By Daina Beth Solomon and Adriana Barrera
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexican presidential hopeful and former first lady Margarita Zavala pledged to curb violence and crime by pulling soldiers off the streets in a reversal of her husband's military-led drug strategy that ushered in a sharp increase in violence.
If elected this July, Zavala said she would double and strengthen the police force while withdrawing the thousands of troops that her husband, former president Felipe Calderon, began deploying at the end of 2006.
"I want ... to fortify the police in a national police system ... that allows me to gradually put the police in charge of security and let the armed forces do what they had always been doing," she said in an interview with Reuters.
Violence is shaping up to be a key campaign theme after murders last year surged to a record high. Well over 100,000 people have been killed in gang violence in the past decade.
As officials grapple to control the bloodshed, President Enrique Pena Nieto last month signed into law a contentious security bill that would formally enshrine the parameters for using the military in crime-fighting.
A host of human rights groups and international organizations attacked the bill, citing reported cases of abuses by Mexico's military.
Zavala, 50, said her plan would boost police salaries, offer merit-based promotions and certify officers under a single set of national criteria.
"We have to give the institution dignity," she said.
Zavala did not offer a potential timeline for the changes.
The former attorney also said Mexico now faces different issues to the ones confronted by her husband's center-right administration, and criticized the current government for "abandoning" the police.
"There is a much more serious problem of kidnapping, extortion and arms and human trafficking," she said. "If the police had kept being strengthened, today we wouldn't be talking about the problem of the security law."
Leftist presidential front-runner Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has said he would integrate the police, army and marines and revive the public security ministry that the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) scrapped in 2012.
Running as an independent after leaving the center-right National Action Party (PAN) in October, Zavala must collect 866,593 signatures by mid-February to land an official spot on the ballot.
Zavala's spokesman said Mexico's national electoral institute (INE) has validated nearly 724,000 signatures thus far, although the campaign has collected more than a million in total.
(Reporting by Daina Beth Solomon and Adriana Barrera; Editing by Susan Thomas)