By Anahi Rama and Dave Graham
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - 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 narcotics trafficking 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 drug violence and the need to create more jobs in Mexico.
He 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.
The 45-year-old said he would place those soldiers into the new police force and post them in cities and towns 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 in an interview.
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.
More than anything, Mexicans want the bloodshed to end, said Pena Nieto, the former governor of the State of Mexico which 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."
Pena Nieto said he would keep the army on the streets until the new police force could replace it.
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 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.
Creating more jobs is central to ending the violence in Mexico, said Pena Nieto, who is aiming to grow the economy at rates of five percent a year or more if he takes office.
(Additional reporting by Kieran Murray, Simon Gardner and Miguel Angel Gutierrez; editing by Todd Eastham)