Nestora Salgado — an American mother of three who led a militia formed to combat drug cartels and was then charged with kidnapping — was released from jail on Friday after two and a half years behind bars.
Dressed in her community self defense militia uniform, Salgado emerged from the prison smiling and waving a BB gun in the air, as supporters cheered her on. She was flanked on both sides by family and members of the militia, who were also wearing their uniforms, and was escorted away from the facility in Mexico City.
In a press conference, hours after her liberation, Salgado thanked all the people throughout the world that supported her and promised to use her freedom to help vigilantes and other "political prisoners" still in jail, who she claimed number 500.
"I am not going to stop until we achieve the liberation of the more than 500 political prisoners that there are in Mexico," she said. "Yes I am afraid, but I want to die in the struggle."
Salgado gained international notoriety in 2012 when she was visiting the small Mexican town of Olinalá in the mountains of the southern state of Guerrero where she was raised, and ended up rallying its inhabitants to oust the local narcos.
She became one of the faces of a broader movement of citizen self defense militias that sprung up that same year throughout the state in response to the failure of the authorities to contain the extreme violence of local drug gangs. Some, however, claimed she was taking her new powers too far, and accused her of kidnapping innocent locals. She was arrested by the army in August 2013 and taken to maximum-security prison.
Salgado, her family, and her lawyers, claimed throughout her imprisonment that she was being held unlawfully and was not receiving a fair trial. The movement to free Salgado was aided by an international solidarity campaign.
A 2015 report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights condemned the conditions she was being held in. This year, the UN's Working Group on Arbitrary Detention's five-member panel stated that she was a victim of arbitrary detention and should be freed.
A Mexican court threw out the original kidnapping charges earlier this month and ruled that Salgado must be immediately released, but three new arrest warrants kept her behind bars until today.
Her release is an important moment for the vigilante movement in Guerrero that has lost influence since the arrest of Salgado and other prominent local leaders.
The authorities appeared to be following a similar strategy in their efforts to contain the power of the vigilantes who also rose up in neighboring Michoacán in 2013, by detaining the leaders who were most critical of the government.
The most prominent of these is a doctor named José Manuel Mireles whose story is highlighted in the Oscar-nominated documentary Cartel Land that explores the way the movement also became embroiled in the same types of crimes it had initially stood against. Some self defense militias have been accused of murder, kidnapping, and drug trafficking.
Mireles is still incarcerated.
Guerrero and Michoacán, the states where much of the movement was centralized, continue to be two of the most violent in Mexico.
Salgado's husband told VICE News last week from his home in Seattle that his wife has health issues, rooted in an old car accident, that have got worse during her imprisonment. He said that he expects her to return to the United States, where she migrated in the 90s.
Salgado confirmed she will go back to the United States, but vowed that once healthy, she will return to Guerrero and continue to fight for her community.
"You don't know the reality of the rural communities," she told the reporters at the press conference in Mexico City. "The reason why I decided to take up this struggle was because of the way it affects me to see my people in this situation in which the children of my community are being abused by the criminals."
Surrounded by dozens of members of her self defense militia who chanted slogans about their struggle throughout her speech, Salgado spoke passionately.
"I'm not rich," she said. "But what I can give my people is my heart."
Rogelio Velázquez contributed to this story
Follow Nathaniel Janowitz on Twitter: @ngjanowitz