Nestora Salgado, of Renton, returned to the small Mexican village where she grew up to help a town gripped by drug-related crime and poverty.
Salgado, who was elected as a leader of a local volunteer police force, didn’t imagine the arrests that her group had made would lead to her own imprisonment.
For the past 10 months, the 42-year-old mother of three has been detained in a federal prison in Mexico.
She has yet to have her day in court, her lawyers say.
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At a news conference Monday at Seattle University, U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, D-Bellevue, spoke out against Salgado’s ongoing detention without a trial.
He said the United States will do whatever it can to pressure the Mexican government to release Salgado, a naturalized American citizen who was born in Mexico.
Her family is also getting legal help from the International Human Rights Clinic at the Seattle University School of Law.
Clinic Director Tom Antkowiak said the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights are monitoring the case.
When Smith found out Salgado was from his congressional district, he wanted to help.
In April, Smith wrote a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry urging the State Department to help move Salgado’s case though the judicial system and make sure she has access to her attorneys.
“Every individual should have the right to due process, and I will continue to work with Nestora’s family and her legal representation at Seattle University to push for justice and fairness,” he said.
Smith said he knows the State Department has raised the issue with the Mexican government, but he doesn’t know how Mexican authorities have responded or what the State Department plans to do next.
Salgado moved to the United States in 1991 at the age of 20.
Her daughter, Grisel Rodriguez-Salgado, 24, said her mother worked three jobs — as a custodian, a waitress and a maid — while raising her children in the U.S.
In 2000, Salgado began returning to her hometown of Olinalá in the state of Guerrero for a month or two at a time to bring toys, clothes and blankets to people in need.
Her husband José Ávila, 42, said each time it was harder for his wife to return to their home in Renton.
Avila said that even when he’s felt scared for his wife, she would tell him she had to go back, because people were begging her to stay and help.
Many of Olinalá’s residents are poor, indigenous people who don’t speak Spanish.
The town has been riddled with corruption, murder and kidnapping linked to Mexican drug cartels.
Rodriguez-Salgado said people in the community finally reached their breaking point when they were burying a taxi driver who had been killed by a drug cartel and learned the same day someone else in the village had been kidnapped.
According to Antkowiak, community members were encouraged by Guerrero Gov. Ángel Aguirre Rivero to create a community police force that is part of state law enforcement.
Guerrero law and the Mexican Constitution allow indigenous communities to have their own security institutions.
The community picked Salgado to be the face of the police force.
The government of Guerrero was fine with the group’s work, until Salgado detained teenage girls accused of dealing drugs and also a local official accused of tampering with evidence at a crime scene, her family and Antkowiak said.
Salgado was arrested last August and is accused of kidnapping.
She has not been allowed to speak with her lawyers or make international phone calls, her daughter said.
A Mexican federal judge dismissed significant criminal charges against her, but she remains in prison, Antkowiak said.
A delegation of Mexican lawmakers who were allowed to visit Salgado this spring found her living in inhumane conditions, according to a report from the delegation.
The delegation said Salgado has been confined to a cell 24 hours a day, seven days a week with only a few exceptions — the short visits she gets with another daughter and a sister every 12 days.
The second daughter relocated from Renton to Olinalá after her mother’s arrest.
For two months, Salgado was in a cell with the lights on all day. She has been denied medication needed to control painful neuropathy in her hands and feet, Antkowiak said.
“What breaks our heart the most is our mother complains of being hungry,” Rodriguez-Salgado said, as she fought back tears.
The Mexican delegation said she had not received clean drinking water in months and was slowly deteriorating.
Rodriguez-Salgado said she’s doesn’t know how much more her mother can take.
Whenever her mother starts to break down, her family tells her to not worry, that they’re not going to let her stay in prison.
“As long as she’s being strong what other choice do we have?” Rodriguez-Salgado said.
Zahra Farah: 206-464-3195 or firstname.lastname@example.org