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FILE PHOTO: Mexico's Defense Minister General Salvador Cienfuegos, attends the 50th anniversary of the Plan of Assistance to the Population in case of Disaster (Plan DN-III-E) in Mexico City, Mexico July 12, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso

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ACAPULCO, Mexico (Reuters) - Mexico's defence minister said on Friday legalising opium for medicinal use could contain violence caused by drug gangs fighting over poppy fields and trafficking routes in the country's southwest.

Defence Minister General Salvador Cienfuegos spoke to reporters during a visit to the town of Teloloapan in the crime-ridden state of Guerrero, where much of the heroin trafficked to the United States is produced.

Legalization "is already on the table. I think it can be a way out of the problem," Cienfuegos said when asked about violence in the state and proposals to regulate opium production.

Olga Sanchez, the designated interior minister of President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, has said the next administration will explore regulating opium production for pharmaceutical use.

Guerrero's governor has backed the idea and state lawmakers sent a draft bill to the federal congress in August.

"But it is a subject that will have to be debated. In principle, it seems to me that it is correct," Cienfuegos said.

He expressed worries about how to guarantee the safety of farmers if they stop selling drugs to gangs and start providing opium to the government in order to produce morphine.

Leftist Lopez Obrador, who won July's election by a landslide and takes office on Dec. 1, is proposing major changes to the drug war strategy. He has suggested a negotiated peace and amnesty for non-violent drug dealers, traffickers and farmers.

Lopez Obrador is expected to name a new defence minister to replace Cienfuegos soon.

Mexico has been mired for nearly 12 years in a bloody, military-led battle against drug gangs. Cartels have fragmented into warring groups and murders have risen to record levels.

(Reporting by Uriel Sanchez; Editing by Paul Tait)

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Reuters