Yellow Ribbon Project

Washington Woman in Mexican Prison for Standing Up to Cartels, Corruption

A Washington state grandmother who battled the drug cartels and corruption in her hometown has been sitting behind bars in Mexico for more than two years without trial.

The U.S. Embassy in Mexico stepped in earlier this month to lobby on behalf of Nestora Salgado, who formed a community police force in Olinalá, Guerrero, and is accused of aggravated kidnapping and other charges in relation to her law enforcement duties. According to El Universal, the governor of Guerrero told the U.S. consul that he’d look into her case.

When she marked her second year behind bars this August, her congressman, Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), stressed it had been two years too long.

“Nestora has been denied due process and justice by the Mexican government. It is entirely unacceptable that she remains imprisoned in conditions that threaten her life,” Smith said. “A Mexican federal court and many civil society and human rights groups including experts from the United Nations have all called for long overdue action.”

Salgado, 43, is a naturalized citizen who has lived in the United States since 1991 and in the past few years began making trips back to her hometown, which rests in a state wracked by poverty and the highest murder rate in Mexico. The murder of a cab driver who refused to pay protection money to the Los Rojos cartel drove Salgado to action: she mobilized the townspeople to drive the gang out of town, eventually becoming the leader of the community policing unit committed to bringing law and order back to a town where the criminal gangs were in bed with local officials.

Her supporters stress that the Mexican constitution guarantees indigenous people the right to self-defense, including forming their own police forces. They also stress that during the first 10 months that the community police force was in action the town saw a 90 percent drop in the crime rate.

At first she had the support of the governor of Guerrero — then she was taken into custody on Aug. 21, 2013, and charged with the kidnapping of people she’d arrested, namely a group of teenage girls detained for drug dealing and the local sheriff who allegedly tried to steal the cow of a murder victim.

The sheriff and the mayor were tight allies, and the chain reaction of retaliation against Salgado began. She refused to drop the charges against the sheriff, issued a press release accusing local officials of ties to the drug cartels, and five days later she was arrested at a police checkpoint and shipped via private plane to a maximum security prison 600 miles away.

The activist with no criminal record has been kept in harsh conditions and suffers from health problems. Back in her hometown, the community police force has withered under harassment. Supporters say she was only allowed a lawyer after the deadline had passed to file a petition that may have allowed her to be released pending trial.

This spring, she went on a 31-day hunger strike, alarming Rep. Smith and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who said in a joint statement in May that it’s “unacceptable for the Mexican government to continue to imprison Nestora Salgado in conditions that fail to protect her life and physical integrity.”

“Nestora’s health continues to deteriorate and without immediate action by the Mexican government, Nestora’s life is truly at risk,” the lawmakers said. “…We urge the United States government to take immediate action to secure Nestora’s release on humanitarian grounds.  Nestora has been deprived from due process and justice by the Mexican government and we will continue to do all we can to ensure that she receives it.”

Conditions recently got a little better for Salgado, with a move to a lower-security prison and more contact allowed with the outside world.

But her husband, José Luis Avila, told Seattle’s KUOW this month that the conditions are “cruel still,” particularly as she has nerve damage from a car crash years ago for which the family needs to buy her medication.

“So basically right now we are spending over $1,000 a month because we have to bring in some medication for her, even we had to bring some food. We had to buy even the toilet paper. We have to do everything for her. We have to wash her own clothes. We have to do everything,” Avila told the station. “And we are demanding her release because she is an innocent person that has been in this horrible condition for the past 26 months.”

Salgado told the Guardian this summer that she had no choice but to act when she saw the murders, the disappearances, the cover-ups making people’s lives a living hell in Olinalá.

“I have no regrets about what I did, and I never will have any regrets,” she said. “I am not a person who likes to confront the authorities, but in a place where dialogue is not possible, what else can you do?”

“The government is against people who want to do the right thing and protect their communities. I know I have made my family suffer, but it is a sacrifice that had to be made.”

It was her life in America, she stressed, that led her to speak out as she did.

“Living in the United States had opened my horizons and made me conscious of rights,” Salgado said.

“At first you just try to keep a distance out of fear, but then it starts to move your heart. You get angry when the authorities do nothing.”

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Nestora Salgado and her husband, José Luis Avila, at home in Washington state.