Seattle Woman Who Leads Mexican Vigilante Group Fights Kidnapping Charges

The family of a Washington state woman who leads a vigilante police force in Mexico has enlisted a Seattle human rights group to help push for her release after three months in custody on kidnapping allegations.

Nestora Salgado, a U.S. citizen from the Seattle suburb of Renton, was arrested Aug. 21 in the state of Guerrero, south of Mexico City, where she had been leading a vigilante group targeting police corruption and drug cartel violence.

Under state law, indigenous communities such as her hometown of Olinala are allowed to form such forces.

"They have no real case against her," her daughter, Grisel Rodríguez, told The Associated Press. "There's no proof at all. We're hoping that because this is a political case, that with a little bit of political pressure from here they will release her."

The family has enlisted the help of the International Human Rights Clinic at Seattle University School of Law, which filed a petition for her release on Monday with the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, based in Geneva. The group claims Salgado is being held because she opposed government corruption and violence by drug cartels.

Salgado, 41, has been accused of kidnapping in connection with the arrest of several teenage girls on suspicion of drug dealing, and of abducting a town official for allegedly trying to steal a cow at the scene of a double murder. According to the petition, the cow belonged to the victims.

The Guerrero state government said following the arrest that authorities had received complaints from the families of six kidnappings victims, including three minors, and that ransom had been demanded. The investigators said they obtained a warrant for the arrest of Salgado and that her rights were being protected throughout the process. Thirteen suspects in all were taken into custody.

"The government of Guerrero has as one of its objectives to protect its citizens and to work to create conditions of tranquility," said spokesman José Villanueva. "To obtain that, absolutely everyone must follow the law; not one individual or group can impose their own methods or criteria in applying justice."

Salgado grew up in Olinala, a mountainous town of farmers and artisans. She moved to the U.S. when she was about 20, settling in the Seattle area and working as a waitress and cleaning apartments, her daughter said. Her husband, José Luis Avila, has worked in construction.

Beginning in 2000, Salgado began returning to her hometown a month or two at a time, bringing blankets, clothes, toys and other donations, Rodríguez said. Each time, more people in the impoverished community asked her for help.

Salgado suspended her trips after being paralyzed in a car accident about a decade ago. Through rehabilitation, she regained 90 percent of her mobility and in recent years has resumed visiting Olinala, but she continues to suffer from painful neuropathy — a serious concern for her continued detention, Rodríguez said. She also claimed that her mother had been held incommunicado for weeks, only appointed a lawyer a month ago, and still can't make long distance calls home.

The killing of a taxi driver who refused to pay protection money to a cartel sparked Salgado and others to form the vigilante group, which mounted patrols to protect residents from the gang, according to the clinic's petition.

Vidulfo Rosales, Salgado's lawyer, said he hasn't been allowed to see his client even though he filed a petition to do so 20 days ago.

"They are distorting the facts," Rosales said, adding Salgado was acting as a "representative of the community police."

Clinic director Thomas Antkowiak argued that Salgado's solitary detention in a high-security federal prison at Tepic, Nayarit, betrays the political nature of her arrest: Kidnapping is a state crime, and defendants would normally be held in state prison, he said.

"She was in a situation where she was opposing government corruption and she was opposing violence by drug cartels," Antkowiak said in an interview. "You challenge those and you put yourself in the line of fire."

Villanueva, the state government spokesman, denied Salgado is in solitary confinement and said she was sent to a federal prison because she poses a security risk for state authorities.

"We were concerned there could be protests and blockades if she stayed in Guerrero, and that's why we asked to send her to a federal prison," Villanueva said.

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