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

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."

Former inmate Edmidio Marin Pagan, convicted of killing a police officer during a 1950s uprising led by Puerto Rican nationalists, shudders at the memory of his six years in Oso Blanco.

"It was hell," Marin, 79, said. "You expected to be killed there."

The prison was built to accommodate between 500 and 800 inmates, but it once housed more than 2,600 prisoners, forcing hundreds to sleep in stairways and hallways. On some days, the population swelled to 5,000, including men awaiting transfer to other facilities.

A 2009 documentary titled "Oso Blanco" reported that there were just 12 guards for more than 1,000 prisoners, with new inmates greeted by shouts of "fresh meat!"

"This was like a time bomb," prison guard Cesar Flores said in the documentary. "You never knew when it was going to blow."

In 1979, inmates filed a class-action lawsuit against Puerto Rico's government that exposed the prison's overcrowding and other problems, leading to its 2004 closure. But inmate relocation was slow, and the government paid $250 million in federal fines in a 33-year-old legal fight.

Ivan Rios, the official overseeing the demolition from the former guards' barracks, said plans call for saving some elements, including the prison facade, marked with the words "Hate the Crime and Pity the Criminal."

But Rios, interim executive director of the Puerto Rico Science, Research and Technology Trust, also called for turning the prison's negative past into a positive future. The agency owns the former prison and the surrounding property, which is slated to be the site of a $196 million-dollar cancer treatment center scheduled to open in April 2016.

"We certainly believe that a collective memory of that magnitude involving negative things and death should give way to a collective memory of science, of progress, of innovation," Rios said.

One of the prison's walls is currently being demolished, with backhoes eating into the peeling, bone-white structure. The government said it removed asbestos and lead at the site and demolished the prison's former hospital and administrative offices nearby.

Belen said several people involved in the project were devastated to learn it was too expensive to save the entire prison.

"We all went into this project with hopes of restoring the building," she said. "But we all realized that it would be an irresponsible alternative in terms of security and cost."