By Rosa Tania Valdes
HAVANA, Feb 13 (Reuters) - The Colombian government and FARC guerrilla negotiators said on Thursday that they had made progress toward an agreement on combating illegal drug trafficking, a sign that peace talks were making headway before elections.
The joint statement by President Juan Manuel Santos' government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) said there had been "advances" in the negotiations, the latest round of which concluded on Thursday. The talks are due to resume on Feb. 24.
"We have been working nonstop throughout this round of conversations and we have started building agreements on the point 'solving the illicit drugs problem,'" the statement said.
Sustained progress could help President Juan Manuel Santos in his campaign for re-election in May. Santos has been criticized by opposition candidates for his decision to negotiate with the guerrillas rather than defeat them militarily.
Progress in the talks also indicates that they have not been hampered by accusations that rogue members of military intelligence were spying on government negotiators. FARC has also said its delegation was being spied upon.
Drug trafficking is the third of six points under discussion by the two sides. The talks, hosted by Cuba over the past 15 months, aim to end half a century of hostilities in Latin America's longest running guerrilla conflict.
The FARC, which started as a Marxist movement, formed alliances with drug traffickers to help fund its armed campaign against the Colombian army. The army has been backed by the United States.
The two sides have reached tentative agreement on the first two points relating to agriculture and land reform and on allowing the FARC to participate as a legal political party if they reach an accord.
The initial agreement referred to crop substitution, which has been crucial to convincing South American peasants to give up cultivating lucrative but illicit coca leaves used to make cocaine.
Colombia historically had processed drugs, turning raw coca grown in Bolivia or Peru into cocaine, which Colombian cartels shipped to the United States and other markets. Colombians later took to growing their own coca to increase profits.
(Reporting by Rosa Tania Valdes; Editing by Daniel Trotta, Peter Murphy)