By Gabriel Stargardter
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Nearly half of Mexicans feel drug-related violence has increased since President Enrique Pena Nieto took office in December, according to a newspaper poll released on Friday, heaping pressure on the president who vowed to tame the gangs and restore order.
The El Universal/Buendia & Laredo poll found that 49 percent of the 1,000 people questioned thought drug violence had worsened since December, up 9 points since February. A quarter of respondents felt security had improved while another 25 percent thought it had remained steady.
The survey makes for mixed reading for Pena Nieto, who came into power vowing to break with his predecessor's military-led tactics and put an end to Mexico's vicious drug war.
Nearly 80,000 people have died in drug-related killings since former President Felipe Calderon sent in the army to quell the powerful drug bosses, a policy Pena Nieto has criticized but found tough to break with.
Pena Nieto has said he wants to take a different tack, lowering crime by targeting kidnapping and extortion.
But earlier this week, Pena Nieto scaled back plans for his flagship security measure, a militarized police force, or gendarmerie, that he hoped would gradually take the place of the army in the conflict.
Pena Nieto had spoken of a 40,000-strong force, but it has now been cut to 5,000, leading some to question how different Pena Nieto's drug policy is from Calderon's.
Critics point to a number of recent kingpin captures under Pena Nieto, including a suspected boss of the Gulf Cartel, in addition to the leader of the Zetas, Miguel Angel Trevino, and a suspected lieutenant of Mexico's most wanted drug lord, Joaquin "Shorty" Guzman.
Going after cartel bosses, which critics say only serves to splinter the gangs and increase the violence, was a hallmark of Calderon's drug strategy.
Nonetheless, the poll indicates that most Mexicans feel Pena Nieto has changed drug tactics from his predecessor, with 59 percent seeing evidence of a new strategy and 24 percent saying they had not noticed a change.
Furthermore, 34 percent of those questioned felt the current president's security strategy had made Mexico less safe, compared with 53 percent in May last year, the last few months of Calderon's term.
The poll showed people were split on the best way to tackle Mexico's drug scourge. Twenty-seven percent of those interviewed said they thought the best tactic was to lower violence, while 24 percent wanted to see the cartels beaten.
Only 10 percent wanted to see more arrests and trials of drug bosses.
Pena Nieto, who has tried to shift public attention away from the violence toward Mexico's economic potential, has said the number of murders between December and July this year had fallen by 20 percent compared with the same period last year.
Still, about 1,000 people have died each month in drug violence since Pena Nieto took office, official data show, and the army is still involved in clashes with the cartels across large parts of the country.
According to the poll, 23 percent of people viewed the western Mexican state of Michoacan as the country's least secure, while 8 percent opted for the northern Mexican states of Tamaulipas and Sianloa, which house key drug smuggling routes to the United States.
(Reporting by Gabriel Stargardter; Editing by Simon Gardner and Vicki Allen)