After almost a year in a Mexican prison, a wave of political pressure is gathering for the release of Renton resident Nestora Salgado.
“We must shame the Mexican government into doing the right thing,” Congressman Adam Smith said in a press conference held at Seattle University on Monday.
Salgado is a naturalized citizen and U.S. passport holder who moved to Renton from Olinalá in the state of Guerrero, Mexico in 1991. She was arrested by Mexican federal police last August after returning to Guerrero to head up a community police force fighting drug cartel violence and political corruption.
“My mom is a person with strong morals and a huge heart.” Salgado’s daughter Grisel Rodriguez said through tears at the press conference, where she was also joined by faculty from the Seattle University International Human Rights Clinic, which is offering legal representation in the case.
A Los Angeles Times article late last year described how, on visits back to Olinalá, Salgado witnessed her childhood home taken over and “terrorized’ by a drug cartel called Los Rojos. Community members claimed the cartel was backed by the town’s elected officials.
The murder of a taxi driver who would not yield to the cartel’s demands to pay ‘protection fees’ was the final straw leading to the organization of Olinalá’s community police force, which Salgado spearheaded.
The group invoked the Mexican Constitution and Guerrero State Law saying that indigenous communities are empowered create self-governing safety institutions if the government fails to ensure their safety. At first the militia, one of several that sprang up around Guerrero and Michoacán in recent years, was celebrated as a grassroots solution to increasing lawlessness in the area.
But when they started making arrests, first of three local teens for dealing cocaine, and later of a city official for cattle theft, things went south.
Salgado met with the town mayor and refused to release the city official unless he was subject to a trial by the people. She was charged with kidnapping and a few days later was arrested and sent to a high security penitentiary where she has been ever since.
Salgado’s story paints a picture of Mexican government forces that are increasingly unwilling to tolerate civilian actions of self-defense, even in the face of negligence — and especially for the sake of indigenous rights.
Monday’s press release by the Seattle University legal team working on Salgado’s case suggested that she’s being kept in conditions that are in violation of basic human and civil rights.
Thomas Antkowiak, Associate Professor of Law at Seattle University, said Salgado is given unclean drinking water, is residing in a constantly enclosed space, and is being denied treatment for neuropathy caused by an accident some years ago.
Salgado’s daughter, Grisel Rodriguez cited hunger, isolation, and bright lights lit day and night in her enclosed cell as conditions causing psychological damage to her mother.
Salgado is also being denied access to an attorney. The Seattle University legal team is working on her case through second hand information relayed by Salgado’s other daughter and sister who occasionally visit, along with other delegations. Seattle Human Rights Commissioner Alejandra Gonza points to this as the largest hurdle in fighting the case — without fair representation, Salgado is vulnerable to fabricated evidence stacked up against her by the Mexican government.
Family and supporters say Salgado is really a political prisoner — that her imprisonment is a warning to others who decide to take the law into their own hands and fight for indigenous rights.
A statement from Seattle Radical Women circulated at the press conference connects Salgado’s incarceration with racism targeted at the indigenous people of Mexico. While indigenous communities have borne the brunt of drug cartel violence and political corruption, and transnational companies encroach on their land and resources for profit, authorities have failed to intervene on their behalf.
Facets of Salgado’s story — a naturalized American citizen detained abroad — parallel the stories of other recent high profile arrests of Americans abroad. Iranian-American Saeed Abedini, and local Korean-American Kenneth Bae, have been detained in Iran and North Korea respectively since 2012, both for Christian proselytizing activities prohibited in those countries. But perhaps because of the U.S. closer relationship with Mexico — or the nature of the charges against her, Salgado has not seen the same level of political pressure for her release.
Salgado’s family, supporters, and legal team see increased public and social pressure on Mexico as the best way to secure a fair trial for her, and to raise awareness of Mexico’s inability to address the safety of indigenous communities.
“They will in fact respond if you keep the pressure up,” Congressman Smith said Monday. “Bring public attention to this [and] to shame the Mexican government into doing what is right.”