American Mother Jailed in Mexico After Leading a Militia Against Cartels May Be Freed

Nestora Salgado led an armed citizen militia against local drug cartels in Mexico and ended up in prison for kidnapping. A court ruling has declared her free in the original case, but new charges for kidnapping and murder could keep her behind bars.
March 8, 2016, 9:55pm
Imagen vía FreeNestora.org

Nestora Salgado is a dual US-Mexican citizen and former child bride who led a community uprising to fight drug cartels in one of Mexico's most dangerous states. She became a heroine for some and a villain for others, and has spent over two years in jail accused of kidnapping.

Now, relatives believe the imprisoned militia leader is on the cusp of recovering her freedom after a judge dismissed old charges against her, and prepares to hear new ones.

"Our hopes are high," said her husband, Jose Luis Avila, in a phone interview from Seattle snatched between his work shifts. "We are hoping we can get the state to release her in the next few days."

The surge of optimism comes from a ruling on Monday in which a court ordered Salgado's immediate release after throwing out the kidnapping charges against her. This comes on the heels of the court ordering her trial to start again after it accepted that there had been violations of due process following her arrest.

Salgado was not immediately released, however, because of three new arrest warrants for both kidnapping and murder. If the judge hearing the case accepts these she will be back where she started.

There have been previous decisions by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the government that have made it seem like Salgado could be released soon — yet a backlash from anti-crime campaigners has squashed the family's hopes and she has remained in prison.

Regardless, her husband Avila said he's more confident this time.

"They were so stupid to commit these new false charges," he said, claiming that the alleged crimes took place while Salgado was in a meeting with state officials. "She even had a press conference after. We have proof. We have videos, photos, everything."

Salgado was one of the highest profile figures in a movement of citizen self-defense militias that sprung up in the southern state of Guerrero in 2012, and a year later in the neighbouring state of Michoacán. They claimed they had no choice but to take up arms given the Mexican government's inability to contain the cartels and provide security.

Related: A US Citizen Who Tried to Fight Corruption in Guerrero Has Been Imprisoned in Mexico for 18 Months

While some lauded the vigilantes as examples of citizen power, they soon became mired in accusations that they were abusing the power they had snatched. The authorities also began arresting the leaders who most clearly challenged their claims to be in charge.

José Manuel Mireles, whose story was highlighted in the Oscar-nominated documentary Cartel Land, became the highest profile vigilante prisoner from Michoacán after he was arrested in 2014. Salgado was his equivalent from Guerrero when she was detained in 2013.

Salgado grew up in the remote town of Olinalá deep in the Montaña region of Guerrero. Before she turned 20 years old, she'd given birth to three daughters, been abandoned by her first husband, and migrated to the United States.

Her children joined her shortly after and soon she met and married Avila. Life was difficult in the States, as she worked two or three jobs at a time, but she was able to send money back to her family in Guerrero.

Salgado could have continued on in America, and left her violent homeland behind, but after she received her US residency in 2000 she began making regular trips to Olinalá. She brought her daughters with her, saying she wanted them to appreciate the privileges they had in the United States.

Unfortunately, the worst was yet to come for the state of Guerrero, and soon her family would be witnessing more than poverty.

Guerrero has long been an important region for poppy production and drug transshipments, controlled primarily by the Beltrán Leyva organization in the 2000s. However, from around 2008 a bloody territorial dispute with the Sinaloa cartel, a failed-alliance with the Zetas, and a crackdown by Mexican law enforcement saw the Beltrán Leyva cartel nearly dismantled in the region by the end of the decade.

Related: Mexico's Self-Defense Militias Follow Cartels Into Deadly Internal Conflict

Rather than alleviate the violence, the downfall of the Beltrán Leyva cartel made it worse. A number of splinter organizations formed out of the remnants of the once powerful cartel and their allies, one of which, Los Rojos, took control of Olinalá; extorting, murdering, and abducting at will.

The anger in the town boiled over In October 2012 after the killing of a taxi driver. Salgado, who was on one of her visits, took the lead.

She organized the crowd, disarmed the local police, and commandeered a police car to drive around town calling on everybody to join the uprising through a megaphone. The rag-tag militia armed themselves with shotguns and AK-47's, ran the local cartel members out of town, and set up checkpoints to protect the city.

With this, the Olinalá Community Police were born under the leadership of Salgado — now known as Comandanta Nestora.

Her group began arresting suspected criminals and keeping them in makeshift prisons for "re-education." However, after the arrest of three teenage girls she accused of drug peddling and a government official for alleged cartel connections, some began to say she was going too far.

On August 21, 2013, Comandanta Nestora was arrested by the Mexican army and sent to maximum-security prison.

Related: Hunger Strike Called Off by American Woman Jailed in Mexico After Starting Citizen Police Force

The imprisonment of the female militia leader made international headlines, and led to protests, petitions, and human rights groups championing her cause in both Mexico and the United States. In early 2015 the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights ruled that Salgado was not receiving adequate medical attention for long-standing health problems stemming from a road accident, and should be transferred.

Disappointment that the ruling made little immediate difference to her circumstances prompted Salgado to go on hunger strike. After 21 months, and a 31-day hunger-strike, Salgado was finally moved to a more relaxed medical prison last May.

Rumors of her imminent release then prompted an intense backlash from the influential anti-kidnapping campaigner Isabel Miranda de Wallace.

Salgado's case fell out of the news again until last month when 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. Now her relatives are waiting to see if she will finally be allowed to leave prison.

Her husband says that if and when this happens his wife will not be returning to Olinalá, but rather heading straight for the United States.

"She has too," he said. "She has a lot of health problems right now."

Related: The Vigilante Protagonist of an Oscar Nominated Drug War Movie Speaks From Jail 

Jo Tuckman contributed to this story

Follow Nathaniel Janowitz on Twitter: @ngjanowitz