Situated on a hill overlooking the river, one block from the Montevideo golf course, and connected to the 26-storey Sheraton hotel, one can find Punta Carretas Shopping with its 180 shops, food hall and multi-cinema complex. It is the most up-market of Montevideo’s shopping centres. Once inside the austere external walls, there is little to differentiate this centre from any other American-style centre; the shops display most of the same global brands that one can find anywhere. But the language is a South American giveaway: almost exclusively Spanish with a smattering of Portuguese from Brazilian tourists, or occasionally English from Sheraton guests or cruise passengers in port for a few hours.
But this building has not always been a shopping centre. It was originally the notorious Carretas prison, built in 1910, when the area was well outside of the nucleus of Montevideo. In the era of the military dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s, many of the captured members of the Tupamaros, the urban-guerrilla movement, were imprisoned there. In that same era, an estimated 14% of the Uruguayan population were forced into exile abroad.
In the years 1931, 1971 and 1972, there were three major escapes from the prison, using tunnels. In 1971, 106 prisoners escaped through a tunnel that ended in the living room of a neighbour’s house. One of those prisoners was José Mujica, who eventually ended up as President of Uruguay in 2010-2015. He was shot six times, captured four times and eventually released in 1985. With his austere lifestyle, refusing to live in the presidential palace, driving his own old battered Volkswagen and donation of 90% of his salary to charity, he became known as ‘the world’s humblest president’. In the photos one can see Mujica as he was the day he was released and today. Only the nose is recognizable.
After the end of the period of dictatorship in 1985, the prison was closed. Following a competition, the building and site were eventually sold to a developer, and in 1994 the shopping centre was opened. With its luxurious multi-storey apartments, desirable single family homes and restaurants, today the Punta Carretas area is one of the most sought-after addresses of Montevideo. Apart from the external walls of the shopping centre, there is nothing to reveal the area’s undesirable past.
Many of the ex-prisoners are still alive today and at least one of them escorts curious tourists around the building and explains how the prison used to be. For those ex-prisoners it must seem ironic that every day hordes of people, of their own will, enter the place from which they once struggled to escape.