"This isn't just about drugs and about illegal immigrants," Joseph W. Westphal, undersecretary of the Army, said at the University of Utah Monday. "This is about, potentially, a takeover of a government by individuals who are corrupt."
"As all of you know, there is a form of insurgency in Mexico with the drug cartels that's right on our border," he said.
Westphal said he was expressing a personal opinion, but one he had shared with the White House, the Salt Lake Tribune reported.
He said he didn't want to face a situation in which "armed and fighting" American soldiers are sent to combat an insurgency "on our border, in violation of our Constitution, or to have to send them across the border."
Westphal is the most senior U.S. official to publicly use the word "insurgency" in discussing the drug cartels since Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a similar comparison last September.
Mexican government officials strongly denounced her remarks, saying her statement implied U.S. intervention in Mexico was a legitimate policy option.
A Mexican government official said Westphal's words "went way beyond what the secretary of state said."
Claudio Holzner, a professor in Utah's departments of political science and Latin American studies, called Westphal's words "incendiary."
Even though the situation has become violent in some parts of Mexico, "it's an overstatement to call the drug war an insurgency, primarily because the drug cartels are not seeking control of the government -- they are seeking safe passage for their merchandise," he said.
The best policy for the United States is to enforce its own laws and change the laws that are not working, he said, "to stem the demand for drugs in the U.S. and to stop the flow of U.S. weapons across the border."