The Argentine Siberia

For a moment, the rain made me doubt. My plan for that morning was do the trekking to the Martial Glacier, but when I mentioned it to Marcelo and he pointed out the rain, I began to evaluate other possibilities. At that moment the truck driver arrived and asked me what I had in mind for that day. I explained that my original idea was in reconsideration because of the rain and reminded me that “here the climate changes every 20 minutes”, urging me to go.

I followed Alejandro’s recommendations and took a taxi to the base of Martial, which is 7 kilometers from the center. I asked for information about the trails and started the march.

In the first part of the road trees abounded but the vegetation began to shrink as it ascended, until the landscape became rocky. Then, the path approached sectors of the glacier where old and young people did culipatín. There began the most demanding climb.

When I only had a few meters to reach the end, it began to snow. That made the ascent of the last section even more exciting and the view of the city, 825 meters above sea level, resulted magnificent.

The descent was fast, despite the rain of the last section. I shared a taxi with three foreigners from the base of Martial to the center and, on the way to the hostel, I made a stop at the Eureka bakery, where I bought bizcochitos for mate. I missed that partner who had left Buenos Aires for not wanting to carry the weight of the thermos. Luckily, I had found one in the kitchen that morning.

I enjoyed every step of the preparation, which for Argentines is a kind of ritual, and when the water was at its point (nothing to use electric kettle) I shared some mates with Alejandro and Marcelo. Then Roberto, the other Brazilian who worked at the hostel, joined and the mates gave way to lunch.

The old hell of criminals

In the afternoon I visited the Maritime Museum and Prison Museum, which operates in the building of the former Prison of Reincidentes of Tierra del Fuego. Known as the “Argentine Siberia”, the southernmost jail in the world played a fundamental role in the history of Ushuaia.

In 1883 the president of the Nation, Julio Argentino Roca, presented a bill to create a penal colony with the intention of populating the extreme south of the country that he himself had depopulated by blood and fire. The climate and location of these lands, enclosed between the sea and the mountain range, made them a very good option to establish a prison. However, the attempt to populate the island with a penal colony didn’t prosper.

Only in 1895, during the presidency of José Evaristo Uriburu, National Law No. 3335 was passed, which established that recidivism sentences had to be complied with in the Southern National Territories. The following year arrived the first fourteen prisoners who had voluntarily accepted your transfer. Immediately eleven more men and nine women were sent, all of them ex-convicts who had returned to commit a crime. Thus began the Jail of Reincidentes, provisionally enabled in wooden houses and sheet metal.

In parallel, the Military Prison  that operated on the Island of the States, first in San Juan de Salvamento and then in Puerto Cook, was transferred to Ushuaia in 1902 for humanitarian reasons. The jail began to operate in Puerto Golondrina, located west of the city, in metal houses and sheds that had been moved from Island of the States. In 1911, the President of the Nation signed the decree that merged the Military Prison  with the Referendum Prison of Ushuaia.

Following the architectural prison tradition designed by Jeremy Bentham in 1780, the National Prison was erected in the form of a panopticon with 5 pavilions of 76 external cells each. The construction of the building was carried out between 1902 and 1920 by the prisoners themselves.

Although the 386 cells, where hardly entered a bed, were unipersonal, the prison came to house more than 600 convicts. Not only criminals who committed serious crimes, many of them sentenced to long-term and even perpetual sentences, but also political and social prisoners were sent to this jail. The applied regime was based on paid work, elementary school education and severe discipline.

The prison had 30 work sectors, some of which were outside it. The installed workshops attended to the needs of the jail and served the entire city. The convicts who had good behavior were used to carry out work outside the prison building, such as the construction of streets, bridges and buildings, and the exploitation of forests. To this end was intalled the southernmost train in the world , whose route reached an extension of 25 kilometers.

In 1947 the President of the Nation, Juan Domingo Perón, ordered the closure of the prison for humanitarian reasons. The facilities were transferred to the Ministry of the Navy and in 1950 the Naval Base was installed there. From an agreement with the Argentine Navy, the former Ushuaia Prison was established as a museum in 1994 but began to operate on March 3, 1995 with a private collection, which had its beginnings in 1985. In April 1997 the building was declared a National Historic Monument by the National Congress.

At present, the Museum is managed by a civil society and is sustained, especially, thanks to the tourists who visit it. Through its narrow corridors the cells are crossed where the prisoners lost their names to become a number. To cross the door of the Historical Pavilion was to take a step back in time and go back to the time of the multiple murderer Mateo Banks, nicknamed “the mystic”; Cayetano Santos Godino, better known as “el petiso orejudo”, and the anarchist Simón Radowitsky. I can’t help but feel a chill as he contemplates the walls that spoke of the inhuman conditions of the world’s most southern prison.

Although I came to complete it, when I left I sealed the entrance to be able to return within 48 hours. Only then did I notice the ironic greeting of the brochure that said: “We wish you a happy stay IN FREEDOM”.

Text and photos of  Gabriela Naso.

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