A top Republican lawmaker criticized the Defense Department on Tuesday for not making the drug violence in Mexico as big a priority as Afghanistan and coordinating U.S. resources to confront it.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Rep. Jerry Lewis, a Republican, said the Mexican turmoil is "a lot more important, in my own judgment, than Afghanistan at this moment." He added: "We need to raise this to a higher level."
Lewis praised the Homeland Security Department for deploying unmanned aerial vehicles to track human activity along the U.S.-Mexico border, but he criticized the Pentagon for not providing helicopters to help patrol it.
"You can't chase these people around in trucks," said Lewis, the ranking Republican on the House Appropriations Committee.
Since 2008, about 7,000 people have been killed in the Mexican drug wars, and violence is spilling into U.S. cities in some parts of the country. There have been reports of drug cartel members settling scores with adversaries in such places as Atlanta, Phoenix and Birmingham, Alabama.
"It doesn't just involve Mexico and Mexicans, it involves our kids dying in cities all over the country," Lewis said. "Every major city in the country is being impacted by these cartels. "
Lewis and other lawmakers Tuesday hammered the need for U.S. agencies to do a better job of working together to secure the border and keep the drug cartels from spilling their violence into the U.S.
Most weapons the cartels are using come from the United States, said Mark Koumans, deputy assistant secretary for the Homeland Security Department's office of international affairs. Koumans testified before the House appropriations homeland security subcommittee.
Rep. Sam Farr, a Democrat, complained that the Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agency is inspecting only 5 percent of the 7,600 federally licensed gun dealers in southwestern states. He asked that homeland security agencies take over this role if ATF can't do the job.
Homeland officials testifying Tuesday said they did not have the authority to do this.
Lawmakers complained that they need to hear from officials from the ATF and the Drug Enforcement Administration. The homeland security subcommittee, however, does not have oversight jurisdiction for those agencies.
Just as the U.S. agencies need to do a better job coordinating resources, Lewis said, lawmakers need to work together and not in separate committees. Two committees held separate hearings on Mexico and border violence Tuesday. Two other committees have plans for more hearings on these issues later this week.
Lewis said he is confident that the Obama administration is taking the Mexico situation seriously. "My sense is that the president gets it," he said.
Earlier Tuesday, Rep. David Price, a Democrat, questioned whether taxpayers are getting their money's worth in border protection as people continue breaking through barriers to enter the United States illegally.
At a hearing on funding for border security, Price challenged the Homeland Security Department to explain why it has effective control of only 1 percent of the country's 4,000-mile (6,440-kilometer) border with Canada.
Of the $3.6 billion Congress has allocated for border security, $2 billion has been spent building 610 miles (980 kilometers) of fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border. The agency estimates it will cost $6.7 billion to secure the borders using high-tech equipment like cameras and motion detectors.
Officials from Customs and Border Protection defended the success of the border security measures. Acting Commissioner Jayson Ahern said 720,000 people were caught last year trying to enter the U.S. illegally, and officials seized 2.8 million tons (2.5 million metric tons) of narcotics.
Officials said the escalating violence among Mexican drug cartels is evidence that the U.S. border security plan is working. "They are fighting for territory," Border Patrol Chief David Aguilar said of the drug cartels.