Naturalized US citizen and aspiring community activist Nestora Salgado sits in a Mexican federal prison, snared by the government’s push-back against the armed self-defense movement sweeping the country’s southern Pacific coast.
On August 21, marines and state police arrested the commander of the volunteer police force in Olinala, an artisan and ranching town tucked deep into the mountains of Guerrero state. She is charged with kidnapping related to the detentions by her officers of four local teenage girls accused of selling drugs and of a town politician they claim stole a cow from a murdered farmer.
If convicted, Salgado, 41 years old and a mother of three, could spend decades in prison.
Both her critics and supporters say the longtime Seattle resident ran afoul of state and federal officials concerned that the vigilante movement is both swirling out of control and politically challenging the powers that be.
“What I can’t permit as governor is that they continue with these kinds of practices,” Guerrero Governor Angel Aguirre told a Mexico City radio interviewer early this month, referring to Salgado and the community police movement in general. “We aren’t going to live by the law of the jungle.”
Guerrero’s community police network, called the CRAC, was created two decades ago in parts of the state’s coffee growing mountains to replace ineffective law enforcement agencies, and it employs a system for arrest and punishment based on indigenous customs.
The CRAC was spawned by a particularly bad spate of lawlessness in the region as well as the Mexican indigenous rights movement spearheaded by the Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas state.
Aguirre, Guerrero’s current governor, became a patron of the community police after being named interim governor in 1995 following the massacre of 17 peasant activists by state police. Favored by government patronage, the CRAC brought some stability to the tumultuous region known as La Montaña, which lies along the mountainous borders with Puebla and Oaxaca states, and the nearby coast.
Under the guidance of lawyers from the Tlachinollan Human Rights Center, eight years ago the CRAC formed Houses of Justices through which people arrested by the CRAC police could be tried and punished for minor infractions.
“It is fast, efficient and very sophisticated,” said Vidulfo Rosales, one of the Tlachinollan lawyers. “It is a parallel system that indigenous communities live by and have lived by for years.”
But the CRAC leadership fragmented several years ago, with a number of its local chapters joining a rival movement, the Union of Towns and Organizations of Guerrero, (UPOEG), led by brothers Bruno and Cirilo Placido Valerio.
Faced with escalating murder, kidnappings and extortion by gangs, the UPOEG last January turned from leading protests against high electricity rates and poor schools to arming its own volunteer police.
Alleged criminals, from cattle rustlers and common drunks to marijuana sellers and murders, were arrested in a handful of communities. Some 70 of the accused were put on trial in a hamlet near the town of Ayutla in late January. Under government pressure all were later either released or turned over to state prosecutors.
Salgado and the other Olinala activists formed their volunteer police in the context of this wider crime wave and the rancorous turmoil within and between the CRAC and the UPOEG.
Tormented by a faction of Los Rojos, a locally powerful remnant of the Beltran Leyva Organization, which was crippled in 2009, many of Olinala’s 10,000 citizens revolted late last October following the kidnap-murder of a taxi driver.
An armed mob descended on the gangsters’ safe house in one of the town’s better neighborhoods, sending them packing without a shot fired. Salgado, on one of her frequent visits home since gaining US citizenship six years ago, was caught up in the fury. Commandeering a town police car, she cruised Olinala’s streets calling for neighbors to join the rebellion.
“Leave the fear in your homes!” witnesses remember her calling. “Come out to defend your town!”
Thousands more residents responded. Olinala’s longtime police chief, accused of conniving with the gangsters, was chased out of town as well. Lightly armed volunteer sentinels were posted around the clock at all the highway entrances into the town, guarding against Los Rojos’ threatened return.
Army and marine detachments arrived soon afterwards, responding to a request by some of the insurrection leaders, and restored order. But Salgado and other activists proceeded with plans to form the community police, and she was elected commander of the 156 member force in the spring.
Under Salgado, Olinala’s community police rejected affiliation with a moderate CRAC branch in a nearby town to join a more radical one near Ayutla, an eight hour drive away. The accused drug-dealing teens and cow rustling local official were sent to the Ayutla movement’s House of Justice for trial and punishment, sparking Salgado’s own imprisonment.
Aguirre says now that he reluctantly had Salgado jailed because she exceeded her authority under the community police movement’s regulations.
“They can’t go around armed from one town to the other,” Aguirre said in the radio interview. “They can’t make arrests for major crimes. When they detain someone they have to turn them over directly to the proper authorities.”
“We tried to persuade her to turn over the people she had detained”, the governor said. “She refused.”
But Rosales argues that Salgado’s arrest was politically motivated, that her only crime was cluelessness of her homeland’s treacherous and frequently deadly political currents.
“What she did wasn’t wrong, but she made bad political calculations,” said Rosales, the Tlachinollan lawyer who is leading Salgado’s defense. “Because of her time outside Mexico she didn’t have … a political understanding of things in our state, of how much power these people have and how they would react.”
InSight Crime Analysis
Rebellion never seems more than a slight scratch away from the surface in southern Mexico’s mountains, so the rapid spread of the community police and vigilante movements, particularly in Guerrero and the neighboring states of Michoacan and Oaxaca, has rattled Mexican officials at every level.
The composition, aims and firepower of these self-defense forces vary widely from town to town. As in Olinala’s confrontation with Los Rojos, many have been simply citizens’ response to gangster rampages and government inaction.
But the vigilante movement as a whole poses obvious political and security risks in this swath of “untamed Mexico,” which has all too often spawned insurrection.
Salgado’s jailing came shortly after the army’s arrest of more than 40 members of well-armed militiamen in Aquila, a Michoacan mining and ranching town hundreds of miles to the northwest. While some have accused Aquila’s vigilantes of working for the gangsters, they are more likely players in an internal political dispute over royalties from an ore mine operated by Ternium, an Italian-Argentine steel maker.
Mexican officials will take action against “those who don’t understand that they can’t violate the law and they can’t take justice into their own hands,” Mexican Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong said of the Aquila vigilantes on the day Salgado was arrested. “We will not permit impunity.”
Guerrero’s Sierra Madre del Sur was the birthplace of revolts against the Spanish colonial masters and post independence dictators alike. In the 1970s, Two leftist guerrilla movements in the region were suppressed with brutal army offensives.
The Popular Revolutionary Army, (EPR), emerged outside Acapulco in 1996. Troops massacred 11 community leaders who had gathered at a schoolhouse near Ayutla in 1997 to meet with fighters from an EPR splinter group.
So state and federal forces have begun to draw the line. Officials are particularly worried about the more radical militia groups such as the one with which Salgado and her colleagues allied.
“These groups act like anarchists, they consider themselves the law,” said Juan Rendon, an Olinala merchant who was an early leader of Olinala’s movement but quickly turned against it. “They were leading us to armed conflict.”
In a videotaped interview with Guerrero media, uploaded to YouTube shortly before her arrest (see below), Salgado argued for continued and tougher action against gangsters and officials alike.
“We are just trying to provide security,” she said. “This is a town that has organized and they aren’t going to reverse things. I don’t fear the assassins or organized crime. I fear the government.”