Seattle University School of Law clinic helps secure rights activist's release

  • Nestora Salgado Garcia speaks to members of the citizens' security unit she helped organize in Olinalá, state of Guerrero, Mexico. (Photo courtesy Freedom for Nestora Committee)
  • Members of the Freedom for Nestora Committee gather in Seattle to demand the release of imprisoned indigenous rights activist Nestora Salgado Garcia. (Photo courtesy Freedom for Nestora Committee)
  • Grisel and José Luis Avila, daughter and husband of Nestora Salgado Garcia (Photo courtesy Freedom for Nestora Committee)
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The release of human rights activist Nestora Salgado Garcia after more than two-and-a-half years of incarceration in Mexico will be marked by a March 26 rally in front of Seattle's Mexican consulate.

Sponsored by the Seattle-based Freedom for Nestora Committee, the noon event will celebrate Salgado's freedom and also "demand the release of other community police still held in jail," an organization press release states.

A resident of Renton, Wash., just south of Seattle, Salgado was a primary force behind establishment of a community police force in Olinalá, her native home in the state of Guerrero in southwest Mexico. Guerrero has one of the highest homicide and crime rates in that country.

"Its officers formed patrols to defend residents against organized crime, particularly the Los Rojos gang. The gang had been terrorizing the community and operating with impunity due to the complicity of local officials, including the mayor," according to a background narrative on the Freedom for Nestora website.

In addition to praising Salgado for her work on behalf of citizen safety, the group says the mother and grandmother did much "to develop the leadership of indigenous women and to empower them to stand up against domestic violence and other abuse."

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Salgado, who is both a U.S. and Mexican citizen, was arrested in August 2013 near Olinalá by federal authorities. She was never shown a warrant and U.S. consular authorities were not notified of the illegal detention.

The activist was in high-security prisons until her release, most of the time in solitary confinement, supporters said. She was in a maximum-security prison in Nayarit from shortly after her arrest until last May when she was transferred to a lower-security prison in Mexico City.

Salgado's release came in large part through more than two years of efforts by Seattle University School of Law's International Human Rights Clinic, which argued her cause before the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

In early February the U.N. agency ruled Salgado's imprisonment "to be illegal and demanded her release," according to a Seattle University School of Law statement on March 18, the day Salgado walked out of prison in Mexico City.

Last month, the university reported that "the Working Group, an international panel of five independent human rights experts, fully assessed the evidence in Salgado's case, as well as responses from the government of Mexico."

"We couldn't have hoped for a more resounding decision in her favor. Mexico cannot elude its detailed findings and clear instructions for her freedom and reparations," stated IHRC director Thomas Antkowiak at that time.

Other international bodies had also condemned Salgado's detention. In a January 2015 resolution, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights called on Mexico to take immediate action to protect Salgado's "life and physical integrity."

"We are obviously very happy, thrilled, to be able to see the family reunited after all this time," Antkowiak told NCR from Washington, D.C., where he is working on another IHRC case involving a proposed canal in Nicaragua that, he said, "endangers many indigenous communities."

"So many people have been involved in Nestora's release, so many supporters providing all that they could both in the U.S. and in Mexico. It is wonderful to see all these efforts come to fruition," he said.

Antkowiak said "a convergence of different factors" led to the SU organization taking on the case -- one being that the family is local, and "another that they were directed to our clinic by a local retired judge, Fred Hyde, who heard of some of our other work done in Mexico, where we had represented another person wrongly imprisoned."

The Seattle University law professor also lauded Washington U.S. Representative Adam Smith, D-Bellevue. Senior-ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, Smith was "very helpful and outspoken for Nestora," Antkowiak said. "He has done all that he could."

As she left prison Friday, Salgado told Seattle's ABC affiliate KOMO-TV, ""I love you very much Seattle. I am so happy for all of the support you've given me. I love you. Soon I will see you there!"

She also told reporters she planned to return to the United States for medical treatment, but would eventually return to Olinalá to continue her activism.

She said she plans to campaign to win the release of others whom she described as "political prisoners." 

The Mexican Constitution protects the right of indigenous people to self-government and self-defense, including citizen security forces. According to Antkowiak and others, Salgado's group was officially part of state law enforcement, and had had the express approval of Guerrero's governor.

The Free Nestora Committee claims Salgado's security troop's "impact ... was dramatic -- a 90% drop in the crime rate and no murders during the 10 months it was in operation."

Salgado entered the U.S. in 1991 at the age of 20. She worked as a maid, nanny and waitress. She divided her time between Olinalá, a municipality of about 25,000, and Renton where her husband, José Luis Avila, is a construction worker.

[Dan Morris-Young is NCR's West Coast correspondent. His email is dmyoung@ncronline.org.]

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