It is enormous support to have solidarity from other countries,” Arturo Campos told me as we met inside the jail where he is illegally detained in Ayutla de los Libres, Guerrero, Mexico. Co-prisoner Ángel García added, “We send greetings to our international supporters.”
Campos and García are imprisoned leaders of the community police force of El Paraíso, near Ayutla. I visited these heroic men on January 3, with Aideé Tassinari of Mexico’s Comité Nestora Libre and Cuauhtémoc Ruiz of the Partido Obrero Socialista (POS). Representing the U.S. Free Nestora Campaign and the Freedom Socialist Party (FSP), I traveled to Mexico to support these and other community activists wrongly incarcerated by the Mexican government. Pressure from abroad is key to stopping state repression and freeing hundreds of political prisoners.
Mexican jails are bleak and so poorly funded that families must help provide sustenance. We sat down with Arturo and his wife, Agustina, over a lunch of home-cooked soup she brought for Sunday visiting hours. With her spouse behind bars, Agustina supports their six children by working two jobs. Even so, she and her family live in abject poverty. I brought material aid: two large suitcases of yarn collected by the Free Nestora Campaign. The prisoners use yarn to make and sell handicrafts to provide additional support for their families. Mexican comrades brought toys and school supplies for the prisoners’ children.
Seven men of the community police are behind bars in Ayutla. They range in age from their early twenties to mid-forties. All were arrested in a sweep by the Mexican army on August 21, 2013, the same day Nestora Salgado was seized in retaliation for her leadership of community self-defense in Olinalá. Like Salgado, the men were members of indigenous community police forces, linked through a statewide network, CRAC (Coordinadora Regional de Autoridades Comunitarias — Regional Coordinator of Community Authorities). Such forces are authorized under Guerrero state law 701.
CRAC formed to put an end to the violence imposed on rural communities by drug cartels. Community police were so successful in stopping the narcos and exposing the collaboration of elected officials that the state fabricated charges of kidnapping and theft against them. The government and cartels aim to crush community self-organizing in order to aid multinationals in exploiting mineral and water resources on communal indigenous lands.
Comrades behind bars. During our visit to the Ayutla jail, we attended a gathering of political prisoners and many of their spouses. On behalf of the Free
Nestora Campaign, I expressed solidarity with these men and all victims of repression in Mexico. I told them how impressed U.S. supporters are by their self-defense efforts. It was inspiring to see the resoluteness of the compañeros to win exoneration and free all people from intimidation and oppression.
Two days later, escorted by POS member Ismael Ortega, I met community police members Gonzalo Molina and Samuel Ramírez in the prison of Chilpancingo, also in Guerrero. Gonzalo had worked to bring more indigenous communities into CRAC. He was arrested in late 2013, a few months after leading a demonstration in Tixtla de Guerrero, home of the Ayotzinapa teachers college. The protest denounced the mayor’s collusion with drug cartels and called for release of Nestora Salgado and detained CRAC members.
In discussing how to achieve liberty for himself and other jailed community police, Gonzalo stressed the importance of international support. He also pointed out “the government needs to follow its own laws.”
Building on past work. My prison visits were a continuation of efforts over the past two and a half years by the Committee for Revolutionary Internationalist Regroupment (CRIR), founded by FSP, POS, and other Latin American socialist groups. Within months of Nestora Salgado’s arrest, FSP and POS helped launch committees on both sides of the border to free the comandanta and other Mexican political prisoners.
CRIR affiliates and allies in the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, Argentina, Australia and Brazil have rallied at Mexican consulates and embassies to publicize these issues. Protests have also demanded the release of jailed paramilitary self-defense forces (autodefensas) from the state of Michoacán, led by Dr. José Mireles.
Last June, a delegation from the Free Nestora Campaign went to Mexico City to draw international attention to the situation of Salgado and CRAC. The delegation spoke at a press conference with families of internees, took the political prisoners’ plight to a mass demonstration of teachers, and demanded that the U.S. Embassy call for release of Nestora, a naturalized U.S. citizen. Delegates were fortunate to meet with Salgado soon after she ended a hunger strike that won transfer for her and other CRAC prisoners from distant maximum-security prisons to lower-level lockups near their hometowns.
Unfortunately, my attempts to visit Nestora were blocked by bureaucratic stonewalling of prison authorities.*
Denial of due process, but movement grows. By the time of my trip, the imprisoned CRAC members had been jailed for two and a half years in legal limbo. Their accusers fail to show up for hearings that are repeatedly postponed. Prosecutors employ stalling tactics because they don’t have the evidence or witnesses needed to make charges stick. Laws are ignored that allow indigenous community self-policing. Similar setbacks plague Dr. Mireles and the autodefensas. It’s clear that the state and federal governments are determined to destroy any leaders who stand up for their communities.
But the tide could be turning as movements of the repressed are joining forces. Community police, the autodefensas, embattled public school teachers, and parents of the 43 disappeared Ayotzinapa students are supporting each other’s struggles against their common enemy: the Mexican government acting in the interests of international capitalism.
Another bright spot is the recent ruling by the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, which stated that Nestora Salgado was illegally arrested. This decision calls into question the arrests of hundreds of prisoners.
Freeing Nestora, CRAC members, and political prisoners will take continued intense international pressure. One important demand is to call on the U.S. government to suspend Plan Mérida, a program that arms and trains Mexican police and military in tactics used to lock up and kill community activists.
By linking the fight in the United States with the struggle of activists in Mexico and other countries, we can build a movement to end all repression. Trips like mine and alliances like CRIR are bold steps in that direction.
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*Update: Nestora Salgado was released from prison on March 18. See story here.