The Fight to Free Nestora Salgado, Renton Resident Turned Imprisoned Mexican Militia Leader

On August 21, a Renton woman named Nestora Salgado was taken to prison in Mexico. Twenty Army trucks arrived to usher the 41-year-old grandmother out of the remote, impoverished town where organized crime runs rampant and Salgado had risen to become the leader of a local militia, according to Salgado’s husband, José Luis Avila. She was then transferred by helicopter and private plane to a prison 2,000 miles away.

In the four months since then, she has been kept in lockdown 24 hours a day and denied drinkable water, needed medication and access to a local attorney, according to Avila and a Seattle human rights lawyer who is working on her behalf, Thomas Antkowiak. She has been charged with kidnapping in relation to a number of “arrests” made by her militia, which supporters describe as a kind of police force of the people that under Mexican law is absolutely legal.

Now Antkowiak and other Salgado supporters are trying to get her released. Late last month, Antkowiak, who directs a human rights clinic at Seattle University, wrote the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention asking for it to intervene. Antkowiak and members of Salgado’s family also with the deputy Mexican consul in Seattle after a protest rally at the consulate last week.

“It was pro forma, but at least they received us,” says Antkowiak, (Consulate staff have not yet responded to a request for comment.) Univision also covered the rally, which cheered supporters trying to put pressure on the Mexican government.

Salgado came to the U.S. from Mexico in 1991 when she was 20 years old, according to a fact-sheet submitted by Antkowiak to the U.N. She worked as a maid, nanny and waitress and became a naturalized citizen. She and husband Avila had three daughters and settled in Renton.

In 2004, she and Avila moved for a year to Olinalá, the small town in the southern state of Guerrero where she was born and still has a number of family members. “We saw all the poverty,” Avila tells SW. So after they moved back to Renton, Salgado started taking trips back to her hometown to deliver clothes and toys to local residents. One of her daughters also married a Olinalá local and moved there.

During Salgado’s visits, she got swept up in the movement to fight violence, organized crime and what many believe is government corruption. Mexico’s federal law, and that of the state of Guerrero, gives indigenous people the right to form their own police force, according to Antkowiak. Accordingly, many such community police forces have sprung up across the country. Olinalá’s even had the backing of Guerrero governor, Antkowiak says, adding that he has a written document from the governor that effect. Salgado, who had started spending months at a time in Olinalá, was elected leader of the that force. (See video of her addressing milita members below.)

The governor might not have anticipated that Olinalá’s militia would arrest the town sheriff. According to Antkowiak and Avila, the sheriff had been called upon to investigate the double-homicide of a father and son. Instead, they say, the town official tampered with the evidence at the crime scene and tried to steal the dead men’s belongings, including a cow.

The militia took the sheriff to a “justice house” that served as jail, Avila says, adding that the official spent eight days there before the Army came in. It was a controvertial move even among some ordinary town residents, according to an article in the Los Angeles Times.

Salgado was charged with kidnapping not only the sheriff, but several others previously arrested by the community police force, including a couple of teenage girls allegedly involved in drug dealing. The force had taken the girls to the justice house, where during the day they performed community service such as street cleaning, Avila says.

The Mexican government arrested a sweep of militia leaders at the same time. But Salgado’s supporters say she has been singled out for harsh treatment. Salgado suffers from neuropathy in her hands and feet due to a car accident several years ago, and needs both exercise and medication to to stop her extremities from turning blue. She has received neither.

Still, after staff from a nearby U.S. consulate paid a visit to Salgado in prison recently, things have improved somewhat. Avila says his wife is now allowed to drink bottled water and will be allowed to see a doctor. Tomorrow, she will also be permitted a rare phone with her daughter in Mexico, and a visit from her sister-in-law, who must take a 20-hour bus ride to get to the prison. Her husband, who is not allowed to speak with Salgado, is waiting for news.

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