Battle rages as Puerto Rico seeks to tear down prison known as 'Alcatraz of the Caribbean'

The Associated Press

This May 14, 2014 photo shows an aerial view of demolition work at the former Rio Piedras State Penitentiary, popularly known as the "Oso Blanco" in San Juan, Puerto Rico. 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 structure and build an office park aimed at attracting high-tech businesses. (AP Photo/Ricardo Arduengo)

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By DANICA COTO, Associated Press

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — The fortress-like facade of the Oso Blanco prison looms over a gritty neighborhood 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 high-tech businesses.

Preservationists and historians say not so fast. The Rio Piedras State Penitentiary is considered a magnificent example of Art Deco architecture. It's also part of history, though it's a dark chapter featuring brutality and mismanagement.

"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 government on what to do with Oso Blanco. "So many of us have had a brother, a cousin, an uncle, a neighbor, a relative who was in Oso Blanco. We've all known someone."

Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla surprised 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 growing social media campaign hoping to stop the wrecking ball and preserve at least part of the prison as a museum, gallery or open-air park. The former Alcatraz Island federal prison in San Francisco Bay itself is a tourist attraction, with daily tours.

The fight over Oso Blanco is a familiar 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 upscale condos.

"Unfortunately, many architectural treasures have disappeared," said Pilarin 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 Society, 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 building 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 purpose.

"This is the last prime real estate left in San Juan," he said. "That's why Oso Blanco is considered a nuisance."

Oso Blanco is on the National Register 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 legend Muhammad Ali, who sparred with an inmate while Puerto Rican actress and singer Iris Chacon served as referee.

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 overcrowding that began in the 1950s and violent clashes among inmates and guards. It soon gave birth to two notorious 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 suppositions."