Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano warned of an "overwhelming response"' if drug cartels try to move north. RUBEN R. RAMIREZ / THE EL PASO TIMES

EL PASO - Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Monday that U.S. communities on the border with Mexico are safer than most Americans believe, but warned Mexican drug cartels they will be "met by an overwhelming response" should they move north.

Napolitano told an audience at the University of Texas-El Paso - just across the Rio Grande from Ciudad Juarez and the unprecedented wave of drug-fueled violence engulfing it - that it's "inaccurate to state, as too many have, that the border is overrun with violence and out of control."

"This statement, often made only to score political points, is just plain wrong," said Napolitano, who was governor of Arizona before being confirmed as Homeland Security secretary in 2009.

Napolitano said violent crime has not spiked in U.S. communities across the roughly 2,000-mile border with Mexico.

But the secretary also recognized that guarding against spillover from Mexican drug violence is an ongoing concern.

"Today I say to the cartels: Don't even think about bringing your violence and tactics across this border. You will be met by an overwhelming response," she said. "And we're going to continue to work with our partners in Mexico to dismantle and defeat you."

Napolitano said the Obama administration has increased the U.S. Border Patrol to more than 20,700 agents, more than double its size in 2004.

She also said $600 million in funding signed last year by President Obama will allow authorities to hire 1,000 additional Border Patrol agents and 250 new Customs and Border Protection agents to guard formal Mexico-U.S. border crossings.

An additional 250 Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents focused on transnational crime, as well as increased unmanned aircraft patrols, also are budgeted.

"Let's stick with the facts and numbers when talking about where we are with the border," she said.

Napolitano said "a secure border does not mean a sealed border with no commerce."

During question-and-answer session, she added: "I'm not here on a victory lap. We have more work to do."