CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico — The lights of the bullet-riddled sedan were still shining when the investigators arrived. Police Capt. Saul Pena Lopez had been rushed to the hospital by then, but the blood-soaked pavement suggested he wouldn't be there long.
Under the guard of machine-gun-toting Army soldiers — sent here to quell a record outbreak of mafia shootouts, kidnappings and unsolved murders — the father of four died in the hospital from multiple gunshot wounds before midnight Tuesday. He was being buried Thursday.
Pena's murder made him the 15th law enforcement agent to be slain in violence-racked Ciudad Juarez since the beginning of the year, city police officials said. The 14th, a state prosecutor, died 24 hours earlier in a pool of blood in front of her home, where authorities retrieved 32 shell casings fired from AK-47 rifles.
In both cases, the armed assailants got away.
More than a month after Mexican President Felipe Calderon dispatched more than 2,000 soldiers to the troubled border city, execution-style murders remain commonplace — and usually unsolved — as heavily armed drug cartels battle for control of lucrative drug-smuggling routes into the United States.
"Even for a violent city like Juarez, this is pretty amazing,'' said Tony Payan, a drug cartel expert in El Paso, Texas, and author of the book "The Three U.S.-Mexico Border Wars: Drugs, Immigration, and Homeland Security." "It's unprecedented.''
Authorities already were grappling with record violence in 2007, when Calderon sent more than 20,000 troops throughout the country to battle the cartels. The response from the mafia kingpins was spectacularly swift and bloody.
Suspected drug traffickers gunned down a senior federal investigator in charge of gathering intelligence on drug traffickers in May 2007 and knocked off a federal police commander last September. They also were blamed for the beheadings of two Mexico City customs officials in December — presumably revenge-killings stemming from a cocaine bust. All told, the death toll eclipsed 2,500 last year. And 2008, with more than 1,000 killed so far, is on track to match or surpass that record, according to published reports.
At least 10 federal police officers have been killed in the past three weeks, and pitched shootouts have raged from the Pacific Coast to central Zacatecas, where three died in clashes Wednesday morning, including a young girl believed to have caught a stray bullet, authorities said. The latest to die was the acting chief of federal police in Mexico City, slain in front of his home on Thursday, according to the Associated Press.
It's been a particularly violent year in Ciudad Juarez, the gritty and sprawling metropolis across the Rio Grande River from El Paso. Once the undisputed turf of the Juarez Cartel, the city of 1.3 million people has become the scene of an epic turf battle, as elements of the powerful Sinaloa Cartel try to muscle their way in.
Nearly 300 have died in the violence so far this year, some of their bodies dumped in mass graves. Among the dead are at least 11 city cops, three state-level officers and one member of the Mexican military, according to published accounts.
The first police official to die in the violence this week was Berenice Garcia Corral, a state criminal investigator, who was killed execution-style Monday night. Before Garcia's family could bury her, word came of the second police slaying.
Saul Pena Lopez was shot four times with an AK-47, a favored weapon of mafia hit men, as he pulled onto busy Manuel Gomez Morin Avenue about a block from his Cuauhtemoc police station. Across the street, the owner of an ice cream shop, afraid to give her name for fear of retribution, said she hid under a rack of display freezers until the shooting subsided.
"Panic,'' she said, when asked to describe how it felt. "I don't think I'm going to be able to sleep well anymore.''
Authorities say the shift that Pena supervised ended at 2 p.m. They were at a loss to explain why he left the office at about 8:30 p.m. That's when the assailants, reportedly waiting outside for him in a red pickup, riddled Pena with bullets before fleeing into the night.
His wife, Gloria Zuniga de Pena, said her husband called at about 2 p.m. to say he expected to be elevated to station commander and would be coming home late.
'I never thought anything like this would happen. He's never done anything bad,'' she said, holding her hands to her face. "He's been a police officer for 21 years, and nothing has ever happened to him.''
Police spokesman Jaime Torres said no evidence had emerged suggesting that the slain officer had any connection to drug trafficking, which often goes hand-in-hand with the low-paid gig on the city police beat. He said he had no information about any promotion that might have been coming Pena's way.
The violence hasn't been contained to the Mexican side of the border. Ralph Basham, commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, told a congressional committee in Washington this week that assaults against Border Patrol agents had tripled since 2001 as authorities clamp down on the southern border.
"Our success is putting pressure on smugglers of illegal aliens and drugs,'' Basham said. "They, in turn, are becoming frustrated, and unfortunately, more violent.''
(Root reports for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.)