CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico -- A new surge of killing, kidnapping and extortion is the latest sign that the violent crime wave in Mexico has not subsided since President Enrique Pena Nieto took office and could grow further in the weeks to come, U.S. law enforcement officials say.
Fresh intelligence indicates that the paramilitary group known as the Zetas is pushing farther into northern Coahuila and Chihuahua states, threatening to reignite deadly violence in areas bordering Texas, including Ciudad Juárez.
Since Mr. Pena Nieto took office Dec. 1, estimates by media outlets indicate that more than 1,000 people have been killed across Mexico -- a pace even faster than during the administration of his predecessor, Felipe Calderon -- with many of those killings in Coahuila and Chihuahua, three U.S. law enforcement officials said. The violence threatens to overshadow the new administration's attempt to highlight economic reforms and a growing middle class.
Ciudad Juarez, once the murder capital of Mexico, has been touted for a turnaround and is now a relative model of stability. In 2012, the city of 1.2 million people recorded 750 homicides, a substantial drop from the previous year, when 2,086 people were killed.
But a U.S. law enforcement official cautioned: "We're witnessing the calm before the storm. It's not over yet, not by any means."
The assessment of the U.S. law enforcement officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, is significant because they are based along the border and tend to speak more candidly than their counterparts in Mexico City or Washington.
Their assessment comes as Mr. Pena Nieto is taking the initial steps of addressing security matters, which ranks as a priority for most Mexicans. Last month, before Mexico's National Council on Public Security, Mr. Pena Nieto reiterated that he would focus on reducing crimes against ordinary citizens -- such as murder, kidnapping and extortion -- rather than pursuing top capos.
Mr. Pena Nieto and members of his Cabinet also unleashed criticism of the previous administration's policies, which resulted in a drawn-out conflict with cartels in which more than 60,000 people were killed. Some estimates suggest that thousands more -- as many as 24,000 -- are missing and presumed dead.
Last week, Mr. Pena Nieto and his new ambassador to the United States, Eduardo Medina Mora, stressed the importance of positioning Mexico as a country that wants peace and is open for investment.
The focus of Mr. Pena Nieto's security plan is the creation of a 10,000-member national paramilitary police force, designed to take back territories where local law enforcement and military forces have failed to eradicate criminal groups and where kingpins rule.
But any new measure from Mr. Pena Nieto could take months to implement, because congressional approval is required, said Alejandro Hope, a former intelligence official and a security expert and columnist for the website Animal Politico.
"It's not so much a question of whether violence will lead to a loss of political capital for Pena Nieto, but when and how much?" Mr. Hope said. "I don't know, but I would think that much of the country's future depends on that one answer."
By many accounts, the current hot spot in the country is a region known as La Laguna, an area of about 1 million people made up of Torreon, Coahuila, and the adjoining cities of Gomez Palacio and Lerdo in neighboring Durango state. In 2012, an estimated 1,100 people were killed there, and more than three dozen have been killed already this year, according to media reports. Security experts say the latest bloodbath is a result of fighting between the Zetas and the Sinaloa cartel, which in some regions, including La Laguna, appears to be splintering into two rival groups.
Other security experts say the spike in violence is a result of a proliferation of criminal groups.
La Laguna is a focus of recent violence because it serves as a smuggling corridor north to the Texas border with Ciudad Juárez.
"Anything that comes from the Pacific ports or central Mexico toward Juarez passes through here," said Javier Garza, editor of El Siglo de Torreon. "This makes this region that much more important and lucrative. This is a bastion for smuggling."