After return to Mexico, she fights crime, runs afoul of law

OLINALA, Mexico — Surely, this is not the returning-immigrant experience that Nestora Salgado imagined.

At first, the 41-year-old mother of three was, in the words of a supporter, "a sensation" in her mountainous Guerrero homeland, where she returned recently after 20 years in the United States. As she led this remote town in an uprising against vicious criminals, she was fierce, confident, charismatic.

"She had more right to be the leader because she has more guts than any man," said villager Marisela Jimenez.

On the day in October when Olinala rebelled, it was Salgado who commandeered a police patrol car and used its megaphone to call people into the streets. "Leave your fear at home! Come out!"

And, as church bells tolled in solidarity, they came out, by the thousands. Within days, they had expelled many of the crooks, villagers say.

But her adopted American "can-do" met a Mexican "can't-be."

Today, Salgado sits in a Mexican penitentiary, far from her home and her people, accused of kidnapping and guilty, certainly, of having run afoul of a clash of cultures, politics and generations-old clan rivalries.

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Guerrero has long been one of Mexico's most geologically and politically turbulent zones. It gets gut-punched as the epicenter of most of the region's earthquakes, and its inhospitable, rugged mountains were home to bandits and guerrillas for decades. Indigenous pueblos demand their rights fiercely and sometimes violently. Cornstalks grow sideways, determined to cling to jagged stone cliffs.

The name of Salgado's hometown, Olinala, means "place of earthquakes" in the Nahuatl language. By bus, it would take hours to get there from the nearest city, if there were buses. But few buses go. The single paved road in and out of Olinala looks as though a giant chewed its edges and took big bites out of bends where rock slides can obliterate the pathway in a matter of minutes.

Salgado left this place long ago. Already a mother of two at age 20, she followed her then-husband to the Pacific Northwest in the early 1990s, worked hard as a waitress, had another child, divorced, remarried, ended up in Seattle and became a U.S. citizen. Always tough-minded, relatives say, she learned about basic civil rights and how to demand them, and the potential power of women.

She began trips back home, staying longer each time, taking donated money and clothing to neighbors, building a house, room by room, and making plans to settle permanently.

The Guerrero she returned to, however, had changed. Los Rojos had taken over.

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Los Rojos — the Reds — were a thuggish branch of one of the bigger drug cartels taking up positions through central Mexico. During the last couple of years, they managed to terrorize Olinala with small numbers of outlaws who, according to many in the town, had the protection of corrupt police and recently elected politicians.

The catalyst for the uprising was the Oct. 27 funeral of a taxi driver who, after refusing to pay extortion money to Los Rojos, had been kidnapped and killed. As townspeople buried the man, a rumor flew among the mourners that another cabbie had been kidnapped.

Passions were high. Authorities were doing nothing. The town rebelled, thousands pouring into the streets, led by Nestora Salgado.

"Nestora brought a lot of good visions from the U.S.," said Bernardo Ayala, an Olinala native and fellow vigilante who spent most of the 2000s working in Southern California in a mattress factory and laying concrete sidewalks.

"The people here did not know how to defend themselves. She was the first to take charge. She commanded respect."

It was a giddy moment, by all accounts, with most of the townspeople united about the need to defend themselves.