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Lawmakers Focus on US-Mexico Border Violence

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Escalating violence on the U.S.-Mexico border has U.S. lawmakers demanding to know what U.S. government agencies are doing to stem the flow of illegal weapons from the United States to Mexico, and prevent narcotics from entering the United States. The situation on the border was the subject of four congressional hearings this week.

With the Mexican government recently sending an additional 3,000 troops to the border with the United States to combat drug cartels, and Mexico's army and police involved in increasingly violent clashes with drug traffickers, U.S. lawmakers - particularly those from border states - are more worried than ever.

California Representative Loretta Sanchez opened one of four hearings on the situation noting that Mexico now has 45,000 troops engaged in a violent struggle, which she noted is about equivalent to the number of troops the United States has in Afghanistan.

"The United States and this Congress cannot ignore our role in assisting our neighbor and our ally in this fight, and of course in preventing that violence in slipping into the United States," she said.

Congressman Mark Souder, the ranking Republican on the House Homeland Security Border Subcommittee, says escalating activities of Mexican drug gangs threaten U.S. border cities and states, and have consequences well beyond the border.

"The consequences of the continued vulnerability along the border are clearly evident in the violent crime and drug-related death rates throughout the United States," he said.

Souder and other lawmakers want Congress to bolster the ability of the Department of Homeland Security to deal with the violence, and assist the Mexican government.

Democratic Representative Bennie Thompson, who chairs the full House Homeland Security Committee, says violence has increased despite the best efforts of President Felipe Calderon.

"The cartels have resorted to extraordinary violence and gruesome tactics to protect their turf and profits," he said.

Thompson notes that U.S. assistance includes $197 million released last December as part of the Merida Initiative, a security cooperation pact with Mexico and Central American countries that funds training, equipment and intelligence against drug trafficking, transnational crime and money laundering.

Testifying on Thursday were several U.S. homeland security, customs, border, intelligence and immigration officials.

Alonzo Pena, the Homeland Security Attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, says the level of violence in Mexico actually reflects success the Mexican government has had in fighting criminal groups.

"While there is violence in Mexico, it is not, and I repeat not, an indication of the government of Mexico's inability to maintain control," he said. "Rather it is an indication of President Calderon's success in confronting transnational criminal organizations in Mexico."

Vice Admiral Roger Rufe, the agency's Director of Operations Coordination, says the Obama administration's new Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano receives frequent briefings on a situation he describes as alarming.

"The trend of increasing drug cartel violence in Mexico is alarming," he said. "Rival trafficking organizations vying for control and against the government of Mexico's anti-drug efforts have fueled increased levels of violence amongst the competing traffickers and against those who seek to enforce Mexican law."

At the White House Thursday, spokesman Robert Gibbs had this response when asked about recent remarks by President Obama in media interviews about the border situation, and the possibility of deploying additional National Guard troops to the border area.

"The president enumerated again that our long term challenges relating to many policy decisions around the border are not going to be solved in that long term through the militarization of the border," he said. "Obviously there have been specific requests that have come for additional National Guard troops to be deployed there based on the escalating violence in Mexico."

Gibbs said President Obama and Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano will be reviewing such requests.  

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