By Simon Gardner
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexico's presidential front-runner Enrique Pena Nieto said if he wins the July 1 election he would aim for a rapid reduction in drug war violence that has claimed 50,000 lives since late 2006.
Pena Nieto, of the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), has a big lead in opinion polls heading into the election, which will take place with a backdrop of years of bloodshed between drug gangs and security forces.
"People need security, and that means getting tangible results in the very short and medium term," Pena Nieto told Reuters on the sidelines of an event in downtown Mexico City on Monday. "It's clear that society can't wait much longer."
Pena Nieto is bidding to succeed President Felipe Calderon of the conservative National Action Party. Calderon sent the Mexican army to crush drug cartels shortly after taking office in late 2006 and his presidency has been dominated by his push to crack down on the brutal narcotics gangs.
Voters are expressing hope that the next president will curb the wave of brutality stemming from the narcotics trade. Pena Nieto has proposed offering tax breaks for Ciudad Juarez, the worst hit city on the violence-plagued U.S. border, as a pilot project to encourage local investment and create jobs. Spending on public security efforts must also rise, he has said.
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He pledged on Sunday to give tax incentives to revive economic life in Ciudad Juarez that has been depressed by drug violence, and said on Monday he could consider bringing the tax incentives to other afflicted areas.
The border cities are a transit point for illegal drugs, a trade that has hammered local economies as violence has surged.
"First, I would do a pilot project in Ciudad Juarez ... and then see what results it brings," Pena Nieto said of the city with one of the highest murder rates in the world.
He has not elaborated on the tax incentive plan.
Polls show him with a big lead over ruling party candidate Josefina Vazquez Mota three months before the election.
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The deaths of tens of thousands of people in the turf wars between gangs and clashes with Mexican authorities have rattled investors and scared off tourists. About 30,000 people have been killed in the past two years alone.
In Washington on Monday, Calderon told President Barack Obama that drug violence would continue unabated in his country unless the flow of American guns is curbed, while Obama promised closer cooperation with Mexico in fighting the narcotics trade.
Pena Nieto, 45, has pledged to take the army off the streets and open police academies to boost professionalism of security forces often seen as corrupt and inefficient. He also has pledged to unify state and municipal police under a single command, and create new national divisions against kidnapping and extortion.
He also has said Mexico's security budget is too small as a proportion of gross domestic product. Analysts say Mexico is among the lowest spenders proportionally on security in Latin America, falling well behind the likes of Colombia, which Pena Nieto said spends around 5 percent of GDP on security.
"How high we raise investment (on security) will depend on the results we see," Pena Nieto said. "We cannot continue to allow that Mexico only be talked of in the world as an unsafe place steeped in violence, death and headless bodies."
Many Mexicans expect little rapid change, whoever wins, and some are skeptical Pena Nieto will make major progress.
"Politicians always promise change, then don't deliver," said nutritionist Hector Avila, 31, as he watched a traditional Aztec dance troupe in feather headdresses and loin cloths and colorful tunics in the shade of Mexico City's central cathedral.
"(If Pena Nieto wins), he needs to deliver on cutting down the violence. There are too many murders," he added. "We need to find a new model to control the drug issue."
Some express confidence that Pena Nieto will manage.
Dressed in a T-shirt emblazoned with his face and holding aloft a banner that reads "Pena Nieto's Fan Club," 61-year-old Blanca Estela Rojas cheered as the PRI hopeful arrived at a Mexico City hotel in a closely protected convoy of SUVs.
"He says he will make the security forces more professional. Our country is caught in an unprecedented bloodbath," she said. "Enrique, the people love you, but your country needs you."
(Additional reporting by Anahi Rama. Writing by Simon Gardner. Editing by Dave Graham and Will Dunham)