By Elliot Spagat
EL CENTRO, Calif. — A Border Patrol agent who was slain in a rugged, remote area along the Mexican border was buried Friday after being remembered as a gregarious family man who dreamed that his 2-year-old son would follow in his footsteps.
About 4,000 people packed a memorial service for Robert Rosas, 30, who was found dead with bullet wounds to his head and body on the night of July 23 in Campo, about 60 miles east of San Diego. People crowded the aisles of Southwest High School's theater, and many agents arrived too late to even get a glimpse of the service on closed-circuit television in the adjoining gym.
Rosas' wife of two years, Rosalie, told the crowd in a statement read by a relative that her husband had talked of dancing with their 11-month-old daughter at her wedding and attending their son's graduation from the Border Patrol Academy.
Rosas lived in El Centro, the seat of a farming region of 160,000 people with sky-high unemployment rates across the border from the sprawling industrial city of Mexicali. Like many people raised in California's Imperial Valley, Rosas found a career in law enforcement. The Border Patrol has grown to about 1,000 agents in the area, making it one of the biggest employers.
Before joining the agency in 2006, Rosas was a state prison guard for six years and a reserve officer in the El Centro Police Department for two years.
Tony Duarte, a close friend and fellow agent, said Rosas was such a familiar face around the city of 40,000 people that people called him the mayor.
"Robert knew everyone in El Centro, and when I say everyone, I mean everyone," he said.
Senior law enforcement officials took turns speaking next to an American flag-draped coffin. A large screen flashed photos of Rosas with his family and in uniform as a high school football player, adult softball player and Border Patrol agent.
Border Patrol Chief David Aguilar drew applause when he vowed to bring the "cowards and the scourge of humanity to justice."
"The darkness that fell on all of us a week ago is still unbearable," he said.
Rosas, like many Border Patrol agents, was patrolling alone in his vehicle around 9 p.m., working a busy corridor for illegal immigrants and marijuana smugglers. Authorities haven't detailed what happened, but Aguilar said Rosas responded correctly.
"There was no hesitation, no indecision and no ambiguity in Robert's action," he said.
Mexican authorities have detained five men in connection with the case. They say Ernesto Parra Valenzuela, 36, had a 9 mm pistol when he was captured walking alone near the shooting, an area of white boulder-strewn hills blanketed with shrubs.
Erick Lara Cabrera, the public safety chief in Tecate, Mexico, said Thursday that Parra admitted he was a migrant smuggler when local police found him about five hours after the execution, but he denied any involvement with Rosas' death.
There are still speckles of blood on rocks lining a small crevice under a border fence made of corrugated metal. Lara said the blood apparently came from Rosas' killer, returning to Mexico.
Mexican authorities later detained four alleged migrant smugglers, including two who are suspected of kidnapping and raping migrants. One allegedly identified Parra as the Border Patrol agent's killer.
The FBI, which is leading the investigation, has not publicly identified any suspects. It is offering $100,000 for information leading to an arrest and conviction and $10,000 for help finding Rosas' Border Patrol-issued, .40-caliber gun.
Rosas is the first Border Patrol agent to be killed by gunfire since 1998, according to The Officer Down Memorial Page, a Web site that tracks deaths of law enforcement officers. It comes at a time of increasing concern among U.S. authorities that a crackdown on drug cartels by Mexican President Felipe Calderon will spill across the border.
The streets of El Centro were filled Friday with law enforcement vehicles in stifling heat, many of them arriving in caravans from San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium. Ron Newhouse, a facilities manager at Southwest High School, estimated the crowd between 4,300 and 4,800 people.
"Robert is now in a better place, a much cooler place," said Border Patrol Agent Edgar Rogel, a close friend.
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Rosas was buried in an El Centro cemetery.