview on the mainland today that he and his comrades had escaped the island in makeshift boats on Dec. 29 and had made their way to the inland city of Santiago.
‘Much Better Here Now’
Colonel Rock, describing the first few days of the American occupation, said, ”the first order of business was to round up and interrogate all the prisoners and the guards.”
”The prisoners were a real potpourri,” he said. ”You had everything from people doing time for basic misdemeanors to murderers and rapists.”
Fourteen of the 40 guards, including the third-ranking officer, were subsequently arrested by the Americans on charges of brutality and taken back to the mainland in handcuffs; the rest were given back their guns after pledging loyalty to the new Panamanian Government.
Lieut. Leonel Alberto Gomez, 42, who said he had decided not to flee out of a sense of responsibility to the prison camp, was appointed acting commandante by Colonel Rock. ”I think things are much better here now,” he said.
K-Rations and Medicine
The Americans distributed food to the hungry prisoners in the form of M.R.E.’s – modernized K-rations called Meals Ready to Eat – and restocked the prison sick bay with medicine.
Seven Americans were among the inmates taken to the mainland for interrogation, including several held on Panamanian drug charges and ”one guy who told us he was working for the C.I.A.,” Colonel Rock said.
Although the American military occupation of Coiba was carried out without a shot fired, it took six American soldiers to subdue the island’s most dangerous prisoner, said to be a deranged mass murderer, and return him to an isolation cell.
”That guy was here because he killed five people on the outside,” Major Buckingham said. ”On his first day here, he killed three prisoners in a fight over food. Strangled them. It was all we could do to get him back into isolation in the gallery.”
Inmates Never Seen Again
The General Gallery, the largest of the wooden frame buildings near the beach, is two stories with a tin roof and a balcony. It is the only place on Coiba where prisoners are kept under lock and key.
Besides dozens of small arms and thousands of rounds of ammunition, American officers said, troops found hand-filled rubber hoses and rusty leg irons, and they heard many stories of brutality and abuse.
Human rights investigators say no deaths have ever been documented at Coiba. But prisoners told of inmates who were never seen again after being led away in the night by guards, and of despondent men who killed themselves, some by swimming off the beaches, where sharks lurk.
”Modelo Prison, on the mainland, was just as bad,” said Mrs. Koster of the human rights center. ”But because Coiba is so isolated, it has always been a more fearful place.”
Today, as a platoon of American soldiers escorted a reporter around Coiba’s the grounds, nearly two dozen of the gallery’s inmates crowded out onto the balcony, where they shouted protests to Lieutenant Gomez, who stood looking up with his hands on his hips.
”When are we getting out?” one prisoner cried to him in Spanish. ”We are all political prisoners and as soon as the North Americans leave, we’ll be forgotten again.”