Nestora Salgado, the Renton woman who spent more than two years in prison after leading a community police force in her hometown in Mexico, returned triumphantly to Seattle Tuesday, greeted at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport by a few dozen supporters who have advocated for her release.
“I’m happy to be here, I’m happy to see everyone here. I feel excited, but it’s difficult for me to say how I feel,” she told reporters in an interview that was a mix of Spanish and English. “It’s sad too because the life I passed in jail is terrible. It’s terrible the jail in Mexico. But I’m here. Thank you God, thank you to everybody. I’m here.”
Salgado, a naturalized U.S. citizen who has lived in the Seattle area for 20 years, was behind bars in Mexico for 31 months after being accused by the state of Guerrero of kidnapping after the community police force that she led in Olinala arrested a town official and two others in connection with a theft.
She initially was put into solitary confinement for two years. She said the inadequate health care exacerbated ongoing health issues with her spine and pain in her legs and arm that stem from a car accident in 2002. She was sent to a jail in Mexico City last year after she held a hunger strike in protest of the lack of health care.
However, in the past few weeks, all the charges against her were dropped, which cleared the way for Salgado’s release.
Among those who demanded that Mexico release Salgado were human rights advocates, recently elected Guerrero Gov. Rogelio Ortega Martinez, and 13 Mexican senators, along with her supporters and family in Washington state, including resolutions by the cities of Renton and Seattle.
The Seattle Freedom for Nestora Committee were among those who picketed for her at local events, lobbied for Salgado’s release and greeted her at the airport Tuesday. The committee is organizing a victory rally in front of Seattle’s Mexican Consulate at 2132 3rd Avenue at noon Saturday March 26 to celebrate Salgado’s release and to demand freedom for other Mexican political prisoners. The date is also the anniversary of the disappearance of 43 students from Ayotzinapa, Guerrero.
Javier Marmolejo of Mexico City was in Seattle on vacation, and came to the airport to greet Salgado as she arrived. Marmolejo said that Salgado had become a cause celebre in Mexico and he and many other Mexicans were vocal in demanding her release.
“I was very troubled with how she was put in jail,” said Marmolejo, a professor at the Universidad Autonoma de la Cuidad de Mexico. “Even on my holiday, I’ve come here to support her.”
Marmolejo said Salgado’s case and her outspoken desire to clean up her hometown resonated with many people in Mexico.
“The things she said about what was happening were so strong,” he said. “It’s not just about justice. It was about the connection between the police and the drug dealers and child pornographers.”
A UN body ruled last month that Salgado’s detention was illegal, because the vigilante group was protected under Mexican law and because she was not given access to her family, her attorneys or adequate medical care, according to a story in The Guardian.
Salgado’s human rights attorney Alejandra Gonza, with the International Human Rights Clinic at Seattle University School of Law, said while Salgado’s criminal case is over, Salgado may be able to pursue reparations for the pain and suffering she and her family endured while she was in prison. Gonza said the decision whether to pursue that claim will be up to Salgado and her family.
Salgado noted in Spanish that there are other political prisoners who remain in jail that need support. Her daughter Gris Rodriguez translated.
“She has a lot of companions back home, community police members who were arrested along with her who haven’t been released and they need someone to fight they way that everybody else fought for my mom,” Rodriguez translated. “There is a lot of people who are submerged in poverty who have to work and can’t because of the repression there is.”
Salgado’s husband, Jose Luis Avila, who set eyes on his wife Tuesday for the first time since her incarceration, said he would like her to stay in the U.S. for at least a few months to take care of her health issues. But he added he will support what Salgado decides to do.
Despite any lingering risks to her safety in Mexico, Salgado says she wants to return to continue to advocate for her community.
“I’m scared to come back to Mexico but I have to come back because my people need me. My people need somebody to put their voices out,” she told reporters in English. “I hope I come back soon. My people need help. My people need too many things.”