Narciso Bastidas Gonzalez, 59, known as ‘Mali-Mali’, arrived as an inmate at the Coiba Penitentiary Center in the 1980s, after inventing an excuse to be transferred from La Cárcel Modelo. After he completed his sentence and the prison closed, he returned to the island to be a park ranger. Today, he is a published author.
For almost 100 years, Coiba Island was inhabited only by criminals and political prisoners. It is now one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet. Coíba is the largest island of the 38 found in the Coíba National Park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. With an area of more than 485 square kilometers, it makes those who reach its shores travel back in time to when the Earth was not yet developed. In addition to the island’s 1,450 plant species, Coíba’s forests are teeming with hundreds of unique animals, and pristine coral reefs can be found beneath its beaches.
COIBA, Panamá — In 1986, I became an inmate at the Coiba Island prison colony. I served a sentence of more than 11 years. Three decades later, I find myself captivated by the island which I now call home.
As a young man, I was extremely thin. People nicknamed me “Mali Mali,” which means bony in the Guna language. It was the 1980s, and I wanted to find better living conditions, get an education, and find employment.
I left the indigenous province where I lived in Guna Yala and arrived in Panama City at the age of 22. I took my first job in a Japanese restaurant. My day began at 6:00 pm and I closed the restaurant after the last customer left.
On December 6, 1986, a fatal event occurred during an attempted robbery which led to my incarceration.
I arrived as an inmate at the infamous La Cárcel Modelo prison [aptly nicknamed the University of Crime]. Desperately seeking to escape this penitentiary, I managed to invent an excuse and was transferred to Coiba Island.
Attempted prison escape fails
After my arrest, the judicial system sent me to La Cárcel Modelo in El Chorrillo, where officials forced me to sign documents for being complicit in a homicide, resulting in a 17-year sentence.
Detained there for a year, I experienced inhumane conditions. Beatings, torture, humiliation, and rape occurred throughout that year. Eventually, I gained the trust of the guards and became a baker. Soon, I concocted an idea to escape from prison.
First, I would get transferred to the island of Coiba. My cousin served as an inmate there. He had access to the supplies we needed included a motorboat and gasoline. My boss in the prison bakery agreed to help. We simulated an attack on one another and it worked. After the fight, they transferred us.
Once on the island, we scheduled our attempted escape. On that unlucky night, the tide had risen. I looked down from my window in Cell 23 on the second floor. Though I needed to jump, I could not see the floor below. I leaped anyway and landed on broken glass.
With my feet injured, I struggled to get to the boat. We only had a three-to-four-minute window before the guards returned. That was all the time I had to escape. If I did not make it, I was a dead man. Finding myself wounded and in a dangerous situation, I did not want to delay the other inmates, so I gave up. My first escape attempt failed. The others made it, while I waited under a lifeboat until the situation calmed down.
Second escape attempt prompted by potential U.S. invasion of Panama
As a result of that event, the guards transferred me to another part of the prison called the hydroelectric plant. I continued to devise a way to escape. Some inmates and I secretly built a boat using logs. Things took a turn for the worse when my boss fell seriously ill. They transferred me again. As a skilled fisherman, they moved me to the headquarters to work with our navy, doing whatever my superiors asked of me.
In 1989, we heard the United States intended to invade Panama. Although we only considered them rumors, the invasion became reality on December 19th at 10:00 pm. The power went out. All the policemen came to check on us. They took away all the detainees’ radios so that we could not access information about what was happening outside.
On the island, we felt blind. Some officers left and those who remained camouflaged themselves amongst the prisoners. The situation felt very strange. No longer at the mercy of the police, we began making rafts to escape. We took a couple of oars and arrived at Punta Esquina [the closest port on the island] around 7:00 p.m. With the full moon shining bright, I saw about 60 detainees gathered at the port, but only five rafts to take us to the coast!
A furious fight broke out between the prisoners. Most of them had machetes; I only had a knife. I thought, “I am a dead man, I’m not going to be able to defend myself.” So, I abandoned the idea of escaping and returned to the prison. I tried to stay calm, hoping that in a few years I could have a fair trial and be released. I gave up on trying to escape.
Moving on from prison to a brighter future
Sometime later, Panama declared Coiba Island a World Heritage Site. Researchers arrived and considering I knew the environment, forest, and seabed, they recommended I work with them.
From 1993 to 1998, I worked with the researchers until I left on parole. Life became difficult after that. Any mention of my prison time led to being denied interviews and I could not find work. Eventually, I joined the logistics team for a company in Panama.
One day, while waiting for the bus to return to my house, I met a former colleague from the Coiba environmental team. He asked if I wanted to return to the island and train as a park ranger. Without a moment’s hesitation, I told him, “Yes.” In that moment, I felt complete happiness.
Today, I am a proud author. I wrote my first book about my life in prison and the attempted escapes. My second book, which is in progress, serves as a hymn to paradise on this, my second trip around the island.
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Image and Sound Designer, Integral Audiovisual and Journalistic Producer, writer, and teacher.
I started working when I was very young; Since 2001, I was a producer for different television programs, documentary films, radio, and generating creative content for different organizations and companies.
I won the award: "Nuevo Sudaca Border" with the microfiction book "Un Tigre con la Boca Abierta", for Eloisa Cartonera Editorial. I am passionate about telling stories and writing.