Adalberto Padilla Molina and his bodyguard were attacked in central Nogales, Sonora, on Periférico Luis Donaldo Colosio and El Greco Boulevard. Handout photo and Google map.

The assistant police chief in Nogales, Sonora, and his bodyguard were killed late Thursday in a barrage of gunfire.

Adalberto Padilla Molina and his bodyguard, Iván Sepúlveda Espino, were driving in a minivan in central Nogales on Periférico Luis Donaldo Colosio and El Greco Boulevard when three people in a gray Ford pickup truck opened fire with AK-47s, said Jose Larrinaga, a spokesman for the Sonora prosecutor's office.

The shooting occurred at 9:45 p.m. near a shopping center parking lot about three miles south of the U.S.-Mexico border. A 17-year-old boy who was standing outside a nearby funeral home was injured as he tried to avoid the gunfire and is in stable condition, Larrinaga said.

Padilla and his bodyguard didn't have a chance to shoot back or avoid the attack, Larrinaga said. Padilla, who has a military background, took over as assistant police chief on Dec. 3.

He is the second high-ranking law-enforcement officer killed in the past two years in Nogales, Sonora.

On Nov. 3, 2008, gunmen ambushed the director of Sonora's state police, Juan Manuel Pavón Félix, with guns and grenades as he entered his hotel in central Nogales alongside his bodyguard and other law-enforcement officials.

On Feb. 27, 2007, Agua Prieta Police Chief Ramón Tacho Verdugo was also killed.

"It's very disturbing that they are targeting the upper command of law enforcement," said Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada. "It's got to be sending a very chilling effect to the officers that are working under him."

The fact that an innocent bystander was shot shows the danger of the situation, he said.

"Something definitely has to be done," Estrada said. "It's just completely out of control."

Drug-related killings have skyrocketed in Nogales, Sonora, in the past three years as drug cartels vie for the prized corridor while Mexican law enforcement attempts to weaken them.

There were 136 homicides in 2009, up from 126 in 2008 and 52 in 2007.

Through March 23 of this year, there have been 79 killings, according to a tally maintained by El Imparcial newspaper in Sonora.

The violence has landed the border city on the U.S. State Department's travel warning.

In the new warning, the city of Nogales, Sonora, is mentioned twice for drug-related violence, as it was in the travel alert updated on Feb. 22.

The State Department has offered family members of officials at the U.S. Consulate in Nogales, Sonora, monetary assistance until mid-April to relocate family members because of the violence.

Padilla spoke to the Arizona Daily Star in mid-December about the raging drug violence in Nogales, Sonora.

He said residents should be cautious but not worried because the battles are nearly exclusively between criminals or target law-enforcement officials.

Padilla at the time insisted that municipal, state and federal police were collaborating to contain the drug cartels.

"These events alarm the public, but the public should have confidence in their authorities," Padilla said during the interview.

"We are attacking this head-on. We are not sitting here with our arms crossed."

Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or