FARC rebels involved in drug trade despite peace talks: police

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia’s Marxist FARC rebels are still involved in drug trafficking and are stoking resistance to eradication of illicit crops, the head of the anti-narcotics police said on Tuesday, despite the group’s ongoing peace talks with the government.

The rebels have so far failed to give up the lucrative drugs business, which has helped fund the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia’s (FARC) five decades of war, even though it has reached partial accord at talks that would require them to abandon the trade.

The FARC and the government of President Juan Manuel Santos have been holding peace talks in Cuba since late 2012. Negotiators say a final accord could be reached soon.

The rebels agreed in 2014 to break ties with drug traffickers, help eradicate illegal crops like coca, the raw material used to make cocaine, and help fight the production of narcotics.

“What’s been agreed is that the FARC will stop narco-trafficking, that’s what we hope for, that once they sign the FARC will stop,” anti-narcotics police head Jose Angel Mendoza told Reuters in an interview.

“But up to now what’s clear is that areas where the FARC are coincide with areas of cultivation. And so in that order of ideas things continue much as they were,” Mendoza said, adding that the rebel group is encouraging local farmers to protest the eradication of coca.

The fight against drug trafficking could become easier for law enforcement if the 7,000-strong FARC do comply with a peace deal and demobilize, Mendoza said.

A peace deal with second-largest rebel group the National Liberation Army (ELN) would further allow police to focus their anti-drug efforts on crime gangs that grow, process and export narcotics.

“We would be talking about combating not on multiple fronts but on one, organized crime,” Mendoza said at his office in Bogota.

Coca cultivations have increased since the government banned aerial spraying with the herbicide glyphosate because of cancer concerns.

The most recent United Nations figures showed an increase of 44 percent in coca cultivations in 2014, to 69,000 hectares. The United States government estimates there are 159,000 hectares.

Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Matthew Lewis