“Hello, commander,” Ayala said. “All of the compañeros are here.” Salgado greeted them, her voice echoing in the courtyard, which was decorated with shrines to Catholic saints. In person, Salgado, who is forty-five, has dark bangs that sweep over a cherubic face with kohl-rimmed eyes; she has a cheery disposition and a deceptively guileless manner. Since 2012, she has divided her time between Washington State and Guerrero, where she was born, in the hope of helping her town resist an influx of drugs and violence.
For more than a decade, the Mexican government has been waging war against organized crime, deploying tens of thousands of troops. That war has failed; more than a hundred and fifty thousand people have been killed and another thirty-two thousand have disappeared. Amid the violence, the government forces have often been no less venal and corrupt than the drug cartels they were dispatched to fight. In many places, citizens have grown so distrustful of the security forces that they have formed armed community self-defense groups to restore order to their battered towns.
In less than a year, Salgado transformed a group of untrained local citizens into an armed force that was able to track down and arrest kidnappers and murderers. Its success helped inspire a surge of community police; of eighty-one municipalities in Guerrero, fifty-four now have forces. But the group, founded with the intention of fighting criminals, had ended up fighting the Mexican government as well. In 2013, Salgado was arrested, and authorities accused her of murder, kidnapping, organized crime, and robbery. After almost three years in prison, she was cleared of charges, but many of her colleagues still had open arrest warrants. The force, which at one point had two hundred and forty volunteer officers, was down to eighty, and they were struggling to keep working.
“Does anyone have questions for Nestora?” Ayala asked the group.
“Compañera Nestora, the thing that has most stopped us is that we don’t have any money to operate,” a heavyset man named Calixto Reyes said. “We pay for everything out of our own pockets and from whatever people give us. And there are many communities that have requested our support.”
Salgado urged them not to give up. “The government is trying to stop our work,” she said. “But we have to continue.” As the community policemen prepared to begin the night’s patrol, she signed off. “I would like to send a very strong hug to all of you,” she said. “We will stay in touch.”
Ayala began chanting the group’s motto: “Respect for our rights—”
The others joined in: “Will bring justice!”
Ayala said, “Vámonos, compañeros,” and the group walked to two white trucks, emblazoned with the community-police insignia. They eased their vehicles down a near-vertical road into town, past kids nestled in doorways and shopkeepers closing down businesses. Most offered friendly greetings. A slender man with graying hair flagged them down. “There are some guys racing on motorcycles here,” he said, waving at the street, which was wide enough for only one lane of traffic. “They’re using the street as a drag strip. If you see them, please get them to calm down.”
Around another corner, the community policemen encountered a group of young people with a red motorbike, but they turned out not to be the culprits. “If that was the motorcycle, we would have just taken it,” Julia Silva, one of two women on patrol that night, joked. “We need them for rapid response.”
A municipal-police truck passed, and turned down a parallel street. One of the men looked at the vehicle with disgust. “The police,” he said. “Whenever they see us out, then they remember they have a job to do.”
After three months, Miguel found her, and the two moved to Bellevue, Washington, where a cousin of his lived. Miguel worked as a dishwasher. Salgado found a job as a housekeeper at a hotel, and another at a dry cleaner. “I remember waking up in the mornings and going to work happy,” she said. “Walking the streets, I saw everything as beautiful—the plants, the flowers. Olinalá doesn’t have any parks. I wanted my daughters to see this.” After a year, she had saved enough money to bring their daughters to Bellevue. But she had to hire a babysitter while she was at work; Miguel couldn’t be relied on to watch the children. Salgado would come home to find her husband drinking with his friends, the kitchen empty of food for their daughters. Once, the sheriff came to her house to put their belongings outside because they hadn’t paid rent. “The terrible thing was that I saw my husband not worrying about anything,” she said. Miguel physically abused her so viciously that he was eventually sent to prison.
At twenty-six, she finally left him. She got a job as a waitress, and at the restaurant where she worked she met a cook from Jalisco named José Luis Ávila. “My life changed,” Salgado said. Ávila helped her with her children and the rent. They got married, and eventually moved to Renton, a small city near Seattle. In 2001, she obtained a residency card, and, ten years after leaving Olinalá, she was able to return for a visit. “Everyone was so happy,” she said. “But I was also sad, because I saw how truly poor my town was.” Salgado began going back every year, bringing children’s toys, clothes, and other donations she had collected in Washington. Her daughters didn’t like the town, which seemed too foreign, too small, too quiet. To Salgado, it was paradise. She gardened, farmed, and rode horses; on an undeveloped part of her father’s land, she began building a house.
Yet the area was becoming increasingly unrecognizable. For years, the Beltrán Leyva cartel had controlled Guerrero’s opium production. But, starting in 2009, the government killed or arrested most of its leaders. With the Beltrán Leyvas gone, and with U.S. demand for heroin rising, more than a dozen gangs began a fierce struggle for raw material and transport routes. Their members committed kidnappings and murders; they took over the commerce of towns, and then forced residents to pay taxes to them.
The government was little help. Mexico’s then-President, Felipe Calderón, had sent a surge of troops to the region, but the presence of the military often intensified the violence. Local forces were no better. Mike Vigil, a former Drug Enforcement Administration chief of international operations in Mexico City, told me, “The municipal police were endemic with corruption.” The drug trade had saturated the government with corruption, and few politicians evaded it. “You can count them on one hand, the ones who are clean,” Salgado said. Leaked government documents from 2014 assert that state security knew of at least twelve mayors in Guerrero who were connected to organized crime. “This is the true nightmare: that the enemy, the Mafioso, who is tearing society apart, goes unnoticed in public office,” Anabel Hernández wrote in the book “Narcoland.” Guerrero became one of the most violent states in Mexico, with thousands of killings each year. During my visit, security forces found six decapitated bodies in a car in the state capital and four tortured corpses in another town. “A lot of people were scared, but no one said anything,” Salgado said. “You can’t live like that.”
For the next two hours, Salgado drove the truck through town, shouting through a megaphone, “Come out! You don’t have to be scared!” People started organizing by neighborhood, and, armed with AK-47s and hunting rifles from home, and sometimes wearing ski masks, they set up checkpoints to monitor who was coming in and out of town. “The streets were packed,” Ayala recalled.
More than a hundred townspeople headed to a house where several of the sicarios lived, to make them reveal the whereabouts of the second driver. The men were gone when the group arrived, but the townspeople found a car and two motorcycles, and torched them. A few days later, one man called Salgado and reported that a group of men had detained the sicarios’ teen-age girlfriends. Furious, they wanted to take them to the plaza, douse them in gasoline, and burn them. “I hurried over there,” Salgado said. “I said to them, ‘What are you doing?’ ” She told them that killing the girls would just create trouble. Instead, she suggested questioning them. They had worked as lookouts for the sicarios, and as prostitutes for the men.
The next day, they picked up the girls from their family homes and took them to a school, where they had arranged for a lawyer to be present. The girls told them whom the sicarioswere planning to kidnap (Salgado was on the list) and whom they were working with: wealthy residents of Olinalá, the head of local government security, the public prosecutor, and the mayor. (The officials deny working with the sicarios.) They showed cell-phone videos of executions that their boyfriends had committed, and of children being sexually abused. Salgado and the others put the footage on disks to keep as evidence.
In the sicarios’ home, they discovered shotguns and bulletproof vests, along with a cache of driver’s licenses from various states in Mexico, declaring that the men belonged to several branches of the armed forces simultaneously. Before the townspeople left, Armando Patrón Jiménez, the town’s public prosecutor, came to collect the items. He and Salgado had been friendly for years, occasionally going for drinks together, but the timing of his arrival made her suspicious. “Why?” Salgado said. “How did he know those things were there?” (Patrón Jiménez says that he was there as part of a routine investigation, and denies that there were weapons.)The following week, the governor of Guerrero, Ángel Aguirre Rivero, came to Olinalá, and Salgado gave him a disk with the footage from the girls’ cell phones. “I said, ‘That’s why my town needs community police,’ ” she recalled. “And he said, ‘Oh, yes, yes—that’s very good. I am proud of you for wanting to provide security for your people.’ ” But neither he nor the military attempted to arrest the sicarios. Instead, the governor later supplied the community police with trucks and uniforms, and recognized Salgado as head of the force. She was forty-one years old, and had recently become a grandmother. “He said the security of the town would now be in my hands,” she said.
Many nights, Salgado’s force simply insured order on the streets: taking drunks home, driving sick people and pregnant women to the hospital. Other work was more serious. They rescued residents who had been abducted, and arrested people whom they suspected of robbery, kidnapping, or extortion. Salgado received phone calls from people threatening to kill her. “A lot of the time, they didn’t have a face,” she said. “They were ghosts.” Still, the patrols gave her a rush. “We knew that if these people were able to get us they would tear us to pieces,” she said. “Fear can make you react, or it can flatten you. I am someone who reacts.” When she called her family in Washington, she kept the details of her new life vague; she didn’t want them to worry.
One afternoon, during her first month leading the force, an eight-year-old boy disappeared from a nearby town. His father, a butcher, received a phone call three hours later: the boy had been abducted, and his kidnappers wanted two million pesos. The parents were afraid. After realizing that they could not come up with the money, they called their town’s community police—“No one trusts the municipal police anymore,” Salgado said—who then called community forces in the surrounding towns. Salgado and thirty of her men joined a search party of community police and residents, looking in abandoned houses and ranches, amid the weeds and the cornfields. One of the searchers, looking near a farm a two-hour drive from town, heard suspicious sounds, and alerted the community police. They found the boy there; the men guarding him had fled. “I was scared, because I knew the sicarios were close and could kill us, but I was happy to see the boy,” Salgado recalled. The kidnappers were later arrested.
Law 701 places few limits on the authority of community police, saying only that they need to operate within “the framework of respect for human rights” and “the limits that the current state of law imposes.” In practice, the state authorities expected them to act as adjuncts of the municipal police. But Salgado and her men felt increasingly confident in their parallel system of justice. Community police forces were reluctant to turn prisoners over to the government, because officials sometimes allowed suspects to buy their way out of jail. In Olinalá, Salgado’s force kept detainees on the top floor of her house, which doubled as her office. “We would just guard them,” Gustavo Patrón Coronel, a sixty-six-year-old artisan and community policeman, said. “They were allowed to receive visitors, they were fed—very much like a regular jail.” After the community police investigated an offense, the victim was invited to face the accused in Salgado’s house, and if the latter confessed reparations were arranged. “Everything had a structure,” Salgado said. When an agreement couldn’t be reached, she sent detainees to a casa de justicia, which decided whether to impose “reëducation”—a period in which prisoners lived in basic facilities while they attended talks and performed public works, like picking up trash, painting churches, and cleaning schools.
Although community police were legally restricted to small rifles, at times they carried higher-calibre weapons, some of them bought from soldiers selling surplus arms. “I carried a gun that was not permitted,” Salgado said—a .38 Super pistol. “If the military had found it, they would have taken it away.” She wore a bulletproof vest and practiced point-blank shooting. “We told the government, ‘We’re not going to war with slingshots. Respect our lives, because our lives mean something, too,’ ” she went on. “The government wanted us to have sticks, and our enemies can take down helicopters.”
By the spring of 2013, Salgado was working to organize community police forces throughout the state. “All the towns within indigenous territory can, within the law, organize themselves,” she said. “Every eight days, a town would rise up.” In May, the governor’s office dispatched a former crac-P.C. coördinator to tell Salgado that the government didn’t like the way the casas de justicia were operating and wanted her to limit her work to Olinalá; Salgado said that he offered her three million pesos to stick to small matters, such as stolen cattle and family disputes. (The governor declined to comment.) She refused, saying that the network of towns helped keep the roads safe. “The government never left us alone,” Bernardo Ayala recalled. “It was constant harassment.” The security forces intimidated them as well. “We received direct threats from the Navy,” Juan Ayala Rendón, a community policeman, said. “They told us that they were going to kill us, that they were going to disappear us, that they were going to arrest us.”
Rather than back away from antagonizing officials, crac-P.C. became more aggressive. When a resident called Salgado to complain that municipal policemen were driving recklessly through town, she and her men located the chief of police and two officers, who were drunk and carrying alcohol. They arrested the officers, and confiscated their guns and their truck. They sent a message to the mayor, but heard back that he didn’t consider it his problem. (The mayor says that the officers assured him that they weren’t drunk; in any case, he says, the governor was responsible for the municipal police.) The next day, representatives from the state government came to collect the policemen, and then returned for their arms and their vehicle.
Around that time, four of the teen-age girls who had been involved with the sicarios began disappearing for days at a time, and their mothers came to crac-P.C. for help finding them. In late May, Salgado received a message that the girls had been found in two nearby towns, with cocaine and marijuana on them; she arranged for community policemen to bring them home. Their mothers told Salgado that she should put them in reëducation, but some members of the community force’s internal council were wary, because the girls were underage. Salgado told the mothers that they would need to give written permission. The women provided it, and Salgado took the girls to the town La Concordia to live at a convent and perform community service.
The next week, two of the mothers returned to the office and said that they wanted to take their daughters home, which Salgado allowed. When she was later arrested, the warrant claimed that she had unlawfully detained the teen-agers. “I was part of the recognized state security,” she said. “But the mayor was working with the governor to put me in jail.”
Salgado was due to return to Renton the following weekend, but, before she could leave, military personnel spotted her at a gas pump and arrested her. Several other members of the community police force from Guerrero were also arrested. José Luis Ávila, Salgado’s husband, learned of her detention later that day. “When you have family working against organized crime, you expect something to happen,” Ávila, who has a buzz cut and a salt-and-pepper mustache, said. “But I thought, Why was she arrested?” Relatives in Mexico scrambled to obtain news of her. “All we knew was that she had been taken by soldiers,” Ávila went on. “The government kept hiding information.” After a day or two, he called the American Embassy in Mexico and found out that Salgado was in a maximum-security prison in Nayarit, more than six hundred miles from Olinalá.
“We aren’t going to live by the law of the jungle,” Governor Aguirre said at the time. “They can’t go around armed, from one town to the other. They can’t make arrests for major crimes. When they detain someone, they have to turn them over directly to the proper authorities. . . . She refused.”
The charges against Salgado eventually included organized crime, vehicle theft, homicide, attempted homicide, and fifty-three counts of kidnapping. Roberto Álvarez, a Guerrero state-security spokesman, suggested to me that much of crac-P.C.’s work was illegal. “They were not arrests—they were detainments. And, in the reëducation process, the liberty of the detainees was taken away,” he said. “The community police would ask the families of the detainees for money in exchange for their freedom.” Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission found that the community policemen in Olinalá had subjected twelve prisoners, including four minors, to physical abuse and inhumane treatment, denying their “right to personal integrity, dignified treatment, sexual freedom, and the right to a life without violence.”
Salgado’s first two lawyers, one state-appointed and the other from the indigenous-rights organization Tlachinollan, had difficulty even accessing files related to the government charges. Nine months passed before a lawyer could visit her. “He was not allowed to bring a single piece of paper, and he was allowed to speak with Nestora for only forty-five minutes,” Ávila said. “How can you defend somebody like that?” Ávila recruited Thomas Antkowiak, the director of the International Human Rights Clinic, at the Seattle University School of Law. “Her rights had been violated,” Antkowiak told me. “This persecution against social activists, against human-rights defenders, against indigenous leaders, is happening all over Mexico.” In late 2013, he filed a petition to the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, seeking to establish that Salgado’s imprisonment was illegal; Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission declared that it had found violations of Salgado’s right to due process. In the meantime, Salgado’s fame began to grow. “Nestora became a symbol of social rage,” Abel Barrera, the director of Tlachinollan, said. “She had to expose the relationships between the authorities and organized crime, and, for the state authorities of Guerrero, she went too far. For the people who were defenseless against organized crime, she did what she had to do.”
Salgado’s defenders portrayed her case as a matter of political persecution. “She touched on the interests of the governor and the mayor,” Amanda Rivero, one of her Mexican lawyers, said. “The only way to stop the community police was to arrest Nestora.” The state alleged that Salgado forced business owners to help pay for her group’s operations; she says that she held fund-raisers but never coerced anyone. Her colleagues on the force said that they had not asked for ransoms; instead, they collected retribution fines, which were paid to victims. One of the people Salgado allegedly kidnapped and tortured, a man named Francisco Flores Jiménez, told the Mexican press that his rights were respected during the reëducation process, and that his family was never asked for a ransom. He also claimed that the young women who accused Salgado of kidnapping were treated well, and were there with the consent of their parents; Salgado’s attorneys entered the signed permission slips into evidence. None of the victims named by the prosecution showed up in court.
In March, 2016, after Salgado had been incarcerated for two years and eight months, a state court cleared her of all charges. Immediately, the attorney general of Guerrero issued three new warrants, with further counts of murder, kidnapping, robbery, and organized crime. Soon afterward, I met Salgado in an empty office at Penal de Tepepan, a women’s prison on the southern edge of Mexico City. Salgado had a cold, and she huddled into a brown leather couch in a neon-green sweatshirt and black leggings. She feared what the government would do to her, but she was optimistic: she felt that she would soon be home with her family, in Renton. “For sure, I will leave here soon,” she said.
Salgado’s daughter Grisel calls her “strong-headed,” pointing out that, when her children expressed concern over her work, she replied that she would rather die fighting than live on her knees. But things had changed. She stayed in the clinic as much as she could; she was nervous about encountering other prisoners. Misinformation about her was so widespread that some inmates thought she was implicated in the disappearance of forty-three teacher trainees in Ayotzinapa—an incident that had occurred while she was imprisoned. Women had called her profane names in the corridors. “It’s dangerous for me to be in the general population, because people look at me like the enemy,” she said.
In her cell were piles of books from supporters: a biography of the indigenous guerrilla Lucio Cabañas (“My idol”), a history of Catholic nuns, a book on the Zapatistas, Paulo Coelho’s “The Alchemist.” But she found it hard to concentrate on reading. “Your mind is always thinking about why they think you’re a criminal, why they put you inside,” she said. It all felt like a plot to drive her insane. She wrote in a journal, and tried to avoid the news.
Three days later, she learned that the court had found her innocent: again, the victims named in the arrest orders hadn’t showed up. Salgado walked out of the prison in an olive-green polo shirt with the crac-P.C. logo and a matching baseball cap. Outside, amid a throng of supporters, community policemen from around Guerrero had assembled in two rows extending to the street. In bright sunshine, the men saluted. “They all recognized me as their commander,” she said. “It was beautiful.” One of them brought out handcuffs, which she put on and then dramatically pulled apart, as the crowd cheered. “I am free, thanks to the townspeople,” she told them. “Thank you for your struggle. Thank you for believing in me.”
Eusebio González Rodríguez, the mayor of Olinalá, told me that, while he respected Salgado, he found the actions of the community police dubious. “I always told the government of Guerrero that if it was authorizing self-defense groups then it would have to control them. It’s a situation that spiralled out of the state government’s control,” he said. “I didn’t agree with the fact that there was no limit to the community police’s function.”
The state still maintains that Salgado is a criminal; the Guerrero prosecutor has appealed her release. Álvarez, the state-security spokesman, said, “Even though she acted within Law 701, she went against the constitutional precepts that protect human rights.” Wary of the power that the law gives indigenous civilian forces, politicians have proposed that it be revised to regulate their work.
Salgado argues that crime fell dramatically while the community police were working in Olinalá and the surrounding towns. “There was nowhere for criminals to hide,” she said. “Yes, they can be selling drugs, but not in plain sight, like they used to.” State authorities also believe that the town’s security improved; they say that reports of crime actually increased, but suggest that it was because people felt more comfortable alerting authorities. And recent events have lent credence to Salgado’s charges of government malfeasance. In October, 2014, Aguirre, the governor, resigned amid outrage over the disappearance of the teacher trainees in Ayotzinapa. In his last days in office, he claimed that many of the municipal police forces were working with the cartels; the federal government has since disbanded a third of Guerrero’s municipal police departments. Rogelio Ortega, the interim governor of Guerrero, who replaced Aguirre, called the imprisonment of community policemen “a case of political prisoners.”
Salgado talks at times about going back to police work, although if she returns, she risks being detained by the government or killed by revenge-seekers. Ávila said he would support her. “We have many abandoned little towns in Guerrero, because people have been forced to leave,” he said. “We need to keep fighting.” He considered for a moment. “Of course, the day she decides to go back to Olinalá I’m going to worry a lot.”
In her living room, Salgado told me that she still fervently believed in the need for community police. “It’s the only choice people have in Guerrero,” she said. “They know that we can be in charge of our own security.” She shrugged. The cracks in her assurance were starting to show. “If they don’t want to do it, that’s on them,” she said. “But it’s the only option that we have.” ♦