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WASHINGTON — The commander of U.S. Northern Command warned Congress on Tuesday that increasing violence in Mexico poses a threat to U.S. border towns, but stopped short of backing plans to mobilize guardsmen to help with security.

Gen. Victor Renuart Jr. did not dismiss the idea completely, noting that guardsmen’s training and expertise with unmanned aerial vehicles could help stop illegal border crossings and smuggling into the United States.

But he told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee that a research group of military and civilian law enforcement officials has not decided on a comprehensive approach to the problem.

Last week, President Barack Obama said he would consider National Guard deployments as part of border security efforts, and the governors of Arizona and Texas have both publicly requested guardsmen to help with growing problems along their border.

In the last year more than 7,000 people have been killed in fighting in Mexico as the country’s military battles drug cartels entrenched throughout the country.

Committee members noted that despite the Mexican government’s efforts to contain the violence, U.S. officials have seen a corresponding rise in crimes and smuggling along the southern border.

Phoenix officials reported a sharp rise in kidnappings last year, with more than 300 kidnappings in 2008. Most involved Mexican immigrants with family ties to the drug cartels.

The U.S. has tried to help Mexico contain the violence by launching the Merida Initiative, an anti-crime aid measure that’s expected to total $1.4 billion over three years.

Under the initiative, the Pentagon is providing five helicopters, a maritime surveillance aircraft and handheld drug scanners, as well as personal protective equipment, rigid hull inflatable boats and night-vision devices.

Renuart said that for now the military is continuing its indirect work with Mexican officials to help stem gang violence: training personnel, sharing intelligence and discussing equipment needs the Mexican military may face in coming years.

Sean Smith, a Homeland Security spokesman, told The Associated Press that federal border agents and local law enforcement officials will continue to take the lead in patrolling the border and arresting drug traffickers on the U.S. side.

"The military is barely even in the conversation at this point," he said. "They would only be used as an extreme last resort should the situation in Mexico get dramatically worse."

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