Two U.S. lawmakers from the state of Washington have joined a renewed international chorus demanding the release of an imprisoned community police commander in Mexico. Congressman Adam Smith and Senator Patty Murphy appealed on the Obama administration last week to intervene on behalf of Nestora Salgado, who began a hunger strike May 5 in protest of her continued imprisonment at a maximum security facility in Nayarit, Mexico.
A former resident of the state of Washington who holds dual citizenship, Salgado returned to her native town of Olinala, Guerrero, where she helped organize a community police force to counter an organized criminal group that was besieging the region. By many accounts, Salgado’s community force was highly successful in rooting out crime and restoring peace.
Writing in the Mexican daily La Jornada, acclaimed writer Elena Poniatowska sketched out Salgado’s story of an immigrant who had worked hard to raise her three daughters in the United States but made sure to return home twice a year with food and clothing for a big family. Stunned by the lawlessness she encountered, Salgado banded together with others, formed a branch of the CRAC community police and captivated a public that elected her regional commander.
“How beautiful was the commander with her big and very well painted eyes under a black cap and the olive green uniform that she feminized,” Poniatowska wrote. “Instead of returning to the comfort of her life in the United States, she accepted the post and was thanked by the very poorest.”
But in August 2013, Salgado and other members of the Olinala community police were arrested in a military operation involving the Mexican armed forces and Guerrero police; the detainees were accused of kidnapping and engaging in organized crime. Supporters contend the arrests were in retaliation for disturbing the interests of the real criminal group.
In a controversial move, Salgado was quickly transferred hundreds of miles away from Guerrero to the penitentiary in Tepic, Nayarit, where she was put in solitary confinement and isolated from her family, her supporters and her lawyers. A federal court later cleared the community police commander of any criminal wrongdoing and the federal attorney general’s office also backed off the case, but Guerrero prosecutors continue to hold firm in maintaining charges against Salgado, despite an international outcry.
“It is unacceptable for the Mexican government to continue to imprison Nestora Salgado in conditions that fail to protect her life and physical integrity. Nestora’s health continues to deteriorate and without immediate action by the Mexican government, Nestora’s life is truly at risk…,” lawmakers Smith and Murray said in a joint statement.
“We urge the United States government to take immediate action to secure Nestora’s release on humanitarian grounds. Nestora has been deprived from due process and justice by the Mexican government and we will continue to do all we can do to ensure that she receives it.”
The statement from the Washington Democrats wasn’t the first time they signed their names to a public appeal requesting that the Obama administration take action on the Salgado case. Last summer, Smith and Murray joined Washington Senator Maria Cantwell and a half-dozen other House members in penning a similar letter to Secretary of State John Kerry.
Salgado, who counts on a protective order from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, was reportedly in poor health even before she launched her hunger strike. Salgado’s husband, Jose Luis Avila, said late last week that his wife’s condition was precarious and the family desperate. “We do not believe she will stand much more,” Avila told the Mexican press.
Salgado’s daughter, Sayra Rodriguez Salgado, alleged “psychological torture” and official falsification of medical reports after a recent visit in the Tepic prison with her mom.
“They used to bring food to her cell, but she had to eat alone because they wouldn’t allow her to be with (other prisoners) during any time of the day,” Rodriguez said. “But now that she is on a hunger strike, they take her to the dining hall and sit her in front of the food.”
Another jailed Guerrero community police commander, Gonzalo Molina, initiated a hunger strike last week from his confinement at the top-security prison of Almoloya in the central state of Mexico. Molina called on the Guerrero state legislature as well as the federal Congress to approve amnesty laws for community police prisoners and other activists.
In Guerrero, community police forces in indigenous zones are legally supported by Guerrero State Law 701, the Mexican Constitution and Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization.
As Salgado’s hunger strike entered a second week, supporters in Guerrero staged public protests, including highway blockades, in Tlapa, Tixtla, the state capital of Chilpancingo, and the rural zone of Acapulco.
Vidulfo Rosales Sierra, lawyer for the Tlapa-based Tlachinollan Human Rights Center of the Mountain, demanded that Guerrero Gov. Rogelio Ortega Martinez step in and secure freedom for Salgado, Molina and Marco Antonio Suastegui, a leader and spokesman for the Council of Ejidos and Communities Opposed to the La Parota Dam (CECOP).
For more than a decade Suastegui’s group has fought plans to erect a dam that would flood out thousands of people living in the countryside near Acapulco.
Arrested in 2014, Suastegui was also originally whisked to the super-max in Tepic, but more recently transferred to a prison in Guerrero. The activist claims he was tortured by state police after his arrest, which came after violent clashes with gravel pit operators and a decision by the CECOP to form a new community police force.
On Sunday, May 17, Suastegui was paid a visit at the La Union prison where he is held by Gov. Ortega, who discussed the prisoner’s situation and reiterated a pledge to employ the resources of his administration in reviewing the Suastegui case as well as those of others deemed political prisoners. Ortega said he hoped to have positive results by the end of his administration, which ends later this year.
Although Tlachinollan’s Vidulfo Rosales endorsed immediate action by Gov. Ortega, he was skeptical that official gestures alone would free Salgado and the other prisoners. The attorney urged more mass pressure.
“We exhort all organizations to embark on a campaign of mobilizations to demand the freedom of the political prisoners..,” Rosales said. “There are no elements to have them in jail. They form part of the security and justice system duly recognized by the law, in international treaties, and with legal sanction…”
Additional Sources: La Jornada, May 17 and 18, 2015. Articles by Fabiola Martinez, Elena Poniatowska and Paula Monaco Felipe. El Sur, May 14, 17 and 18, 2015. Articles by Mariana Labastida, Lourdes Chavez, Brenda Escobar, Zacarias Cervantes, and editorial staff.