At perfect noon we are sitting on damp wooden benches atop a hill on Coiba with thirty uniformed police. One by one they stride to the podium at the front of the open air hall, give an extravagant salute, and accept a diploma rolled in bamboo from the Vice Governor of the Province of Veraguas. In the audience, besides us Ranger crew, are park rangers, MarViva staff, two television reporters and a handful of model convicts serving the last of their time.
This is the graduation ceremony of Coiba’s first class of Eco Police. Coiba was a prison; now it is a park, and as the conventional police leave the ecological police are coming to stay. Unlike the park rangers, they can carry guns, and they lend an authority to the implementation of the park’s new laws for which everyone seems grateful.
We spent all the morning on land. It was just barely enough time to figure out exactly who is living on this island and why. First, there are conventional police, who are leaving. Second, the graduating class of eco police, some of whom will stay. Third, prison inmates. After the prison on Coiba closed, and the inmates were sent to the mainland, the police who remained on shore realized the extent of the work necessary to maintain the base and requested that a handful of well-behaved prisoners be sent back to help them out.
One of them, Antonio, gave us a tour. The base looks like a semi-abandoned city. There are concrete barracks along the beach, a roofless church presided over by vultures, a cluster of administrative buildings in varying stages of disrepair. The prison buildings themselves are overgrown with vines but the rusted bars are as unyielding as ever and you can still swing a cell door shut with a clang. In each cell, Antonio says, lived 15 to 20 men. Yes, it is true that the guards locked themselves in while the prisoners roamed free at night and yes, there was violence of every kind. There are two cemeteries on Coiba where those who died here are buried in anonymous graves.
That all seems very far away. Today, now, the graduating eco police stand stiffly in their army green suits, black caps, black boots tied to the knee and sing the anthem of the Panamanian police. Birds join. Down the hill, across the trees and concrete cell barracks, we can see the blue of the bay.
Who would believe that there is an island in the Pacific inhabited by scientists, park rangers, convicts and nature police who live and work together? But this is Coiba – a jail become a haven that prisoners help to guard, a marine sanctuary protected through a century’s chaos by the very presence of danger. What a story. What a place. The park rangers and eco police seem happy to have us, and Oceana’s Carlos Perez is invited to join in the ceremony. It is an honor to collaborate with this group – to have the chance to help, with our documentary efforts, promote the conservation of this island in whatever way we can.