| MEXICO CITY
MEXICO CITY Mexico's presidential front-runner Enrique Pena Nieto pledged on Monday to create a new police force made up of former soldiers to fight drug gangs and said ending violence would take priority over battling the traffickers if he wins the election.
Pena Nieto, of the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), is the hot favorite to win the presidency on July 1, a contest that has been dominated by concerns about rampant drug violence and the need to create more jobs in Mexico.
In an interview with Reuters, the 45-year-old said he plans to increase the size of the federal police and create a "national gendarmerie" backed by the military and made up of soldiers already deployed in President Felipe Calderon's declared war against powerful drug cartels.
Unveiling the proposal, Pena Nieto said he would put those soldiers into the new police force and post them in towns and cities where authorities have been overrun by organized crime.
"What's the aim? To support municipalities with major institutional weakness. Some have few police, or don't have any," Pena Nieto told Reuters.
Since Calderon began his offensive against traffickers five years ago, more than 50,000 people have died in brutal turf wars between the gangs and in clashes with security forces. Mexico's overall murder tally has also risen during his term in office.
Polls graphic: link.reuters.com/wen47s
More than anything, Mexicans want the bloodshed to end, said Pena Nieto, the former governor of the State of Mexico, the country's most populous state that rings much of Mexico City.
"I reaffirm the Mexican state's obligation to combating drug trafficking," Pena Nieto said. "But now we have another matter which for me takes higher priority, that of the violence. I would focus efforts on reducing the violence."
The PRI, which ruled Mexico for 71 years before it was voted out in 2000, has been accused by opponents of making deals in the past with cartels, or of simply taking their money.
Creating more jobs is central to ending the violence in Mexico as well as shutting down the allure of the drug gangs, says Pena Nieto, who is aiming to grow the economy at rates of five percent a year or more if he takes office.
The telegenic PRI hopeful, who has comfortably led opinion polls to take the presidency for more than two years, has also said he is opposed to legalizing drugs as a means of combating trafficking.
Despite a string of gaffes in December and the subsequent revelation that he had cheated on his first wife and fathered two children out of wedlock, Pena Nieto has a double-digit lead in most polls over his closest rival, Josefina Vazquez Mota of Calderon's conservative National Action Party (PAN).
Pena Nieto has repeatedly pledged to fight corruption and impunity if elected, and said he would keep the army on the streets until the new police force could replace it.
In tandem, he said the federal police should be bulked up to more than 50,000 officers from less than 40,000 today.
Establishing a reliable police force is a deep-rooted problem in Mexico, where especially at state and municipal level, salaries struggle to compete with money offered by cash-rich drug cartels. Many police earn less than $1,000 a month.
The army has long been one of Mexico's most respected institutions, and critics say the decision to deploy it against the gangs has tainted its standing because of the corruption and abuses that have complicated efforts to fight the drug war.
The new gendarmerie would likely be some 40,000 strong and would seek to beef up security in violent areas with added patrols and greater use of intelligence, Pena Nieto said.
The next president will take office on December 1, and Pena Nieto said he would seek to increase cooperation with the United States on security if he wins, vowing to focus on beating down organized crime, drug trafficking and terrorism.
For its part, Washington needs to step up efforts to curb illegal arms trafficking into Mexico, he added.
(Additional reporting by Kieran Murray, Simon Gardner and Miguel Angel Gutierrez; Editing by Todd Eastham)