Two House committees convened together Tuesday to look at whether U.S. efforts in Mexico are enough to protect the Southwest U.S. border.
Panelists from U.S. departments of State, Justice and Homeland Security touted successes and urged patience but were clear there's a need to outline how they should interact with Mexico.
One suggestion: Call on Colombia.
"I am a great fan and admirer of what the Colombian people and their government have accomplished over the last 11 or 12 years," said William Brownfield, assistant secretary of the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs.
He previously served as ambassador to Chile, Venezuela and, most recently, Colombia.
By opening communication channels, Brownfield said the governments could take on a common issue of containing cartels.
"They can do it without the historical baggage that is engrained in the U.S.-Mexico relationship," he said."They can do it in a common language."
Drug related deaths in Mexico -- nearly 43,000 since December 2006 -- have riveted media attention and driven concerned politicians to reassess the U.S. investment in relations with Mexico.
"The border and the interior are inextricably linked," said Mariko Silver from the U.S. Office of Internal Affairs. She emphasized the need to intercept threats before they reach the border.
The panelists agreed that the United States is enjoying its strongest political partnership with Mexico thanks to the 2008 Merida Initiative.
Merida began as a foreign assistance program with a focus on equipment purchases and associated training, facilitating a partnership in border security. It fostered enhanced cooperation and information sharing between the countries.
As a result, Homeland Security seized 75 percent more currency, 31 percent more drugs and 64 percent more weapons on the southwest border over the past 2 1/2 years.
"As a foreign assistance program, the Merida Initiative was not intended to be, nor does it represent, a U.S. operation to counter Mexican drug cartels or criminal actors," said Rodney Benson of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is providing training, assessing border security and tracking criminal groups, weapons flow and immigration, Silver said. U.S. Border Patrol doubled the number of agents from 10,000 in 2004 to 21,000 in 2011.
But she and Benson agreed there had been an evolution in criminal activity. The large cartels have made way for more, smaller cartels with new alliances.
The next step is to institute changes that Mexico's federal government can sustain through technical training and support, Brownfield said.
U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., asked panel members if they could foresee a timeline to reduce funding, but the panelists waffled. They urged Congress to consider the long-term rewards of the program.
"There is no single answer or silver bullet that will bring a quick end to the barbaric violence that we are seeing today in Mexico," Brownfield said.