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(Reuters) - Latin America must give serious thought to legalizing drugs in order to reduce the human cost of prohibition, the head of a United Nations agency for the region said on Monday.

Tens of thousands of people across Latin America have died in violence stemming from the struggle to control the lucrative trade in narcotics, particularly in Mexico, where murders fuelled by warring drug cartels reached a record high last year.

Alicia Barcena, a Mexican who heads the Santiago-based Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), the United Nations' regional arm, told a Latin America forum in Paris the time had come to explore a new strategy.

"I'm going to be very provocative. Who would drug legalization be good for? Latin America and the Caribbean, for God's sake. Because the illegality is what's killing people," she said. "It's time to seriously consider legalizing drugs."

Peru, Colombia and Bolivia are the top producers of coca leaves used to make cocaine, much of which is smuggled through Mexico to reach the world's biggest market, the United States.

The battle to dominate crystal meth and heroin markets has also precipitated mounting violence in Mexico.

Most countries in the Americas continue to pursue restrictive policies towards drugs, although growing liberalisation of marijuana laws in the United States has encouraged supporters of legalization to redouble their efforts.

(Reporting by Diego Ore; Editing by Michael Perry)

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Reuters