The United States does not need to send troops to the border in response to Mexico's drug war, nor is Mexico in danger of becoming a failed state, law enforcement officials told a congressional panel Monday.

Witnesses testifying before members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in El Paso urged the lawmakers to bolster law enforcement in the region, increase aid to Mexico and push to reform institutions whose weaknesses had been exposed by the struggle with drug trafficking gangs.

Experts and members of Congress likewise said Mexico had not become a failed state despite corruption and intimidation that had weakened local control in some areas.

"Cartels are primarily interested in fighting each other," not in challenging for political control, Howard Campbell, an anthropologist at the University of Texas, El Paso, where the session was held, told senators.

The hearing, the committee's first along the border, came amid a flurry of activity in Washington focusing on Mexico's long struggle with drug cartels.

The Obama administration last week announced it would send more money and agents to the border, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited Mexico. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. are expected to travel to Mexico on Thursday, and President Obama is to visit April 16.

At Monday's hearing, Sen. John F. Kerry, the committee chairman, said he was shocked that there were killings and beheadings "just a stone's throw across the Rio Grande from where we're sitting this morning."

Across the border, thousands of Mexican soldiers patrol Ciudad Juarez, which has had about 2,000 slayings in 14 months.

Kerry called for a ban on the importation of AK-47s and other assault rifles into the U.S. Sens. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) opposed the idea.

Assault rifles bought in the U.S. are favorites among cartel gunmen, said William McMahon, deputy assistant director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

He said bureau agents had traced many weapons confiscated in Mexico to the U.S.

For example, more than 60 guns seized after a shootout between factions of the Tijuana cartel in April 2008 were traced to purchases in Los Angeles, Houston, Phoenix, San Francisco, Seattle, Philadelphia and Denver, McMahon said.

The senators were particularly interested in how much violence was spilling into the U.S. Cartel-related killings have occurred in Texas, and cities such as Phoenix are seeing an increase in kidnappings for ransom, which authorities say are related to debt collection among drug dealers. Mexican cartels have extended their networks into as many as 230 U.S. cities, according to federal law enforcement agencies.

El Paso Dist. Atty. Jaime Esparza said that trafficking rivalries and infighting had little effect on crime in U.S. border towns. During the bloody 14 months in Juarez, El Paso had 20 homicides, Esparza said.

"Austin, Houston, Dallas -- they are not seeing their numbers up" either, said Esparza, who is a past president of an association of Texas prosecutors. "The rhetoric has been escalated and exaggerated."

Texas Gov. Rick Perry recently asked for 1,000 National Guard troops to be stationed at the border. But Esparza said he didn't think militarizing the border was necessary.

"We are safe here in El Paso," Esparza said. "If we see a radical change, I would tell you differently."

Harriet Babbitt, former U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States, urged ratification of a treaty with other countries in the hemisphere that would require them to mark weapons when they are manufactured so they can be traceable.

The treaty was signed by President Clinton but was held up by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, then led by Sen. Jesse Helms, over concerns about gun rights.

Babbitt said that although the U.S. complied with much of the treaty's terms, its failure to ratify the pact diminished its moral authority in the region.

Ratifying the treaty "gives us added standing to talk to other countries" about their shortcomings, said Babbitt, a lawyer who was ambassador to the group when the treaty was negotiated in the 1990s.

sam.quinones@latimes.com

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Previous coverage of Mexico's drug war is available online.