1. Personal Background
Nestora Salgado, 41 years of age, 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 divided her time between Olinalá and Renton, Washington where she was living 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.
2. Addressing poverty and violence in Guerrero
Guerrero has the highest rate of murder in Mexico and a history of state involvement in massacres of indigenous peoples. During her trips to Mexico, Salgado witnessed increasing poverty and a rise in violent crime and political corruption. This led her to become a peaceful community activist for the human rights of indigenous people in Guerrero and neighboring parts of Mexico. In particular, she became a leader of the indigenous movement for community policing that has swept through the region in the past several years. Guerrero State Law 701 and Article 2.A of the Mexican Constitution guarantees the right of indigenous people to self-government and self-defense, including the formation of their own police forces.
Soon, Salgado was putting 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 coordinator of the patrol. She has worked hard to develop the leadership of indigenous women and to empower them to stand up against domestic violence and other 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% drop in the crime rate and no murders during the 10 months it was in operation. In the two months since the Governor shut down the community police, crime has increased and there were four killings, despite the presence in the area of over a thousand marines and soldiers, as well as state and federal police.
3. Context for Nestora Salgado’s arrest and imprisonment
The official pretext for detaining her on August 21, 2013 was the arrest of several teenage girls for dealing drugs and the local sheriff, Armando Patrón Jiménez, for tampering with evidence at the crime scene of a double assassination, where he attempted to steal a cow, the property of the deceased. She is falsely charged with kidnapping both the sheriff and the girl.
At a meeting five days before her arrest between the mayor and Salgado, she refused to let the sheriff, a political ally of the mayor, go free without trial by a people’s court. A few days later, she found herself transported by a private plane to a maximum security prison 600 miles away from Olinalá. The arrest also appears to be a retaliation for a press release Salgado issued that outlined the mayor’s and other government figures’ ties to drug trafficking.
Prosecuting indigenous leaders like Salgado and suppressing autonomous community police forces also serves another purpose – silencing indigenous opposition to foreign mining companies that have lucrative contracts to extract mineral wealth from the mountains of Guerrero.
4. Seized without an arrest warrant and suffering deplorable detention conditions
Salgado was seized without an arrest warrant by federal soldiers at a checkpoint while driving home. She had endured death threats from marines for several days prior to her arrest. Since the day after her arrest, Nestora Salgado has been incarcerated at the high-security detention center of El Rincon, in Tepic, Nayarit, several-days travel from Olinalá. Family members learned of her location only after requesting assistance from the U.S. Embassy. Mexican officials had provided them no information.
Detention in this maximum-security facility is completely unjustified for Salgado, a grandmother and well-respected, peaceful citizen with no criminal record. 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 violent reprisals. Salgado’s supporters are also being cut-off from public assistance measures, especially necessary since a severe storm hit the area in mid-October.
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. Only one of her daughters and a sister has finally been able to visit her.
Salgado has suffered weeks in solitary confinement. She has been confined to a cell 24 hours a day since August. This persecution is all for performing her lawful duties as the coordinator of the community police force.
5. Urgent health issues
Several years ago, Salgado was injured in a serious car accident that left her temporarily paralyzed from the neck down. Through extensive physical therapy, she was able to regain 90% of her functioning, but still suffers physical disabilities. To manage severe neuropathy in her hands and feet, she requires pain medication and frequent exercise. In prison, she has been denied all treatment, and cannot leave her cell, despite the prison doctor’s recommendations. She also suffered a high fever that was denied treatment. Her physical and mental condition is desperate at this time.
The recent assassination of another prominent women activist in Guerrero, Rocío Mesino Mesino, serves as a harsh reminder that Salgado’s life is in jeopardy without close public scrutiny and strong international support. Over the last weeks, three other human rights defenders have also been killed in Guerrero. Forty community police force members have been detained this year in Guerrero; 12, including Salgado, continue in state custody.