EL PASO The United States does not need to send troops to the border in response to Mexico's drug war, nor is Mexico in danger of becoming a failed state, law enforcement officials told a congressional panel.
Witnesses testifying before members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in El Paso on Monday urged the lawmakers to bolster law enforcement in the region, increase aid to Mexico and push it to reform institutions whose weaknesses have been exposed by their struggle with drug-trafficking gangs.
Experts and members of Congress likewise said Mexico had not become a "failed state" despite corruption and intimidation that have weakened local control in some areas.
"Cartels are primarily interested in fighting each other," not in challenging for political control, Howard Campbell, an anthropologist at the University of Texas, El Paso, where the hearing was held, told the senators.
Monday's hearings, the committee's first along the border, came amid a flurry of activity in Washington focusing on Mexico's struggle with drug cartels. The Obama administration last week announced it would send more money and agents to the border, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited Mexico. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Attorney General Eric Holder, Jr. will visit soon. President Barack Obama will visit Mexico on April 16.
At Monday's hearing, committee Chairman Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said he had been shocked to see killings and beheadings "just a stone's throw across the Rio Grande from where we're sitting this morning."
Across the border, thousands of Mexican soldiers patrol Ciudad Juarez, which saw about 2,000 murders in 14 months.
Kerry called for a ban on the imports of assault rifles, such as the AK-47, into the United States. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., and Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., opposed the idea.
Assault rifles bought in the United States are favorites among cartel gunmen, who find them effective for the urban warfare, William McMahon, deputy assistant director of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, told the committee. ATF agents have traced many guns confiscated in Mexico to purchases in the United States, McMahon said.
For example, more than 60 guns seized following a shootout among factions of the Tijuana cartel in April 2008 were traced to purchases in Los Angeles, Houston, Phoenix, San Francisco, Seattle, Philadelphia and Denver, McMahon said.
The visiting senators were particularly interested in how much violence was spilling into the United States. Cartel-related killings have occurred in Texas, and cities such as Phoenix are experiencing a rise in kidnappings for ransom, which authorities say are related to debt collection among drug dealers. Mexican cartels have extended their networks into as many as 230 U.S. cities, according to federal law enforcement agencies.
El Paso District Attorney Jaime Esparza said trafficking rivalries and infighting had little effect on crime in U.S. border towns. During those bloody 14 months in Juarez, El Paso had 20 homicides, Esparza said.
"Austin, Houston, Dallas -- they are not seeing their numbers up" either, said Esparza, who is a past president of an association of Texas prosecutors. "The rhetoric has been escalated and exaggerated."
Texas Gov. Rick Perry recently asked for 1,000 National Guard troops to be stationed at the border. But Esparza said he didn't think militarizing the border was needed.
"We are safe here in El Paso," Esparza said. "If we see a radical change, I would tell you differently."