Nestora Salgado is a mother of three who left her hometown of Olinala, Mexico as a teenager 20 years ago for a new life in the United States. She became an American citizen and worked three jobs to provide for her family. But after a car accident in 2002 nearly killed her, she quit working and moved back to her hometown just as drug cartel rivalries became more violent.
The cartels fought for territory around Olinala, subjecting residents to kidnappings, extortion, and murder. Outraged, Nestora became the leader of a community police force that took on the cartels by arresting murderers and drug dealers. She operated under legally recognized community policing rules that were enacted to protect indigenous populations after a massacre of peasants by state security forces in 1995.
Two years ago she was arrested by Mexican authorities.
Thomas Antkowiak and Alejandra Gonza are pro bono co-counsels to Nestora Salgado. Antkowiak is a professor of international law at Seattle University School of Law. Gonza is an international human rights attorney.
In a month, we will commemorate the appalling disappearance of 43 student activists from the rural teacher’s college in Ayotzinapa, Mexico. While the remains of only one student has supposedly been identified, search parties have discovered the clandestine graves of many others murdered in Guerrero, a state overwhelmed by violence and corruption.
A week ago we marked the second anniversary of another Guerrero tragedy. This one involves a Renton resident, in a narrative just as surreal. Nestora Salgado has dual citizenship; in 1991, she came to the Seattle area and juggled multiple jobs to provide for her three daughters and eventual grandchildren. When she achieved stability, Nestora then resolved to support her hometown of Olinalá. She would visit for a month or two each year, donating her time, food, toys. Her charisma and fearlessness led to a position of leadership in this mostly indigenous community.
Guerrero law and the Mexican Constitution guarantee the rights of indigenous communities to create their own justice and security institutions. Nestora became a leader of a community-policing group that legally forms part of state law enforcement. The group tried to protect their community from the staggering levels of narco violence in the area. By many accounts, they had great success weakening the traffickers’ grip on Olinalá.
But when the group started to pursue the crimes of connected government officials, Nestora crossed the line drawn by the corrupt establishment. She was seized by soldiers; they never showed her a warrant or explained the reasons for the arrest. Guerrero’s governor at the time, Angel Aguirre, banished her — in his own private plane — to a maximum-security prison nearly 1,000 kilometers away.
Nestora was held in solitary confinement for almost two years. Far from her family and community, she was also denied visits from her chosen attorney for an entire year. In May, after months of serious health problems, she was transferred to a prison with medical facilities in Mexico City.