Anger over U.S. citizen turned vigilante who faces stiff sentence in Mexico

Family photo of Nestora Salgado.

Family photo of Nestora Salgado.  (ap)

Nestora Salgado is a Mexican-born woman who arrived in the U.S. at age 20, settled in the placid suburban town of Renton, in Washington State, and eventually got her American citizenship.

Then, one day six or seven years ago, she decided to return to her native Olinalá, a mountainous town in the troubled Mexican state of Guerrero, and she ended up becoming part of a movement to establish a vigilante-style community police force – something allowed under Mexican law – and help fight crime and corruption in her home country.

That’s where her troubles started, worsening quickly, to the point that the woman is now facing what some press accounts are describing as a thousand-year prison sentence.

In a case that could end up in Mexico’s Supreme Court, Salgado was arrested in August 2013 on charges of kidnapping dozens of people. She claims all she was doing was fighting crime and that the charges against her are nothing but a political vendetta.

“Municipal officials and those of the state joined forces to create false charges against her,” Salgado’s husband, José Luis Avila told Fox New Latino.

Salgado’s hometown is about 25 miles north of Ayotzinapa, the town where the 43 students who went missing last September – in a case that has drawn negative national and international attention to Guerrero – attended teachers’ college.

In Olinalá, Avila said, Salgado saw “crime increasing, murder increasing, extortion becoming commonplace. People were suffering.”

So she decided to do something about it.

Salgado joined forces with about 200 others to establish a vigilante-style community police to help fight crime and corruption. She was one of four commanders.

Avila says they were successful, but Salgado “spoke out against corruption,” and made powerful enemies.

Among the suspected drug dealers that Salgado’s force arrested were teenage girls whose families claimed ransom was demanded for their release. Police said instead of helping the community, she was running a ransom racket.

Meanwhile, Salgado and her attorney have claimed the people who were detained are drug-dealers and a corrupt official. Salgado's husband also points out that the mayor of Olinalá, Eusebio González Rodríguez, is in the list of the 25 “narco-mayors” composed by Consejo Ciudadano para la Seguridad Pública y Justicia, a Mexican NGO, in December 2014.

The arrest

Salgado was taken prisoner in 18 months ago, but at first nobody realized it.

“She was arrested on a Wednesday,” her husband said. “She was scheduled to fly back to Seattle that weekend.”

Guadalupe Lizarraga, a Los Angeles-based freelance journalist, had written an article about community police forces in the area.

The authorities in Olinalá didn’t immediately admit to having her in custody, but, according to Lizarraga, after U.S. officials became involved, Salgado was charged with having falsely detained dozens of people.

Lizarraga last year began an online petition asking U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to help get Salgado released. It attracted nearly 7,000 signatures.

"There is a conspiracy against Nestora,” she told FNL, "because she had the courage to denounce municipal officials who were linked to Los Rojos [a local gang]. Guerrero is one of the poorest states in the country—there is no rule of law.”

Much of the dispute, at least in the media, revolves around the somewhat hazy legal standing of community police in Guerrero. State law 701 guarantees Indian communities the right to form such forces.

Some people claim that Salgado is not an Indian, or point out that she wasn’t elected under a traditional Indian governance system.

Avila dismissed the allegations.

“Of course she’s indigenous,” he told FNL. “Her parents and grandparents spoke in a native dialect.”

Salgado's Mexican attorney, Leonel Rivero Rodríguez, told FNL that one of the original charges against her, conspiracy to commit kidnapping, was "thrown out by a federal judge who believed my client's activities as a community police agent couldn't be considered criminal, never mind acts of kidnapping."

Rivero also points out that her legal situation is more fluid than most Americans are accustomed to.

"There are currently three legal actions against her," he said, "as well as three apprehension orders that haven't been executed – which would bring about another three actions should they materialize – as well as three ongoing investigations which could potentially become legal actions." 

One legislator pressing for Salgado's release said last month it was a simple question of rectifying violations of Salgado's human rights.

"We are getting involved as part of an effort to defend human rights," said federal congressman Roberto López of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party (PRD). "What we want is for the law to be applied and due process be respected."

López said Salgado had not been given consular assistance, as a U.S. citizen is entitled, nor had been she been given adequate access to legal representation. Congressman Adam Smith, a Democrat in Tacoma, Washington, wrote a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry imploring him to get involved in her case.

“Let the story be told,” he said during a press conference last year, “shame the Mexican government into doing the right thing.”

Prison sentences of such a length aren’t entirely unheard of. An Ohio court sentenced Ariel Castro to life without parole and 1,000 years in jail in 2013 for the kidnapping and rape of three women.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Bill Vourvoulias (@bvourvoulias) is an editor at Fox News Latino.

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