Nestora Salgado: A Triumph of Cross-Border Organizing for Justice in Mexico

Two and a half years after she was thrown into a Mexican federal penal facility, arrested without a warrant and charged with kidnapping, indigenous community police leader Nestora Salgado was freed from Tepepan Women’s Social Rehabilitation Center in Mexico City mid-March.

Two and a half years after she was thrown into a Mexican federal penal facility, arrested without a warrant and charged with kidnapping, indigenous community police leader Nestora Salgado was freed from Tepepan Women’s Social Rehabilitation Center in Mexico City mid-March.

A judge threw out the charges against Salgado on March 17 after stating they had no basis. While in custody, the activist originally from Olinala, Guerrero endured a stint in a maximum-security prison, solitary confinement, and the denial of medication and physical therapy she needed to fully heal from injuries she sustained in a car accident in 2002.

A day after her liberation order, Salgado participated in a news conference where she detailed the injustice and frustration surrounding her detainment. “I felt that I was buried alive in a drawer. I was out of touch for 20 months, in isolation for a crime that I did not commit. They didn’t even let me coexist with the other prisoners. I only saw them when I went to court. They treated me in the most brutal way that they could. It’s difficult to struggle against the government when they are out to get you, but it’s even worse that they did this when all I wanted was to defend my community,” stated Salgado.

In 2012 Salgado became the leader of the community police that tasked itself with fighting police corruption and drug cartels in Olinala. Salgado, 45, immigrated to Seattle as a teenager but returned to her hometown in 2012. Once back home she became increasingly outspoken against the lawlessness and corruption that riddled Olinala. In 2011 a gang called “Los Rojos” took control of the town—a rival of the Guerreros Unidos cartel, Los Rojos are also present in the states of Morelos and Mexico. Under cartel rule, Olinala had seen an increase in extortion, kidnapping and homicide.

In October 2012 Salgado was compelled to take action after the kidnapping and slaying of a local taxi driver. She organized her community and was successful in unarming local police and driving the armed gunman out of the town. However a year after Salgado became known as “Comandanta” she was accused and arrested for kidnapping—charges she and her community fought as both unfounded and untrue.

It began in the summer of 2012, when Salgado and her 156-member community police force arrested three teenage girls accused of dealing cocaine for their drug-trafficker boyfriends. As punishment they sent them to a detention center in the village of El Paraiso. During that time, the group also detained a city official and two associates accused of stealing a cow. According to many Olinala residents, Salgado and the community police overstepped their boundaries. Soon after state officials released the three detained government officials and arrested Salgado and 30 of her officers.

Months later and after most of the community police detainees had been released, Salgado remained detained in federal prison. And it was an unusual detention—kidnapping is not a federal crime in the country but federal detention is allowed if the person detained is considered “particularly dangerous.”  The constitutional reform in 2008 formally allowed the practice of detention without a judicial order. And after extensive scrutiny from international human rights agencies—including the documentation of complaints of incommunication, intimidation, and torture—the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, the Committee against Torture, the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances and the Special Rapporteur have called for an end to arbitrary detentions in Mexico.

Furthermore, the human rights assessment released by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights earlier this year outlined that a total of 58,381 complaints of arbitrary detention were filed with Mexico’s National Commission on Human Rights between 2000-2014. Of those claims, about 17,000 included allegations of torture and ill treatment. The commission also asserted that these illegal arrests were used in Mexico as a tool to silence dissenting voices within social movements.

However, many victims of arbitrary detentions don’t run the same luck as Salgado. At least 197 cases of unfair imprisonment are currently reported and some date as far back as 1995. But according to Salgado’s husband Jose Luis Avila Baez and human right lawyers, Salgado was released from prison thanks to pressure from international human rights groups and the advocacy of U.S. activists and representatives.

One of the most important sources of support for Salgado’s release came from a group of activists from Seattle. The Freedom for Nestora Committee formed in November 2013 to organize a rally in front of the Mexican Consulate on International Human Rights Day. A hunger strike by Salgado’s husband Jose Luis outside of the federal building in Seattle and the UN headquarters in New York caught the attention of the activists. After meeting with Jose Luis and Salgado’s family, they decided to form the committee to raise awareness about her arrest.

The committee pressured U.S. representative’s including Secretary of State John Kerry to call for her release and mobilized supporters nationwide. The movement had four unifying principles: free Nestora, free all political prisoners in Mexico, defend indigenous rights, and oppose the Merida Initiative and all security aid to Mexico. They worked intensively to inform other local movements about Salgado’s arrest. Eventually the Washington State Labor Council, AFSCME International, Puget Sound Chapter of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, Radical Women, and Mexicanos Unidos en Washington, and an additional 200 organizations also endorsed the movement.

Word of the campaign spread across the country and actions were held in other U.S. cities and in other countries like Mexico, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, France and Australia. Over one hundred organizations and individuals endorsed the Campaign to Free Nestora Salgado including human rights activist and 13 Mexican senators.

The movement to free Salgado also received support from House Representative Adam Smith (D.-Wash) who beginning in 2014, urged Secretary of State John Kerry to secure Salgado’s release. The Senator also reached out to U.S. and Mexican officials, advocating for her safety and release.

And in order to strengthen the movement on the international legal front, the Freedom for Nestora Committee reached out to the International Human Rights Clinic at Seattle University Law School. The law clinic worked pro bono to secure Salgado’s freedom beginning in 2013 when it initially submitted a petition to the UN’S Working Group on Arbitrary Detention in Geneva. And in 2015 they successfully negotiated with the Mexican government to transfer Salgado from the maximum-security prison to the Tepepan Women’s Social Rehabilitation Center in Mexico City.

On February 1, the five members of the UN panel ruled that her arrest and continued detention was illegal. The legal decision, dated December 17, 2015, also dictated that Mexico should both free Salgado and compensate her for the violation of her human rights. The panel determined Mexican authorities ignored her U.S. passport, denied her contact with family and lawyers, and denied access to adequate medical care and access to clean water.

After the ruling, members of the human rights clinic at Seattle University showed enthusiasm that the decision would place further pressure on the Mexican government to finally release Salgado. “[This resolution] is an important means of political pressure. An independent, unbiased panel has determined that the she was illegally arrested. I consider this an important step forward,” said Thomas Antkowiak, director of the human rights clinic in an interview with the Mexican paper Diario de Mexico.

Indeed less than two months later, Salgado was released. The Freedom for Nestora Committee celebrated Salgado’s return with a victory rally in front of Seattle’s Mexican Consulate on March 26. During the rally, Salgado declared plans for a tour through the United States to demand the freedom of political prisoners from her hometown.

According to Su Docekal, coordinator of Freedom for Nestora Committee in Seattle, the movement was inspired by the Salgado’s own courage and tenacity in confronting the problems in Olinala. “I think the fight for Nestora’s liberation was all along a coalition and united effort. I think Nestora herself, as the leader and spokesperson for a broader movement, and our committee saw ourselves as fighting more than just for one individual but for a women who symbolized a whole group of people, a whole movement,” said the Docekal.

“It just happens that with her connections here in Seattle and with her dual citizenship it provided an opportunity for international collaboration. In the process of organizing it became so organic because of her experiences and because of the nature of U.S.-Mexico politics. It really became an international movement and that was its strength,” concluded Docekal.

Nidia Bautista is a freelance journalist currently based in Mexico City.