Mireille Roccatti had been the local human rights commissioner in the state of Mexico for less than a year when dozens of inmates mutinied at an overcrowded state prison.
Driven by barbaric conditions and corruption, gangs of prisoners fought each other and the guards for hours in a blood bath so widespread it took officials several days to determine the toll: 16 inmates beaten or shot to death.
As the state's first ombudsman for human rights, Roccatti took the initiative. She launched a thorough investigation of prison conditions in the state that abuts Mexico City and sent a scathing report along with sweeping recommendations for reform to then-Gov. Emilio Chuayffet Chemor, who complied with each one.
That was in December 1993.
Today, Chuayffet is Mexico's powerful Interior secretary in charge of all internal security. And on Wednesday, Mexico's Congress unanimously confirmed Roccatti as the new head of the country's National Human Rights Commission.
Roccatti, 48, is now a pivotal figure in the struggle to rid Mexico of the official abuse and corruption that independent human rights groups continue to cite in reports on the country's police and criminal justice system.
In nominating the former judge to the post--Roccatti is the first woman to head the 8-year-old commission--President Ernesto Zedillo stressed her independence and experience.
Roccatti has never been a member of a political party, and she served a full three-year term as human rights commissioner in Mexico's most populous state. The daughter of a French immigrant, she is fluent in four languages.
Though she has won the respect of many in the state of Mexico, Roccatti is not widely known in the national human rights community, whose independent activist groups work with the national commission to expose abuse and influence policy.
"I know very little about her," said Sergio Aguayo, a civic activist and founder of the independent Mexican Assn. of Human Rights who was favored by some groups to head the national commission. "What I know is that her performance has been well-intentioned, very institutional and very cautious."
Although Aguayo and several opposition politicians have criticized the process of her nomination--a truly independent human rights commissioner, they say, should be named by Congress, not by the president--no one has questioned her credentials.
During her three years in the state ombudsman post, Roccatti said, she sent out 339 critical recommendations, including the prison report to Chuayffet, who again will be a key potential adversary as head of Mexico's security apparatus. Officials complied with 75% of those recommendations, she said.
"She always worked on creating a real culture of human rights and reducing impunity and corruption on the part of the authorities," said Javier Zamarripa Valenzuela, director of an independent human rights group in the state.
In recent interviews, however, Roccatti cautioned against heightened expectations.
She inherits several complex and potentially explosive cases, among them the June 1995 police massacre of 17 peasants in the southern state of Guerrero, in which many suspect the state's then-governor played a role.
She takes office at a time when independent groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch report that police torture and official abuse remain widespread in Mexico.
And her new position has no power beyond publicizing abuses, proposing reforms and generally raising the human rights consciousness in Mexico.
She stressed that the National Human Rights Commission "is not just a complaint box. It is obligated to promote the rights of people and obligations of government to achieve a better culture of human rights."
Her priorities, she said, include resolving the Guerrero case, helping to address the root causes of an Indian uprising in the southern state of Chiapas and ending abuses of Central American migrants who use Mexico as a springboard to the United States.