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Community activist freed after more than 2 years in Mexican prison

Nestora Salgado, an activist who organized community police forces, waves a rifle as she leaves a prison in Mexico City after courts threw out charges of homicide and kidnapping.

Nestora Salgado, an activist who organized community police forces, waves a rifle as she leaves a prison in Mexico City after courts threw out charges of homicide and kidnapping.

(Marco Ugarte / Associated Press)

Shouting “I’m free!” to dozens of her supporters, activist and U.S. citizen Nestora Salgado stepped outside a Mexican prison Friday after spending 2 1/2 years in what a United Nations panel ruled was an illegal detention.

Her offense? Organizing a community self-defense group amid the chaos and corruption of her native Guerrero state. Salgado’s arrest and lengthy imprisonment demonstrate the dangers that human rights fighters face across Latin America, analysts said. Salgado claims she was tortured while in police custody.

Dressed in a green T-shirt and cap that is her community defense group’s uniform, Salgado greeted the supporters who awaited her outside a Mexico City prison where she had been held. Uncowed despite her stretch in jail, she held aloft a rifle and vowed to continue fighting for community justice.

It’s horrible that I have paid for a crime I didn’t commit, for defending my town, my humble people.

— Nestora Salgado

“We’re going to continue the struggle so they don’t keep repressing us,” said Salgado, 44. Gesturing to the rifle a supporter handed her, she added, “If this is necessary, then that’s what we’ll come to.”

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Later at a news conference, Salgado blamed corrupt local and state officials for her imprisonment, spoke out in favor of other political prisoners still being held and said she was now afraid for her life. After a visit to the United States for health reasons, Salgado said, she planned to continue her community involvement “so that our people achieve dignity.”

“It’s horrible that I have paid for a crime I didn’t commit, for defending my town, my humble people,” Salgado said. “I am the voice of people who have no voice … but there are many political prisoners who don’t have this opportunity. “

A judge ordered her release earlier this week, saying that charges of kidnapping, murder and weapons theft that had been leveled against her by local authorities had no basis.

Salgado’s imprisonment has galvanized protesters who claim the federal and local governments do little to fight violent crime, and that local groups that try to exercise their rights of self-defense suffer abuse by the state.

In a show of solidarity, dozens of members of indigenous groups attended her news conference, many carrying rifles and machetes, which are permitted to indigenous self-defense groups by laws passed after a 1995 police massacre of indigenous protesters in Guerrero state.

But Salgado’s case has also divided even staunch human rights defenders. Respected legal expert Samuel Gonzalez of Mexico City noted that the independent National Human Rights Commission found that the vigilantes that Salgado led used excessive force and committed abuses, including kidnapping, torture and forced labor.

Her release from prison comes two weeks after Honduran human rights leader Berta Caceres was shot to death in her home by unknown assailants. She had led indigenous protests against a proposed dam approved by the government. On Tuesday, her associate and protest leader Nelson Garcia was also killed.

“Unfortunately, Nestora’s case is just one of many in Mexico and indeed in the region who are criminalized for speaking out against government policies,” said Maureen Meyer, a senior associate at the Washington Office on Latin America think tank.

Salgado left Mexico as a young mother and built a new life with her husband in Washington state. She raised three daughters, worked as a waitress and became a believer in human rights as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, relatives said.

But on return trips to bring clothing, money and medical supplies to her native town of Olinala, she was outraged by the rampant crime, narcotics dealing and the brazen behavior of drug cartels and corrupt officials. She decided to do something about it.

Taking advantage of Mexican law that permits indigenous groups to form community vigilante associations, she emerged as a fearless leader, urging locals to organize against a menacing local gang called “Los Rojos.”

Her self-defense group is just one of dozens that has emerged in Guerrero in recent years as poor peasants and town dwellers assume the responsibility of maintaining order because local authorities can’t or won’t.

Before her arrest in 2013, she ordered the detention of three girls she suspected of dealing drugs, as well as the arrests of people she suspected of stealing a cow.

She also once commandeered a police cruiser and used a megaphone to urge people to take to the streets in protest after the 2012 murder of a taxi driver who refused to pay extortion to a local mafia.

But her actions made her a target for government groups, powerful local interests and even legal experts who said she had gone too far.

A grass-roots protest movement seeking her release that was led by her husband in the U.S. and supported by Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) yielded little results. Then her cause was advanced by a ruling by a U.N. human rights panel in February that declared her to be illegally detained.

“Salgado’s release today is important for Nestora and for many organizations in Mexico and in the U.S. who supported her and fought for her freedom, including members of the U.S. Congress,” Meyer said.

Special correspondents Kraul reported from Bogota, Colombia, and Sanchez from Mexico City.

Hoy: Léa esta historia en español

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