Mulege: Mexico’s prison without doors

The defunct prison in Mulege, Mexico. EFE-EPA

The defunct prison in Mulege, Mexico. EFE-EPA


A very different kind of prison was founded 100 years ago in this municipality of Mulege in the Mexican state of Baja California Sur. It had no doors but offered many privileges for the convicts, who had to return to captivity in the afternoon at the sound of a conch shell horn.

The famous prison without doors was built more than a century ago and was closed some 70 years later in Heroica Mulege, a town that currently has some 4,000 inhabitants and which, paradoxically, was also built by inmates.

The “Heroica” in the town’s official name refers to the bravery the inhabitants showed in repelling the US military during the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848.

On top of a mountain and standing out among all the houses of the town is the famous prison without doors, so called because of the unique way it was operated

The prisoners were never behind bars and had the privilege of going freely into the town during the day on condition they returned at 6:00 pm on the dot in the afternoon, when they would hear the sound of a conch shell horn.

The prison without doors was built under the orders of dictator Porfirio Diaz, who governed Mexico from 1876-1911.

In charge of the project was Gen. Agustin Sangines Calvillo, then-political head of all of the Baja California peninsula, historian Luis Dominguez told EFE.

Today that unusual penitentiary is a popular museum visited by tourists who arrive by road on their way to other destinations like La Paz and Los Cabos.

“The least violent prisoners went into town to work during the day, and in turn contributed to the growth and progress of Heroica Mulege,” the expert said.

Dominguez said the convicts were even given “the chance to attend dances and festivities, as long as they had no physical contact with local residents.”

In town, the prisoners worked as carpenters, mechanics, cleaners, construction workers and artisans.

But above all, they were fishermen and cowboys.

The effectiveness of this system was chiefly based on prisoners’ awareness of how deadly an attempted escape across the burning southern desert of Baja California would be, so that the natural oasis in the town became, in fact, a more than sufficient reason for not straying very far.

“The story is told that only one prisoner ever tried to escape, but after three days and about to die of dehydration, he was rescued by the best horseman in the region, who was also an inmate in the prison without doors,” Dominguez said.

The museum guide, Nayhelli Murilo, told EFE that thousands of visitors come here every year.

The prison of itself is an exhibition piece, but its installations also display objects from the daily life of former inhabitants of the area, which they themselves donated, from hunting and fishing gear to arrowheads made by the first settlers on the peninsula to rifles from the Mexican Revolution.

The building is an example of penitentiary life at the time.

But it is also a “rara avis,” because when other places of the region tried to impose such a system, society in general roundly opposed it.

Descendents of some of the inmates live in Heroica Mulege to this day.

And while the jail without doors is now part of the region’s history after being closed in the 1970s, it is still very much remembered by local inhabitants. mf/cd