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Old 03-10-2009, 11:46 AM
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Default Lawmaker challenges border security priorities


WASHINGTON The top Republican on the House appropriations committee criticized the Defense Department on Tuesday for not making the situation in Mexico as big a priority as Afghanistan.

Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., said the situation in Mexico is far more important than Afghanistan at this point. "We need to raise this to a higher level," Lewis told The Associated Press.

Speaking at a homeland security subcommittee hearing, Lewis praised the Homeland Security Department for using unmanned aerial vehicles along the border, but he slammed DoD for not providing helicopters to patrol the U.S.-Mexico border.

"You can't chase these people around in trucks," Lewis said during the hearing.

Since 2008, about 7,000 people have been killed in the drug wars, and violence is spilling into U.S. cities in some parts of the country.

Lewis said every major city in the U.S. is affected by the drug wars. There have been reports of drug cartel members settling scores with adversaries in such places as Atlanta, Phoenix and Birmingham, Ala.

The U.S. has given Mexico money and support as part of the Merida Initiative to combat drug trafficking.

Lewis said he is confident that the Barack Obama administration is starting to take the Mexico situation seriously.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has said she wants her department and other federal agencies to focus on reducing the number of weapons being sent illegally from the U.S. into Mexico.

Most weapons the cartels are using come from the United States, said Mark Koumans, deputy assistant secretary for the department's office of international affairs.

Earlier, Rep. David Price, D-N.C., 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 border with Canada.

Of the $3.6 billion Congress has allocated for border security, $2 billion has been spent building 610 miles of fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border.

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 country illegally, and officials seized 2.8 million 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.
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