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Presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador gestures as he addresses supporters in Mexico City, Mexico, July 1, 2018. Picture taken July 1, 2018. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

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By Diego Oré and Lizbeth Diaz

CHILPANCINGO, Mexico (Reuters) - For the past 12 years, Mexico has fought violent drug gangs by deploying thousands of police, soldiers and intelligence officers to crack down on cartels and their leaders.

If its new president-elect gets his way, however, negotiation may replace the hard-line strategy that critics say has only perpetuated violence.

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a leftist who won on Sunday after two previous attempts at the presidency, wants to rewrite the rules of the drug war, aides said, suggesting negotiated peace and amnesties for some of the very people currently being targeted by security forces.

"The failed strategy of combating insecurity and violence will change," Lopez Obrador said in his victory speech Sunday night, repeating his call to address the socioeconomic ills that push people toward the drug trade and other crimes.

"More than through the use of force, we will tend to the causes that give rise to insecurity and violence," the president-elect added. He said his team will immediately begin consulting with human rights groups, religious leaders and the United Nations to develop a "plan for reconciliation and peace."

So far, his proposals remain vague. And any move toward amnesty, while aimed at lesser and non-violent offenders, is sure to face opposition from the general public, rivals in Congress and U.S. allies who helped Mexico orchestrate its force-based approach.

Still, Olga Sanchez, Lopez Obrador's proposed interior minister, said the new administration would move fast to reconsider drug policies and a militaristic approach that, despite toppling some high-profile kingpins, failed to prevent more than 200,000 murders since first adopted in 2006.

"As soon as we get in, we're quickly going to take some dramatic decisions," Sanchez told Reuters in an interview before the election.

She conceded that any shift, like the demobilization of the military troops fighting drug gangs, would need to be gradual. Longer-term goals, Sanchez added, include decriminalising the recreational use of marijuana and the cultivation of opium for medicinal purposes.

To consider the possibility of negotiated peace, she said, her team has studied Colombia's peace process with its biggest guerrilla group, which allowed rebel leaders to avoid prison. Aides have also begun planning legislation for "transitional justice."

Typically, such justice involves leniency for those who admit guilt, truth commissions to investigate atrocities and the granting of reparations for some victims. Any clemency, Sanchez said, would be aimed toward farmers, drug couriers and other non-violent lawbreakers caught up in the trade – not assassins. 

Sanchez said any plan for an amnesty would go to a public referendum. If it received public support, she added, the administration would then put it before Congress, where Lopez Obrador's National Regeneration Movement and allies also gained seats on Sunday.

The mere notion of amnesty disturbs many.

One recent newspaper poll found that seven in 10 Mexicans oppose it. Victims' rights groups are also opposed.

"I want to see the guilty behind bars," said Laura Flores, whose husband, Daniel Velasquez, is believed to have been murdered along with 15 other people in 2015.

GUERRERO EXPERIMENT

Flores lives in the Pacific state of Guerrero, one of Mexico's most violent and a region in which a Catholic bishop in recent years has gained attention, and public praise from Lopez Obrador, because of negotiations with local drug cartels.

Lopez Obrador first broached the notion of amnesty in a speech last December in the opium-growing mountains of Guerrero, where much of the heroin bound for the United States originates. According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, or DEA, Mexico is the source of 93 percent of the drug in the country.

The militarised drug fight, Lopez Obrador argues, has failed to stop narcotics smuggling and violence and does not address the poverty that leads many to the drug trade to begin with.

In Guerrero, Bishop Salvador Rangel since 2016 has been pioneering an approach that proponents of amnesty say has a better chance of succeeding.

The approach basically accepts that armed criminals are de facto authorities in some regions. Getting gangs to reduce violence, they argue, is likelier than destroying them. 

The 72-year-old bishop, whose Chilpancingo-Chilapa diocese is one of Mexico's most dangerous, meets with gang leaders and seeks to dissuade them from murdering priests, local politicians and others often targeted by narcos.

When one of his priests received a death threat after preaching against drug violence two years ago, Rangel handed himself over to the gang leader who made the threat. The bishop convinced the drug boss to spare the priest's life, Rangel said, and he began regular meetings with various gangs in the region.

"I've asked them to try and stop killing, stop kidnapping and stop extorting people," Rangel said in a recent interview in a church in Chilpancingo, Guerrero's capital. "Thankfully, they've responded."

Reuters was unable to verify Rangel's claims.

Rangel declined to name the gang he first met with or its leader. He said gangs had also obeyed his request not to target local candidates ahead of Sunday's vote.

Even if Rangel succeeded on some counts, violence still marred the election campaign. At least 14 candidates and pre-candidates in Guerrero were killed between September 8 and June 25, the highest tally of Mexico's 31 states and capital district, according to Etellekt, a security consultancy.

For some residents, who have few options for income outside the drug trade, a truce is appealing. One local mother, whose 14-year-old son harvested opium as a young child and now is a gang lookout, said he is almost destined to become a hit man.

"He never had any opportunities," said the mother, who declined to be identified because she feared punishment by gang members. Now, she believes, settlement with the government could help him avoid a tragic end.

"Amnesty is the only way," she said.

The outgoing administration of President Enrique Pena Nieto has criticized Rangel and Lopez Obrador. "The Mexican government doesn't negotiate the application of the law," Interior Minister Alfonso Navarrete told reporters in Mexico City earlier this year.

U.S. allies in the drug war concur.

Despite difference with the administration of President Donald Trump on migration and trade issues, officials and security experts in the United States applaud long-running bilateral efforts to crack down on drug gangs.

Leo Silva, a former senior DEA agent in Mexico who is now retired in the United States, said amnesty would be "an insult to all the work the DEA and the government of Mexico have done to fight the drug war."

The DEA and the State Department declined to comment. 

(Writing by Gabriel Stargardter. Editing by Paulo Prada.)

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