March 10, 2009 -- Spring break and sunshine await, but today a congressional panel examined myriad reasons it still may not be safe to travel to Mexico.
"We are in a state of undeclared war on the southern border," Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas, told Department of Homeland Security officials today.
A subcommittee of the House Homeland Security panel heard from government officials about whether various U.S. government agencies are doing enough to quell violence on the U.S.-Mexico border. Concerns have consumed college campuses and student travel offices as well as lawmakers on Capitol Hill because rampant violence has killed about 7,000 people since the start of 2008. There have been 1,000 murders this year alone.
The State Department issued a travel warning Feb. 20 urging caution, particularly along the border, for Americans traveling to Mexico.
"When you also now take a look at the violence, you're seeing diminishment on the amount of cross-border travel that occurs with a lot of people who routinely go to some of these Mexican communities just south of the border for routine travel and tourism," said Jayson Ahern, acting commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
He also told lawmakers the violence could have serious effects on Mexico's trade with the United States. Mexico is the United States' second-largest trading partner.
"I don't think there is a realization by our government yet about the seriousness to the stability to Mexico," Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., said.
Still, Ahern resisted the notion that guns coming into Mexico from the United Sates are to blame for the violence. He said that while there are significant numbers of guns coming into Mexico from the United States, there are also heavy weapons from elsewhere being used in the drug wars. Mexican officials have often complained about the southward flow of guns coming from the United States as a reason for the increase in violence.
"There's a lot more military grade that are coming in from other sources," Ahern said. "We need to make a better definition [of the kind of guns] so there is not the assumption they are all coming from here."
Efforts to Fight Drug Trafficking
Ahern said most of the violence is a consequence of drug trafficking and drug cartels fighting over illegal shipments of drugs into the United States and said the United States has been aggressively trying to help the Mexican government get a handle on the violence.
"We've had a significant undertaking with Mexico in the last several years," Ahern said. "We have been working with them on a strategic level."
Marcy Forman, director of investigations for Immigration and Customs Enforcement said ICE has eight task forces, established with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, to quell gun running in the border region.
Border Patrol chief David Aguilar testified that drug interdictions are up as there have been dramatically fewer apprehensions of individuals crossing the border in the past year. Despite the drop in border apprehensions, Aguilar said that the drug cartels continue to think of new ways to get drugs into the United States and have been using ultra-light aircraft to smuggle drugs, mostly bulk shipments of marijuana, over the border into the United States.
Indeed, members of the House Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee today expressed concern that the Department of Homeland Security was not working closely enough with other government agencies to control the drug trade and the growing violence in the region.
"I think we are hiding our head in the sands of Cancun beach," Rogers of Kentucky said. "The U.S. intelligence community does not view this is a major threat."
Noting a series of efforts to increase surveillance and unmanned aerial vehicles in the border region, acting commissioner Ahern said, "I think we can be more intelligence-driven."
ABC News' Kate Barrett contributed to this story.