SEATTLE (AP) — A United Nations panel has ruled Mexico's 2013 arrest and its continuing detention of a community police leader are illegal, raising hopes among her supporters she could be freed.
Nestora Salgado is a resident of the Seattle suburb of Renton who returned to her native Mexico and led a vigilante-style — but legal — community police force, which mounted patrols to protect residents from corruption and organized crime.
A dual U.S.-Mexico citizen, Salgado was arrested in August 2013 after people detained by her group said they had been kidnapped. A federal judge cleared her of those charges, but a related state case has kept her imprisoned.
The International Human Rights Clinic at Seattle University Law School has been pursuing her case at the U.N.'s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention in Geneva, Switzerland, for about two years. In a decision reached in December — and communicated to her lawyers on Tuesday — the five-member panel called her arrest arbitrary and said Mexico should not only free her but compensate her for the violation of her human rights.
The UN group found that she was arrested for community policing, which is protected under Mexican law, and that authorities ignored her American passport. She was denied contact with her lawyers and family for almost year, the panel said, and in prison she has been denied adequate medical care and access to clean water.
"In the first place, there is no doubt that the arrest and detention without charges is illegal and thus arbitrary," the UN group said. "Furthermore, the military arresting civilians for presumed crimes when national security is not at risk is worrying."
The ruling is not binding on Mexico, but it could increase pressure to release her, said Thomas Antkowiak, the law clinic's director.
"This is a very important channel for political pressure: We have an impartial, international panel that says she's detained illegally. I think it's kind of a breakthrough," he said. "We've been in ongoing negotiations with the government in Mexico, the federal government mainly, and those have gone nowhere. We're hoping this is going to inject new life into those negotiations."
The clinic also plans to ask the U.S. State Department to press for her release, he said.
A spokesman for the prosecutor's office in the southern state of Guerrero, Mexico, was not immediately available to discuss the ruling Tuesday. Mexican authorities typically do not comment about ongoing cases, though Guerrero's governor called for her release last year.
Salgado grew up in Olinala, a mountainous town of farmers and artisans in Guerrero. She moved to the U.S. when she was about 20, settling in the Seattle area, where she waitressed and cleaned apartments. She eventually began making trips back home, and she became involved in the community police following the killing of a taxi driver who refused to pay protection money to a cartel.
A state law allows Olinala and Guerrero's other indigenous communities to organize their own police forces.
Salgado was accused of kidnapping in connection with the arrest of several teenage girls on suspicion of drug dealing, and of a town official for allegedly trying to steal a cow at the scene of a double killing. The Guerrero state government said following the arrest that authorities had received complaints from the families of six kidnappings victims, including three minors, and that ransom had been demanded.
"She's endured over two years of illegal detention, without evidence or a trial against her," Antkowiak said. "She's a political prisoner."
AP reporter Manuel Valdes contributed.