Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : May 18th 2014 Contents A45
May 18, 2014 www.guardian.co.tt Sunday Guardian
This May 14, 2014 photo shows the Spanish inscription "Hate the Crime and Pity the Criminal" over the main
entrance of the former Rio Piedras State Penitentiary, popularly known as the Oso Blanco, which is set to be
demolished in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Ivan Rios, the official overseeing the demolition from the former
guards' barracks, said plans call for saving some elements, including this prison facade. AP PHOTO
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico---The
fortress-like facade of the Oso Blanco
prison looms over a gritty neigh-
bourhood in the Puerto Rican capital,
and even larger in the imagination
of many on the island.
But perhaps for not much longer.
The Puerto Rican government, which
struggled for decades to gain control
of the prison known as the Alcatraz
of the Caribbean, wants to demolish
most of the cavernous structure and
build an office park aimed at attracting
Preservationists and historians say:
not so fast. The Rio Piedras State Pen-
itentiary is considered a magnificent
example of Art Deco architecture. It s
also part of history, though it s a dark
chapter featuring brutality and mis-
"This prison has been a very real
part of the lives of Puerto Ricans for
more than 80 years," said archaeologist
and preservationist Aida Belen, who
has been a consultant to the govern-
ment on what to do with Oso Blanco.
"So many of us have had a brother,
a cousin, an uncle, a neighbour, a rel-
ative who was in Oso Blanco. We ve
all known someone."
Gov Alejandro Garcia Padilla sur-
prised and angered some people by
mentioning during a budget speech
last month that demolition had begun.
Since then, officials have been
besieged with phone calls and a grow-
ing social media campaign hoping to
stop the wrecking ball and preserve
at least part of the prison as a muse-
um, gallery or open-air park. The for-
mer Alcatraz Island federal prison in
San Francisco Bay itself is a tourist
attraction, with daily tours.
Clashes over new developments
The fight over Oso Blanco is a famil-
iar one in Puerto Rico, where clashes
over new developments have occurred
as remnants of colonial Spanish
architecture compete for space with
gleaming new beach hotels and
"Unfortunately, many architectural
treasures have disappeared," said Pilar-
in Ferrer, president of Puerto Rico s
Association of Landscape Architects.
"This is why everyone is so worried."
Andy Rivera, president of Puerto
Rico Historic Buildings Drawings Soci-
ety, filed a court petition to suspend
the demolition until the studies that
recommend such an action be made
public, but he was denied. A local
senator filed a similar measure this
week, joining activists who question
whether it s really true that the build-
ing is unsafe and unstable.
Rivera, an architect, said he wants
independent experts to evaluate the
building and accused the government
of letting Oso Blanco deteriorate on
"This is the last prime real estate
left in San Juan," he said. "That s why
Oso Blanco is considered a nuisance."
Muhammad Ali fought there
Oso Blanco is on the National Reg-
ister of Historic Places and was named
after the cement brand used to build
it. Among its claims to fame: a 1974
exhibition fight featuring boxing leg-
end Muhammad Ali, who sparred with
an inmate while Puerto Rican actress
and singer Iris Chacon served as ref-
Ferrer pointed out that a former jail
in colonial Old San Juan houses the
island s Tourism Company and says
Oso Blanco holds great promise.
"I would hate to see the memory
of that structure erased," she said.
"Architecture reveals who we were,
what we did, who lived there."
Oso Blanco opened in 1933, heralded
as the island s first prison aimed at
rehabilitating criminals. It featured
workshops and an inmate-run farm.
But the vision crumbled amid over-
crowding that began in the 1950s and
violent clashes among inmates and
guards. It soon gave birth to two noto-
rious gangs, whose members launched
a violent war for supremacy.
Hundreds of inmates were killed,
including some who were cut up into
pieces. Belen said the warring gangs
would sometimes incorporate human
remains of their victims into meals
they prepared, warning fellow gang
members not to eat that day, she said.
"Body parts were found as this was
happening," she said. "These are not
A hellish place for prisoners
Former inmate Edmidio Marin
Pagan, convicted of killing a police
officer during a 1950s uprising led by
Puerto Rican nationalists, shudders
at the memory of his six years in Oso
"It was hell," Marin, 79, said. "You
expected to be killed there."
The prison was built to accommo-
date between 500 and 800 inmates,
but it once housed more than 2,600
prisoners, forcing hundreds to sleep
in stairways and hallways. On some
days, the population swelled to 5,000,
including men awaiting transfer to
A 2009 documentary titled Oso
Blanco reported that there were just
12 guards for more than 1,000 pris-
oners, with new inmates greeted by
shouts of "fresh meat!"
"This was like a time bomb," prison
guard Cesar Flores said in the doc-
umentary. "You never knew when it
was going to blow."
In 1979, inmates filed a class-action
lawsuit against Puerto Rico s govern-
ment that exposed the prison s over-
crowding and other problems, leading
to its 2004 closure. But inmate relo-
cation was slow, and the government
paid US$250 million in federal fines
in a 33-year-old legal fight. (AP)
Fight for 'Alcatraz
of Caribbean' in
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