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

Nestora Salgado, a US citizen, joined a movement in small towns in Guerrero that take up arms against criminals as "community police." Authorities arrested Salgado in August 2013, placing her in solitary confinement for 21 months.

by Shannon Young
Jun 5 2015, 5:45pm

Photo via FreeNestora.org

An imprisoned U.S. citizen whose case has come to symbolize the Mexican government's crackdown on community armed police forces in the state of Guerrero ended a month-long hunger strike on Thursday.

Nestora Salgado, who emigrated from Mexico and became a naturalized citizen in the US state of Washington, agreed to lift the hunger strike she began on May 5 to protest what she and international supporters called false charges of kidnapping and organized crime.

Salgado has been at the center of the struggle over public safety in Guerrero between state officials and grassroots community militias, which have sprung up in differing forms in states such as Michoacan.

These democratically organized groups that began emerging in Guerrero — where 43 teachers college students went missing last year — say authorities do nothing to defend them against the threat of drug gangs.

Salgado called off the hunger strike after receiving a promise that two community police colleagues will be transferred out of a federal maximum security prison. Salgado herself was transferred out of the El Rincon maximum security prison in Nayarit state on May 29.

Prior to her transfer, she had stopped consuming liquids for four days, significantly raising the stakes for her health. Salgado resumed drinking liquids once in the medical wing of a lower-security prison in Mexico City, but continued to refuse food until Thursday.

Related: She Killed Her Rapist, and Now She's Running For Political Office in Mexico City

Salgado is a naturalized U.S. citizen who moved to in Renton, Washington in 1991 at the age of 20. She worked as a nanny, waitress, and maid for years. Recently she had started splitting her time between Washington and her birthplace of Olinalá, Guerrero.

As organized crime moved into her hometown, Salgado in early 2013 helped organize a community police group affiliated with the Regional Coordinating Committee of Community Authorities, known by its Spanish acronym CRAC.

The organization emerged in the 1990s as a part of an indigenous civil rights struggle and in response to corrupt policing in rural communities in Guerrero.

But as organized crime drilled into positions throughout the state amid Mexico's drug war, the CRAC witnessed a dramatic expansion, forcing the hand of state authorities. With few exceptions, citizens are technically forbidden from possessing firearms in Mexico.

Related: Chilapa Disappearances Highlight the Struggle Between Drug Gangs for Mexico's Poppy Trade

Nestora Salgado's daughter Grisel Rodriguez and husband Jose Luis Avila in Renton, Washington, November 2013. (Photo Ted S. Warren/AP)

In August 2013, Mexico's military arrested Salgado, and she was sent directly to a federal maximum security prison. Salgado was accused of kidnapping after detaining a local official in Olinalá on allegations of covering up a double murder.

A federal judge threw out the charges of kidnapping and organized crime in March 2014, ruling that Salgado was acting within her community police authority when she arrested the local official. But instead of closing the case, Guerrero authorities filed the same charges against Salgado at the state level.

The state charges are still pending with no trial date in sight.

"All that's left are these state charges and the state courts refuse to respond to our petitions, to our motions," said Thomas Antkowiak, Director of the International Human Rights Clinic at Seattle University's School of Law. "Everything is absolutely just completely stuck."


International efforts

Antkowiak has been heading up international litigation efforts for Salgado. In January, supporters were able to get the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to issue precautionary measures on her behalf. The international human rights body requested that Mexico adopt "the necessary measures to ensure the life and personal integrity" of Nestora Salgado.

Salgado has spent most of the past 21 months in solitary confinement. Members of her family said they were unable to get basic information from prison authorities prior to her transfer to Mexico City last Friday.

On Sunday, a delegation of US supporters arrived in Mexico City to call on the US to take a more active role in the case.

Amnesty laws 'are for criminals, not for our social justice fighters.'

Salgado's family had already expressed grave concerns about her health earlier this week in a press conference in Mexico City. "She's suffering a lot of headaches, her vision is blurring, she's having issues with her hearing, and a lot problems overall," said Giovanni Torres Salgado, a nephew of Salgado who was able to see his aunt for the first time in nearly two years.

Community police patrols proved to be effective in combating violent crime in the sort of small rural towns where most residents know each other. Since 2011, indigenous communities in Guerrero have the right to form their own traditional law enforcement and justice mechanisms under Section 701 of the state constitution.

But Guerrero authorities still apply pressure against the groups, in a state where the line between politicians, security forces, and organized crime can be blurry to non-existent. The case of the 43 disappeared students from the Ayotzinapa Normal School was blamed on a local mayor, his wife, and on a drug gang.

"There are local and state governments that work hand-in-hand with organized crime, and the community police very much affect those interests," Nestora Salgado's husband, Jose Luis Avila, told VICE News.

Related: Watch the VICE News documentary on the birth of the CRAC, 'The Warrior State.'

Salgado's youngest daughter Grisel Rodriguez told supporters that her mother is prepared to resume her protest if the government doesn't keep its word to transfer Arturo Campos and Gonzalo Molina, also members of the CRAC, to lower security prisons.

"In my community, there have been rapes of underage girls, robberies, massacres, many things," said Agustina Garcia, wife of Arturo Campos.

Garcia said she and her husband decided to join the community police force after surviving a highway robbery while returning from the municipal seat of Ayutla.

"On our way back up to the community, robbers put guns to our heads and told us 'Drop everything you have.' They even searched my baby's diaper to check that we hadn't hidden any money there," she said.

Nestora Salgado is not the only community police member targeted by authorities. By the end of 2013, 13 CRAC community police members were in prison, detained on charges ranging from kidnapping to terrorism. More than 40 others have arrest warrants over their heads.

Guerrero state officials have floated the possibility of an amnesty law, but relatives of the imprisoned community police say their loved ones deserve unconditional release because they have been found guilty of nothing.

Amnesty laws, Agustina Garcia told VICE News, "are for criminals, not for our social justice fighters."

Related: 'It Was the Feds': How Mexico's Federal Police Slaughtered At Least 16 Civilians in Michoacan

Follow Shannon Young on Twitter @SYoungReports.

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