By Helen Murphy and Luis Jaime Acosta
BOGOTA (Reuters) - It would be a "big mistake" for Colombia to reduce troop numbers or cut its security budget if a peace agreement is signed with Marxist FARC rebels to end a half century of war, the defense minister said on Thursday.
Colombia has struggled through a year of slow-paced talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in an effort to end a conflict that has killed more than 200,000 people since it began in 1964. Meanwhile the FARC has stepped up combat pressure.
"It would be a big mistake, because even if the terrorist organization disappears, it doesn't mean many of its crimes disappear," Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon told Reuters in his Bogota office, ruling out any changes to the armed forces.
More than three dozen FARC commanders participating in peace talks in Havana have called on President Juan Manuel Santos to divert funds away from maintaining Colombia's 439,000-strong armed forces and use much of the $15 billion in defense spending for social plans, including healthcare and education.
"I personally think Colombia has a security budget that's very limited," said Pinzon, highlighting that smaller Latin American nations without the security risks faced by Colombia have similar defense budgets - about 3.5 percent of GDP. "I think we have to keep strengthening."
The war, which has pit the FARC and a smaller rebel group, the ELN, against government troops and illegal paramilitary death squads, trims as much as 2 percentage points from the $360 billion economy.
The FARC - and other Colombian crime gangs - engage in drug trafficking, kidnapping, money laundering and illegal mining to fund operations and battle the government, the minister said.
Pinzon, a 41-year-old economist who has headed the defense ministry since the end of 2011, has been among the most vocal critics of the FARC as it works through a five-point agenda with government negotiators in host-nation Cuba.
The rebels have sharply criticized him for damaging talks, while Pinzon has called on the group to apologize for its crimes.
"The terrorist group should understand that the Colombian people don't support it, that it has no prestige within society," he said.
"On the contrary, the only opportunity it has is to demobilize, turn in its weapons and ask forgiveness of the Colombian people."
The center-right Santos, who took a political risk last year when he announced peace talks, has seen his approval ratings slump in the last few months, partly due to the perception that he has offered too many concessions to the rebels.
While most Colombians support the peace process, many doubt it will soon reach a successful end. Opposition leaders like former President Alvaro Uribe are furious that Santos may be bending to the FARC in order to cement his legacy.
Considered a terrorist group by the United States and Europe, the FARC has battled a dozen governments since it began as an agrarian struggle against rural inequality. While it has been severely weakened in the past 10 years by a heavy U.S.-backed offensive, the leftist movement remains a formidable threat to the government and civilian population.
In recent months, it has sought to boost its relevance in rural areas, bombing oil pipelines and supporting labor disputes that have piled pressure on the government.
Pinzon stressed that the FARC's territorial presence has shrunk to as little as 9 percent from over 50 percent a decade or so ago and its fighting force halved to about 7,000 fighters. But he was adamant the armed forces would not let down its guard and would keep fighting until peace is declared or the FARC defeated.
"Militarily they are very weak, they never achieved their military objective of taking power by armed force, that's an undeniable fact," said Pinzon, defending his record against criticism that security has weakened since Santos took office.
Many complain that no top FARC leader has been killed or captured since Alfonso Cano two years ago.
"The majority don't live in Colombia' that's a fact," Pinzon said of the seven-member rebel leadership, which includes top commander Rodrigo Londono, known as Timochenko, thought to be in Venezuela.
He declined to confirm where Timochenko was hiding.
"But many of the regional leaders have fallen one by one. More or less every 45 days a FARC leader is killed and that shows the dynamism of our armed forces."
Pinzon acknowledged that even if peace is reached with the FARC, the battle inside Colombia would by no means end. In such an event, crime gangs and drug traffickers would remain the object of the government's military offensive.
(Reporting by Helen Murphy and Luis Jaime Acosta; Editing by Ken Wills)