For almost 100 years, Coíba was inhabited only by criminals and political prisoners. Now it’s one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet.
Established in 1919, the island was punishment for Panama’s most dangerous criminals—or for those who angered the wrong people. Unlike a penitentiary in which criminals are housed within fortress-like walls, on the island of Coíba, most prisoners were scattered throughout the island in 30 makeshift camps, creating shelters from natural surroundings.
Prisoners who tried to escape were deterred by the sharks and crocodiles that inhabited the island’s waters.
As the island becomes more popular and easier to access, the understaffed Panamanian military units supervising the island have found it difficult to effectively patrol, and the island’s unique species have become susceptible to poaching. Illegal fishing has also become a problem along Coiba’s delicate reefs.