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Former Mexican President Vicente Fox gestures during a news conference to announce the cannabis forum CannaMexico World Summit in Mexico City, Mexico April 11, 2018. REUTERS/Ginnette Riquelme

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MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Former Mexican President Vicente Fox proposed on Wednesday the legalization of opium poppy production as a way to help end bloody turf battles fought by drug cartels in various parts of the country.

Fox served as president from 2000-2006 with the centre-right National Action Party but has since distanced himself from the party. In the past, he has also advocated for the legalization of marijuana.

"The plants themselves are not harmful, we make them harmful, (especially) the criminals who use them for evil purposes," Fox said at a pro-marijuana event in the capital.

He also implored Mexico's presidential candidates to openly debate drug legalization ahead of the July vote.

The ex-leader cited the violence-racked southern state of Guerrero, arguing that drug legalization would curtail cartel profits and boost safety, including at the iconic beach resort of Acapulco, which has been ravaged with gangland violence over the past few years.

Guerrero, located along Mexico's southwestern Pacific coast, is home to numerous poppy fields used to produce opium, the main ingredient in heroin.

Last year, more than 25,000 murders were recorded in Mexico as rival drug gangs increasingly splintered into smaller, more brutal groups after more than a decade of a military-led campaign to battle the cartels.

(Reporting by Lizbeth Diaz; Writing by David Alire Garcia; Editing by Leslie Adler)

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Reuters