Now free, Nestora Salgado continues her fight against corruption in Mexico

“Free Nestora.”

It’s not a rallying cry now, but a description of the grandmother and community police force leader who is back in Seattle after nearly 30 months in jail in Mexico.

Since her return Nestora Salgado has had moments of celebration, but the woman known as “La Comandante” is under no illusion that her fight is over.

“I need to go back because my people need me,” she said in Spanish, at an interview at her Renton home. “I know that community policing is necessary for the people, the organizing of the people. And if I can do it I’m going to do it, even I have to pay the highest cost.”

Salgado was accused of kidnapping in Mexico, but was exonerated by a judge who ruled last month that there was no evidence against her.

She was welcomed back to Seattle by dozens of supporters who threw her a victory party in South Seattle and joined her in a protest of the Mexican consulate, demanding the release of other prisoners.

But she says others involved in the police force in her hometown who were arrested at the same time as she was and booked on the same charges. They still face lengthy court battles, but unlike Salgado, her colleagues do not have the international attention that many believe enabled her exoneration.

“I feel happy because I’m here with my family and my daughters,” she said. “But at the same time, I have a lot of concern for my comrades who continue to be imprisoned.

The evidence in her case was the same as her compañeros who were charged along with her, she said, and she now is on a mission to fight corruption and set them, and political prisoners throughout Mexico, free.

Nestora Salgado and her daughter Gris Rodriguez speak at a celebration held at New Freeway Hall in Columbia City. (Photo by Venice Buhain.)
Nestora Salgado and her daughter Gris Rodriguez thank supporters at a celebration held at New Freeway Hall in Columbia City. (Photo by Venice Buhain.)

Becoming a community leader

Salgado immigrated to the United States more than 20 years ago from Olinalá, a small town in the Mexican state of Guerrero. She became a U.S. citizen and raised three daughters in the Seattle area.

After a serious car accident that still affects her back, she decided to return to her hometown several years ago while her husband José Luis Avila remained working in Renton. 

She wanted to address her town’s lack of safety because of gangs and corrupt officials and she organized an indigenous community police force — a move allowed under Mexican law.

Salgado said the community police force was welcomed by government officials at first — she has the photos showing official meetings. But after the community police force arrested several teenagers and a town official they ran into trouble.

Government officials only wanted the community volunteers to police petty crimes, Salagdo said, without addressing big issues like drug trafficking and corruption.

Salgado and two others were arrested for kidnapping, without any notification to her family or to the U.S. consulate.

Political blog InSight Crime, which analyzes organized crime throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, reported at the time that the crackdown on the police force in Olinalá was because of “state and federal officials concerned that the vigilante movement is both swirling out of control and politically challenging the powers that be.”

The move to arrest policing groups was on the rise around the time Salgado was arrested, the blog reported. Another policing group in the neighboring state of Michoacán was accused of working with working with gangsters. The year after her arrest, Jose Manuel Mireles, the leader of a vigilante Michoacan group created to combat a drug gang, was also arrested. (He recently apologized for his actions, but remains in jail.)

Guerrero’s then-Governor Angel Aguirre told local media in Guerrero that Salgado’s group was getting out of hand: “They can’t make arrests for major crimes. When they detain someone they have to turn them over directly to the proper authorities.”

At first, Salgado’s family assumed that she had been disappeared. Her sisters even asked officials to return her body so they could bury her.

Though they were relieved at the news that she was alive but facing serious federal and state charges, they got ready for the long court battle to exonerate Salgado.

They also fought a public relations war, including being visible at marches in Olinalá and throughout Mexico and by appealing to authorities in the U.S. and the United Nations.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights found flaws in the case against her, and a United Nations panel also said that her rights were being violated.  The cities of Renton and Seattle issued proclamations in her support, and her family got the backing of Congressman Adam Smith who represents her district.

Her supporters also built international grassroots support, starting in Seattle with the local Freedom Socialist party and other progressive groups taking on her cause.

Meanwhile, in Olinalá, residents also backed her.

“They marched for me,” she said of the people in her hometown, as she spoke, showing photos of the marches in her support held in Olinalá.

She also has a collection of editorial cartoons that ran in Mexico portraying her as a political prisoner, fighting a corrupt government.

Nestora Salgado in her Renton home showing a political cartoon featuring her court case. Her incarceration became a cause celebre in Mexico. (Photo by Venice Buhain.)
Nestora Salgado in her Renton home showing a political cartoon featuring her court case. Her incarceration became a cause celebre in Mexico. (Photo by Venice Buhain.)

Hard choices

John Mill Ackerman, a journalist and law professor at La Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, says that while Salgado’s case became prominent in Mexico, she is only one of many activists who have been targeted by government officials for standing up to corruption.

“It’s not a question of good institutions against a bad society or against the narcos,” Ackerman said. “The most organized crime in Mexico is the crime organized by government authorities and big business.”

Ackerman says that national and local governments and big business in Mexico are heavily involved in corruption and organized crime, though Guerrero is home to some especially infamous cases, several of which have been brought to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

The year after Salgados arrest, Gov. Aguirre was ousted following the disappearance of 43 student activists from the Escuela Normal Rural Raúl Isidro Burgos in Ayotzinapa. The incident revealed how closely the government and organized crime were working together.

According to Ackerman, organizing protests and community police forces can come at a great cost. But residents feel that there are few alternatives.

“It’s the only option that has been left to people like Nestora Salgado,” he said. “When the institutions of the state are complicit with or cut deals with or work for the narcos… when you realize the government institutions are not helping you but helping organized crime, what option is left?”

Salgado’s exoneration by a judge is being seen as a victory for international organizing and as a political move, Ackerman said. He pointed out that the court proceeding that ultimately freed Salgado closely followed a visit to Mexico from Vice President Joe Biden.

No one thinks it was a functioning of the Mexican justice system, that somehow the Mexican justice system was correcting its own errors,” Ackerman said. “No, this was political from the very beginning and political to the end.”

Back in Seattle

Salgado has taken some time to recover physically from the ordeal — she says that medicine was kept from her while she was in jail and much needed physical therapy was nonexistent. But she wants to get back to Mexico as soon as possible.

She has a plan to bring attention to what she sees as unjust treatment by the Mexican government against indigenous Mexicans.

“Finally I feel like we’ve been able to break free from the media blackout … to denounce everything that has happened in México and everything that has happened with me,” she said.

Supporters of Nestora Salgado gathered in front of the Mexican consulate building in downtown to call for the investigation into the disappeared 43 students from Ayotzinapa. (Photo by Venice Buhain.)
Supporters of Nestora Salgado gathered in front of the Mexican consulate building in downtown to call for the investigation into the disappeared 43 students from Ayotzinapa. (Photo by Venice Buhain.)

Salgado believes that corrupt officials no longer fear their media at home — but that foreign media coverage of Mexico could make a difference.

And so we ourselves need to go and get evidence of the filth they have in México,” she said. “What they do to our people, how they abuse our people, our poor people, our farmers.”

Salgado says that taking on corruption is worth the risk.

“If they’re capable of disappearing the 43 students [from Ayotzinapa] imagine what they could do to me,” she said “Even so, I want to return to my land. I want to return to my people. I want to return to help the people who need it.”

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