By Helen Murphy and Luis Jaime Acosta
BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia's FARC rebels control more than 60 percent of the Andean nation's drug trade, including cocaine trafficking overseas, an activity the armed group has denied during peace talks in Cuba, Colombia's police chief said on Monday.
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia earns as much as $1 billion (654 million pounds) a year from the production and sale of cocaine in Colombia and "undoubtedly" is involved in trafficking of the narcotic to international markets, General Jose Roberto Leon, head of the national police force, told Reuters.
"We have information found on computers after operations that have captured or killed FARC leaders, and it's involvement in drug trafficking is evident," Leon, 52, said in an interview at his Bogota office.
The FARC, as the group is known, has acknowledged funding its war against the government with the cultivation of coca - the raw material that goes to make cocaine - but has vehemently rejected accusations it trades with overseas buyers or arranges shipment of cocaine to the United States and Europe.
Founded almost half a century ago as a Marxist, peasant insurgency, the FARC is negotiating a peace accord in Havana with representatives of the Colombian government. The FARC is considered a terrorist group by the United States and Europe.
The rebels' withdrawal return to civil society would help make "important reductions" to Colombia's drug trade if crime gangs are unable to fill the vacuum, Leon said.
"Our aim is to prevent other actors appearing and filling the void left by the FARC if it leaves the drug business," said Leon, who has been in the force for 35 years.
"Crime gangs will be the new threat to the country once peace is signed with the FARC and the ELN," he said, referring to the National Liberation Army, which also wants to negotiate a peace agreement.
The government's battle against the FARC, Latin America's biggest and longest-running guerrilla insurgency, has left tens of thousands dead, made vast swathes of land impossible to farm and forced millions from their homes.
It also has diverted billions of dollars from the economy as legitimate industry is unable to function at full capacity and the government is forced to spend heavily on troops and weapons.
Drug revenue, as well as extortion, kidnapping and attacks on oil and mining infrastructure, have helped the FARC remain a threat to the government even after a ten-year offensive has forced fighters deep into inhospitable jungle terrain and complicated their communication chains.
The illegal drug business is one of five topics that the FARC and government negotiating teams have to agree on to sign a peace agreement.
WEAKER, BUT STILL STRONG
Even though a U.S.-backed offensive has left the Marxist rebels at their weakest in decades, the group has a fighting force estimated at around 8,000 and an ability to hit hard at civilian and economic targets.
In the months ahead of the peace talks, the FARC attacked oil and mining installations numerous times, slowing the government's oil targets last year and hobbling coal shipments.
While Colombia produces most of the cocaine that enters the United States, government efforts to provide economically viable alternatives to the cultivation of coca have had mixed results.
Colombia's status as the leading cultivator of coca moved to Peru in recent years, but traffickers in Colombia have more narcotics know-how, keeping it the world's top cocaine producer.
Colombia produced 345 metric tonnes of the drug last year, according to police data. Illegal armed groups, including demobilized right-wing paramilitaries and criminal gangs, often fight for control of cocaine smuggling routes with the FARC.
President Juan Manuel Santos took a political gamble with FARC peace negotiations, as all past attempts have failed and resulted in a stronger and more energized rebel army.
Santos, who may stand for re-election next year, wants the talks completed this year, one way or the other.
While crime typically increases in the aftermath of peace agreements, Colombia's police force is entering a post-conflict stage, said Leon. Efforts are shifting toward creation of more community-oriented relationships in towns and villages based on mutual trust and support, he said.
"The conflict is coming to its end," said Leon. "We are on the road to a post war scenario."
(Reporting by Helen Murphy; Editing by Vicki Allen)