By Alejandro Martinez-Cabrera
EL PASO, Texas (Reuters) - Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told border mayors and business leaders on Thursday that the Obama administration is committed to ensuring the Southwest border region is open for business, despite raging cartel violence across the line in Mexico.
"We are dedicated in this administration to security and safety, but we recognize that they don't have to come at the price of trade, travel and tourism," Napolitano said during a meeting in the Texas border city of El Paso.
Raging drug violence in Mexico has claimed more than 36,000 lives since President Felipe Calderon took office in late 2006 and sent the army to crush the drug cartels. Obama has pledged support for Calderon, increasing efforts to curb gun running and cash smuggling over the nearly 2,000-mile border with Mexico.
Napolitano stressed federal government plans to invest millions of dollars to improve infrastructure at the international ports of entry and reduce wait times to cross the border. And she said Obama administration efforts to strengthen border security have helped bolster trade along the boundary, which is crossed by a million people a day.
Napolitano is under pressure to stop the flow of weapons and drug cash from the United States into Mexico that Mexican officials say fuel the drug war. Despite increased checks along the border by U.S. agents, drug war experts say both are still getting through in ample supply.
She said that it is important to continue to work with Mexico to reduce drug violence. Across the border from El Paso in the beleaguered city of Ciudad Juarez, some 8,000 people have been killed in the past three years.
However, officials said the fighting has not spilled over into the United States and border communities are a safe place to conduct business.
"The border is more secure than it has ever been," said U.S. Customs and Border Protection commissioner Alan Bersin. "We have created the conditions to make this border economically competitive and prosperous."
Meanwhile, in Tucson, Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said he was "disturbed" by the administration's plans to withdraw more than a thousand National Guard troops brought in last year to shore security on the border.
"We are very disturbed by the announcement made by the Department of Homeland Security in Washington that they will be withdrawing the National Guard," McCain said at a news conference on Thursday following a visit to the border with four Republican congressional colleagues.
The drawdown was announced last week. McCain said that it is important to have the National Guard "here until we have enough Border Patrol and other associated organizations that will complete the job of securing the border."
(Reporting by Alejandro Martinez-Cabrera; Additional reporting by Tim Gaynor in Tucson; Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Jerry Norton)