Lucio R. Borderland Beat Republished from The Guardian
“The government gives three choices to activists. You can be bought, you can be killed or you can be put in prison.”
Nestora Salgado is a mother of three who was thrown into a high-security prison on kidnapping charges after returning to Mexico from the US to take up the fight against Guerrero’s narcos – yet her indomitable character remains intact
Nestora Salgado is not a woman who caves in easily.
A child bride who soon became a single mother of three, Salgado was still a teenager when she left her hometown in the mountains of southern Mexico to rebuild her life in the US.
Two decades later, she returned home to lead an armed rebellion against drug traffickers and corrupt local authorities – only to be accused of kidnapping and imprisoned.
Salgado spent 21 months in a high-security jail until a hunger strike galvanized international support for her case and helped secure her transfer last month to the medical wing of a more relaxed facility.
Now, in her first interview with the international press, Salgado argued that she was guilty of nothing more than helping her community stand up to the narcos and their corrupt political allies, and called on the Mexican government to release her and drop all the charges.
“I have no regrets about what I did, and I never will have any regrets,” she told the Guardian. “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?”
Salgado’s extraordinary story has unfolded amid a fierce debate about the role of armed vigilante groups that have sprung up across the country to fight the cartels, but have themselves been accused of murder, extortion and – in some cases – even acting as proxies for rival crime groups.
Mexican officials argue that nobody has the right to take the law into their own hands. Salgado’s supporters say she is merely a community leader who has been criminized for exposing the Mexican state’s failure to enforce the rule of law.
Sitting on her prison hospital bed in white and blue flannel pyjamas, Salgado, 43, said she had never underestimated the risks involved in taking a stand.
“The government is against people who want to do the right thing and protect their communities,” she said. “I know I have made my family suffer, but it is a sacrifice that had to be made.”
Salgado’s indomitable character was forged in Olinalá, high in the mountains of Guerrero, a state in southern Mexico with a long history of repression and rebellion.
The town is best known for the intricately lacquered boxes produced by local craftsmen – and for the opium poppies grown in the surrounding hills.
The sixth of seven children, Salgado says her childhood was happy, if brief. She was married at 14, but within five years her husband emigrated to the US. The plan had been for him to send money to support the family, but it never arrived. Struggling to make ends meet, Salgado decided to entrust her daughters to her sisters and head north too.
She soon joined her husband in Washington state. In those days, it was still relatively easy for migrants to cross the border safely, so in 1992 Salgado sent for her children. Saira was five, Ruby was three and Grisel was one.
The family settled in the Seattle suburb of Renton, but according to Salgado, the reunion was not a happy one: her then-husband drank and beat her, and the couple separated. Soon after, she met her current husband, Jose Luis Villa, who is now a driving force of the cross-border campaign to secure her release.
Life in Seattle was tough, but good, (at left) she says. Salgado and Villa both worked two or three jobs, and sent money to her family in Olinalá whenever they could, but Salgado didn’t return home until 2000 when she obtained her US residency.
The visit was a reminder of the harsh reality of she had left behind, Salgado said. “It really hurt me to see my people still living in such poverty,” she said. “I had got used to the United States.”
Salgado took the family to live in Olinalá for a year, hoping it would make her daughters appreciate the opportunities they had in the US. She also became more outspoken against day-to-day corruption and lawlessness. “Living in the United State had opened my horizons and made me conscious of rights,” she said.
Guerrero has long been one of Mexico’s most lawless regions, but in 2006 the state was plunged into a open conflict by a military-led offensive against organized crime.
The campaign helped shatter the once-mighty Beltran Leyva cartel, but numerous splinter groups sprang up in its wake. One of these, Los Rojos, took control of Olinalá. Kidnapping, extortion, disappearances and murder became common; cartel gunmen walked the streets with impunity.
“At first you just try to keep a distance out of fear, but then it starts to move your heart,” Salgado said of the terror. “You get angry when the authorities do nothing.”
That fury erupted in October 2012 at the funeral of a taxi driver who had been kidnapped and killed by cartel thugs. A rumour broke out that a second driver had been abducted – and Salgado decided that enough was enough.
She helped organize the crowd as they disarmed the local police, then commandeered a police car to drive around town, using a megaphone to urge townspeople to join the rebellion. Within hours, the gunmen were driven from town, and an ad hoc militia armed with hunting rifles and AK-47s had set up checkpoints.
The ragtag force gained a figleaf of legality within an older tradition of community policing in Guerrero’s indigenous communities. But it also tapped into another strand of the region’s history – that of armed uprisings against the Mexican state.
Under the leadership of “Comandanta Nestora”, the Olinalá community police arrested suspected wrongdoers and detained them for “re-education”. Meanwhile the group also built ties with radical community groups allegedly linked to the region’s defunct guerrilla movement.
But many locals chafed at the Salgado’s high-handed manner and called for the military to take over security in the town. Anger focussed on the detention of three teenage girls accused of dealing cocaine for their narco boyfriends. Soon after, Salgado incurred the displeasure of local politicians when she detained a well-connected town official she accused of fraternizing with the narcos.
By then, even some of Salgado’s supporters suspected she had gone too far, quietly admitting that she had perhaps been politically naive in her attempt to cut through the web of local politics and organised crime.
“I knew that when I started to expose the municipal government that there was a risk I would be arrested or killed,” she said. “I didn’t care. It was necessary.”
Authorities put out an arrest warrant for kidnapping, and on 21 August 2013, Salgado was detained by the army.
She was sent to a high-security jail over 1,000km (620 miles) away from Olinalá – a move her lawyers describe as the first of many violations of due process in the government crackdown crackdown on vigilantes.
“The arrest and prosecution of Nestora was clearly a political decision,” said Salgado’s lawyer, Leonel River. “The case is full of violations.”
Salgado’s supporters also allege mistreatment within the jail. They say she has been isolated from other inmates, denied medical attention for spinal injuries sustained in a 2002 car accident, and that visits from her legal council and family have been severely restricted.
In January, calls by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights for urgent action to improve her conditions did little to help. But suggestions from the Guerrero state government that it would consider dropping the kidnapping charges faded after a backlash from high-profile anti-crime campaigners associated with the political right.
The case, meanwhile, inched through Mexico’s labyrinthine judicial system, in which cases are still mostly fought in written arguments, often behind closed doors.
On 5 May, Salgado decided to stop eating in protest at her treatment. “I was prepared to die,” she said of the hunger strike that she maintained for 31 days.
The hunger strike focused new attention on her cause which has been taken up by supporters on Mexico and the US, and at the end of May, Salgado was transferred to the medical wing of a relatively relaxed women’s prison on the southern outskirts of Mexico City
At first, Salgado said she would continue to refuse food until she was freed, but was persuaded to end the hunger strike when doctors warned she risked permanent damage. Meanwhile, discrete negotiations with state authorities continue – though Salgado’s supporters are wary of raising their hopes too soon.
“We are facing a monster in Mexico and we know how dirty politics are,” said her husband, José Louis Villa. “The government gives three choices to activists. You can be bought, you can be killed or you can be put in prison.”
Meanwhile, La Comandata remains defiant. In an 30-minute interview, she only appeared to drop her guard for a brief moment as she described seeing herself in the mirror last month for the first time since her arrest.
“They try to destroy you in that place,” she said. Then she straightened her back and continued: “But I am strong.”
|Nestora Salgado and Dr. Manuel Mireles,both incarcerated political prisoners, both leading a secure life in |
the U.S. when deciding to return to Mexico and fight for the rights of people
Cartel Jalisco New Generation murders Nestora’s father in law
A month ago, on May 15th, Eladio Ávila Pérez was gunned down by CJNG assassins. Ávila Pérez was the 67 year old father in law of Nestora Salgado.
The incident occurred in the municipality of Tomatlán, Jalisco when Avila was accosted and gunned down by hitmen while he driving his 1998 pickup.
There have been a series of threats made against Avila and his son, husband of Nestora, Jose Luis Avila.
The warnings specifically address the movement to free Nestora, that if it were to continue both men will be killed.