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OLINALA, Mexico — After decades making another life in the United States, Nestora Salgado found herself back home in southern Mexico's mountains, leading scores of mostly male volunteer police against gangsters and officials alike.

Salgado, 42, was elected commander this spring of the community police in Olinala (oh-lee-nah-LAH), an artisan and cattle town buried deep in the Pacific coast range of Guerrero state.

She's one of many women joining vigilante militias this year as Mexico’s drug war grinds on, in nearly seven years claiming more than 70,000 lives and “disappearing” many thousands more. Just like their beleaguered brothers, husbands and sons, women across this region are arming themselves with low-caliber weapons and popular ire against criminal abuse and official inaction.

But Salgado now occupies a federal prison cell in a distant state, following her arrest by soldiers and state police on Aug. 21. She's charged with the kidnapping of four teenage girls detained by her officers for selling drugs and of a local official accused of stealing a murdered peasant's cow.

If convicted, Salgado could face decades in prison.

“Returning to where she was born and seeing injustice, she wanted to do something to help,” said Jose Luis Avila, Nestora's husband, speaking from their Seattle home after returning last week from a 15-day hunger strike in New York City and at the White House demanding her freedom. “She has realized here what real justice is.”

Women long ago broke through to the upper ranks of male-dominated Mexican society. They've served for years as lawmakers, governors, supreme court justices and cabinet secretaries and even presidential candidates.

But only recently have they gained a beachhead in more remote, rural corners, where machismo often still prevails.

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Described by many as headstrong and self-assured, Salgado proved a natural leader in this turbulent and often rebellious patch of Mexico.

“She has more guts than any man,” Marisela Jimenez, a member of Olinala's community police movement, said. “She was the one who had the courage to take charge.”

The youngest of seven children of a small plot farmer, Salgado migrated to the US Northwest at age 18, the only one of her siblings to risk the journey. She labored for years as a maid and nanny for an American family, her husband says, later working waitress jobs while raising three daughters.

Salgado returned home more frequently after gaining her US citizenship six years ago. She used her savings to build a three-story house near the center of Olinala. The community police members have been gathering for meetings on the home's covered roof deck, fomenting activism.

“She talked to the women a lot, telling us how to work,” said Cleotilde Salgado, 54, Nestora's oldest sibling. “She taught us the value we have as women.”

Turbulent town

Olinala means “place of earthquakes” in the tongue of the Aztecs. The town and surrounding mountains certainly have been roiling of late.

Olinala’s people have endured several years of kidnappings, extortion and drug dealing by about a dozen officially tolerated thugs. Late last October, after the kidnap-murder of a taxi driver, the people rose up.

False rumors spread through the crowd attending the man’s funeral that another taxi driver had been kidnapped. Someone rang the town's church bells in alarm and thousands filled the plaza.

An armed crowd converged on the house where the gangsters stayed, sending them fleeing. Residents seized a young man suspected of being one of the gang's lookouts and grew more furious when police quickly released him.

Salgado was in town caring for her ailing father. Caught up by the crowd's rage, she commandeered a police car and cruised through the narrow streets calling for popular revolt over a megaphone.

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“Leave the fear in your homes! Come out! Come out to defend your town!” Salgado urged, according to witnesses. Thousands more residents responded.

Armed men and women took up round-the-clock checkpoints at the entrances to Olinala, guarding against the gangsters' threatened return.

The town's longtime police chief, widely suspected of collusion with the criminals, was forced to flee. Olinala's 156 community police, including just a handful of women, began patrolling downtown and outlying hamlets.

After serving on an organizing committee that includes farmers and artisans, merchants and school teachers, Salgado eventually was named chief of the volunteer police.

“We are fed up with what is happening in our towns, in our lands,” Salgado told a community police rally in a nearby town, videos of which are posted on YouTube. "Get out and defend your children.

“We must confront this situation. It's better to die on our feet.”

As with many such movements, internal feuding began. Once soldiers and marines took over security in Olinala, many of the committee's moderate leaders dropped out, arguing there’s no need for the volunteer peacekeepers.

Salgado and other remaining leaders decided to join a more radical branch of Guerrero state's officially recognized community police system, the CRAC, which administers parallel justice in heavily indigenous areas. Many of those arrested by Salgado’s volunteer officers were sent for trial to the radicals’ "House of Justice" in a town an eight-hour drive away.

“These groups act like anarchists, they consider themselves the law,” said Juan Rendon, 69, a jovial merchant who was an early leader of the movement but turned against Salgado. “We had to act, but it needed to be in a civilized manner. They were leading us to armed conflict.”

Leftist guerrilla struggles have flowered in recent decades across the mountains that include Olinala. State and federal officials fear members of the more radical community police “have a wider agenda and can’t be controlled,” said Vidulfo Rosales, a human rights lawyer representing Salgado.

“Theirs was a more revolutionary discourse. It awakens much more concern in the government and military,” Rosales said.

In that atmosphere, both Salgado's rising profile and confrontational style proved her undoing, Salgado's critics and supporters agree.

“What she did wasn't wrong, but she made bad political calculations," Rosales said. “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.”

Rosales says that by charging Salgado with kidnapping, the government aims to divide and neutralize community self-defense organizations like Olinala's through fear of similar retribution.

Officials argue the groups in Olinala and elsewhere simply have gone too far.

“What I can’t permit as governor is that they continue with these kinds of practices,” Guerrero Gov. Angel Aguirre told a Mexico City radio interviewer this month. “We aren't going to live by the law of the jungle.”

TucsonSentinel.com's original reporting and curation of border and immigration news is generously supported in part by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

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