Thomas Antkowiak and Alejandra Gonza are pro bono co-counsels to Nestora Salgado. Antkowiak is a professor of international law at Seattle University School of Law. Gonza is an international human rights attorney.
In a month, we will commemorate the appalling disappearance of 43 student activists from the rural teacher’s college in Ayotzinapa, Mexico. While the remains of only one student has supposedly been identified, search parties have discovered the clandestine graves of many others murdered in Guerrero, a state overwhelmed by violence and corruption.
A week ago we marked the second anniversary of another Guerrero tragedy. This one involves a Renton resident, in a narrative just as surreal. Nestora Salgado has dual citizenship; in 1991, she came to the Seattle area and juggled multiple jobs to provide for her three daughters and eventual grandchildren. When she achieved stability, Nestora then resolved to support her hometown of Olinalá. She would visit for a month or two each year, donating her time, food, toys. Her charisma and fearlessness led to a position of leadership in this mostly indigenous community.
Guerrero law and the Mexican Constitution guarantee the rights of indigenous communities to create their own justice and security institutions. Nestora became a leader of a community-policing group that legally forms part of state law enforcement. The group tried to protect their community from the staggering levels of narco violence in the area. By many accounts, they had great success weakening the traffickers’ grip on Olinalá.
But when the group started to pursue the crimes of connected government officials, Nestora crossed the line drawn by the corrupt establishment. She was seized by soldiers; they never showed her a warrant or explained the reasons for the arrest. Guerrero’s governor at the time, Angel Aguirre, banished her — in his own private plane — to a maximum-security prison nearly 1,000 kilometers away.
Nestora was held in solitary confinement for almost two years. Far from her family and community, she was also denied visits from her chosen attorney for an entire year. In May, after months of serious health problems, she was transferred to a prison with medical facilities in Mexico City.
In all of this time, there has been no trial; no evidence has even been presented against Nestora. In fact, a federal court ordered her release in March, to no avail. U.N. human rights authorities, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and thousands of others have condemned her treatment. Even Guerrero’s current governor has called her a “political prisoner.”
Nestora, like many activists in Mexico, has been criminalized. Serious charges are fabricated against them to isolate them from their communities and diminish their influence. Or sometimes, like the 43 students, they simply vanish from sight. As reported by the D.C.-based Washington Office on Latin America, Mexico is one of the world’s most deadly countries for rights advocates and journalists.
The persecution must cease, and Nestora must be released. The U.S. should demand her immediate freedom, as well broader reform and accountability. Until now, it has only fueled the fire, spending many millions to support Mexico’s militarized response to drugs and crime. Soldiers and police — themselves often linked to cartels — have aimed their machine guns at social activists. The brutal methods haven’t stopped drug gangs or contained El Chapo. But they have left thousands of victims of torture, extra-judicial executions, and disappearances in their wake.
Nestora and the students from Ayotzinapa knew each other. Of course they would have. They are cut from the same cloth: an ancient tapestry of resistance that winds through Guerrero’s rugged mountains. When Nestora was detained she called out to them: “I ask for help, I am unarmed. Guerrero Popular Movement, Compañeros de Ayotzinapa, let’s get out, this is unjust.”
We haven’t forgotten them, despite the dark, structural efforts to silence their voices. Now the U.S. must take a stand, through forceful diplomatic and economic pressure, to assist Nestora and Mexico’s besieged civil society.
The views expressed here are those of the writers and not necessarily of the Seattle Globalist.