Indigenous leader, U.S. citizen and political prisoner in Mexico
Her personal background
Nestora Salgado is a naturalized U.S. citizen who grew up in the small indigenous village of Olinalá in the state of Guerrero, Mexico. She moved to the United States in 1991 at the age of 20, working as a maid, nanny and waitress. She splits her time between Olinalá and Renton, Washington, where she lives with her husband José Luis Avila, a construction worker, her daughters, and grandchildren. Over the past four years, she made numerous trips to deliver clothing and supplies to the desperately poor residents of her hometown.
Fighting poverty and violence in Guerrero
Guerrero has the highest murder rate in Mexico and a history of state involvement in massacres of indigenous peasants. During her trips home to Mexico, Salgado witnessed increasing poverty and the rise in violent crime and political corruption. This led her to become a community activist for the human rights of indigenous people in Guerrero and neighboring parts of Mexico. In particular, she became involved in the indigenous movement for community policing that has swept through the region during the past several years. Guerrero State Law 701 and Article 2.A of the Mexican Constitution guarantee the right of indigenous people to self-government and self-defense, including forming their own police forces.
Soon, Salgado was putting the laws into practice by organizing with others to form a community police force in Olinalá. Its officers formed patrols to defend residents against organized crime, particularly the Los Rojos gang. The gang had been terrorizing the community and operating with impunity due to the complicity of local officials, including the mayor.
The impetus for forming the community force was the murder of a local taxi cab driver who refused to pay protection money to Los Rojos. Salgado led a mobilization of village residents to drive the gang out of town and set up checkpoints to keep them from coming back. Last spring Salgado was elected “comandante” or coordinator. She has worked hard to develop the leadership of indigenous women and to empower them to stand up against domestic violence and child abuse.
Initially, Salgado was able to obtain the support of Angel Aguirre, the governor of Guerrero, who promised in writing to provide the force with uniforms, small arms, training and other support. The impact of the community policing, which relied on traditional means of accountability and social control, was dramatic—a 90 percent drop in the crime rate and no murders during the ten months that it was in operation. (In the first two months after the governor shut down community police, crime increased substantially and there were four killings, despite the presence of hundreds of marines and soldiers as well as state and federal police. Government forces are used to harass and arrest community organizers, sometimes threatening to kill them, while protecting criminal activity.)
Nestora Salgado’s abduction and arrest
The official pretext for seizing her on August 21, 2013, was the arrest of the local sheriff and several teenage girls. Sheriff Armando Patrón Jiménez was detained for tampering with evidence at the crime scene of a double assassination. He had attempted to walk off with a cow, the property of the deceased. The girls were charged with dealing drugs. Salgado was arrested on charges of kidnapping in these cases, even though she was doing what she’d been elected to do.
At a meeting five days before her arrest between the mayor and Salgado, she refused to let the sheriff, a political crony of the mayor, go free without a trial in a peoples’ court. A few days later, she found herself surrounded by ten Humvees full of army and marine personnel. They seized her and transported her by private plane to a maximum-security prison 600 miles from Olinalá. While Salgado’s arrest appears to have been precipitated by the arrest of the sheriff, it was also in retaliation for a press release Salgado issued that outlined the mayor’s and other government figures’ ties to drug trafficking. This all took place in the context of the struggle by the people of Olinalá and its community police force to maintain their independence from the state-controlled rural police force.
Prosecuting indigenous leaders like Salgado and suppressing autonomous community police forces also serves a larger purpose—silencing vocal opposition by indigenous communities to foreign mining companies that have large contracts to extract mineral wealth from the mountains of Guerrero.
Political persecution and mistreatment in jail
Salgado was seized without an arrest warrant by federal soldiers at a checkpoint while driving home. She had been harassed with death threats by marines for several days prior to her arrest. Since the day after her arrest, Salgado has been incarcerated in the high security detention center of El Rincon, in Tepic, Nayarit, several days travel from Olinalá. There is no basis for the government’s claim that such extreme measures are warranted because Salgado—a grandmother and well-respected citizen with no criminal record—is a danger to society. Furthermore, kidnapping is not a federal crime in Mexico and those accused are normally held in local jails.
Isolating Salgado from her supporters and family by transporting her so far away, without legal justification, is evidence that she is a political prisoner. Efforts to organize support in Olinalá for Salgado’s release and the revival of community policing are being suppressed by death threats and reprisals; Salgado’s advocates are being cut-off from public assistance, especially needed since a severe storm in mid-October 2013.
For weeks, Salgado was held incommunicado. She was not allowed to see her attorney or family members, who had traveled the long distance to get to the penitentiary. She was only allowed a lawyer after the deadline had passed to petition for release while awaiting trial. Salgado was not allowed to meet in person with her attorney for almost a year. Only one of her daughters and a sister has been able to visit her on a regular basis. This persecution is all for performing her lawful duties as the coordinator of the community police force.
Several years ago, Salgado was injured in a car accident that left her temporarily paralyzed from the neck down. Through extensive physical therapy, she was able to regain 90 percent of her functioning but is still unable to work. To manage severe neuropathy in her hands and feet, she relies on pain medication and frequent exercise. In prison, she has been denied both, worsening her physical and mental condition. For months on end she has been subjected to virtual solitary confinement, denied all interaction with others.
At the end of March 2014, a federal judge in Mexico ruled that Salgado’s actions as a coordinator of the Olinalá community police force was lawful under Guerrero state law and customs and traditions of indigenous people of the area. The judge ordered Salgado’s release from custody, an order, which the state courts and the state Attorney General have refused to abide by.
After a year in jail, she has only been permitted to see her attorney one time for 45 minutes, despite repeated requests.
Efforts to negotiate a political solution to Ms. Salgado’s plight have not produced any concrete results, not even a transfer to Mexico City so she could be closer to her attorneys and her family.
The assassination of another strong woman activist in Guerrero, Rocío Mesino Mesino, just days after she had been released from prison, is a reminder that Salgado’s life is in jeopardy without close public scrutiny and strong support in Mexico and the United States.
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