How do you tell a community police chief from a kidnapper?
That’s one question raised in the case of a woman who relocated from Seattle, Washington, to the mountains of Guerrero to become an activist and founder and chief of a citizen police force, or vigilante group.
Nestora Salgado grew up in Olinalá, famous for the production of lacquer, moved to the United States at the age of 20, where she became a citizen and found work as a waitress and housekeeper. Today, 20 years later, she holds both U.S. and Mexican citizenship and is in jail awaiting trial for kidnapping.
Salgado had returned to her hometown in late 2012, when townspeople had decided they were fed up with the activities of the criminal gang Los Rojos. Salgado became caught up in the events, and in the spring of 2013 went on to co-found and head a 156-member citizen police force, part of the state network of community police called CRAC.
The governor at the time, Angel Aguirre, supported the community police concept. After all, it had succeeded in many communities in driving out the drug gangs, and restoring security.
But after Salgado was arrested, Aguirre had a different view, as it appeared the citizen police were getting out of control and in Salgado’s case, exceeding authority. “We aren’t going to live by the law of the jungle,” he said in an interview at the time.
The former waitress was arrested after she had detained four teenage girls on suspicion of drug dealing and a town politician accused of stealing a cow. Instead of turning the suspects over to authorities, as required, she proceeded with plans to try and punish them and rejected, according to the former governor, pleas to turn the prisoners over to “the proper authorities.”
After Salgado’s arrest, state officials said they received six kidnapping complaints and that ransoms had been demanded by her police.
Last week, Gov. Rogelio Ortega spoke in favor of her release. In a radio interview today he said the actions that have been described as kidnappings were in reality arrests, which as police chief she had the right to make. The ransoms, he said, were actually bail payments.
On the governor’s side are federal and local congressmen of the Democratic Revolutionary Party who claim that Salgado was arrested unjustly and the issue is one of human rights.
The calls for her release have provoked condemnation from two of Mexico’s most prominent campaigners against kidnapping. Isabel Miranda de Wallace of Alto al Secuestro, or the Association to Stop Kidnapping, said politicians should let the judiciary do its work, and charged that the governor’s intervention is improper.
Alejandro Martí, founder of México SOS, said Guerrero has become a narco-warrior, failed state where no one knows who’s who. Is Salgado a community leader, a kidnapper or a criminal, he asked.
Another issue in Guerrero is that indigenous communities are allowed to create their own citizen police forces. But De Wallace points out that Salgado is not indigenous nor was she elected under a traditional system.
Not everyone in Onalá is onside with their former police chief. Juan Rendon, a local businessman who had been involved in the movement but later left it, said following her arrest that such groups act like anarchists and consider themselves above the law.
For Salgado herself it’s a simple matter. “We are just trying to provide security,” she said in 2013. “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.”