[Opinion] Is Turkey becoming a narco-state?

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Türkmen Terzi

Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed in 2015 that Turkish authorities were benefitting from oil trade with the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), while the United Nations and the European Union accused Turkish firms of arms smuggling. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s family had a firm grip on the economy; however, recent allegations related to international drug trafficking indicate that Erdoğan’s control and that of his close allies extend as far as Venezuela, Europe and Afghanistan.

Strategically located among three continents, Turkey has become a major route for heroin smuggling from Afghanistan to Europe. It has also become a distribution hub for cocaine smuggling from Latin America to Europe and the Middle East.

Since early May Turkish mafia boss Sedat Peker has been leveling serious accusations against Erdoğan and other high-profile members of the ruling party. Among the allegations is involvement in cocaine smuggling from Colombia following the seizure of 4.9 tons of cocaine bound for Turkey at Colombia’s Pacific port of Buenaventura on June 9, 2020. Another indication that Turkey has become an important route for drug trafficking was the seizure in Ecuador of 616 kilograms of drugs on a ship bound for Turkey in April of last year. The Istanbul-based Bianet English news website reported that cocaine was seized on a ship that had departed from Ecuador’s Puerto Bolivar Port for Turkey’s southern city of Mersin. The Puerto Bolivar Port is being managed by the Turkish-based Yılport Holding under a 50-year contract, according to an agreement signed by the president of Turkey, Erdoğan, and his Ecuadorian counterpart in 2016. Despite the clear evidence, Turkish prosecutors have up until now failed to launch an investigation into drug smuggling activities. There have been numerous accusations of drug trafficking against Yılport Holding. Turkish opposition parties criticized the government for customs officials granting clearance for 540 kilos of cocaine in Yılport’s Dilovası Port in the city of Kocaeli in August 2020.

The Arab Spring had a detrimental effect on Turkey’s exports to the Middle East, and Turkey has to a large extent also lost out on its Russian export market since shooting down a Russian jet in 2015. Erdogan’s neo-Ottomanist-Islamist foreign policy has led to a diplomatic crisis between Turkey and the Western powers, which have restricted Turkey’s exports to Russian, Middle Eastern and European markets. Ankara has since prioritized Africa as well as Latin American countries as new political and economic alliances. Former Turkish President Suleyman Demirel’s visit to Argentina, Brazil and Chile in 1995 was a turning point in Turkey’s relationship with the region. Erdogan visited Mexico, Colombia and Cuba in 2015, and a year later, Chile, Peru and Ecuador. Ankara’s “Action Plan for Latin America and the Caribbean” in 1998 and the declaration of 2006 as the “Year of Latin America and the Caribbean” in Turkey proved fruitful as Turkey’s trade volume with the region increased from $3.4 billion in 2006 to more almost $10 billion in 2017. However, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government’s recent engagement with certain Latin American nations has cast doubt on the real objective behind Turkey’s Latin American policy.

Turkish mafia boss Peker claimed that former Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım’s son made several trips to Caracas in January and February of this year to establish a new drug trade after nearly five tons of cocaine were seized last year by Colombia. Erdoğan’s long-time ally Yıldırım responded by saying that his son Erkam Yıldırım, who runs a shipping company, only visited Venezuela to personally deliver COVID-19 tests and protective equipment to the Venezuelan people.

Peker also claimed that former interior minister Mehmet Ağar had a share in the 4.9 tons of cocaine seized in Colombia and that Turkey’s incumbent Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu had covered up the drug smuggling affair.

Following Peker’s allegations, MPs from the opposition Democracy and Progress Party (DEVA) and the Republican People’s Party (CHP) in a parliamentary question asked Trade Minister Mehmet Muş why his ministry had the previous year lifted a tariff imposed on several food products including cheese from Venezuela despite the fact that Turkey is a cheese producer. Opposition parties claim that Turkey’s intention was not food importation but rather drug trafficking.

Another incident indicating deep ties between the Turkish government and organized crime was the seizure of a private jet from Turkey by Brazilian federal police on Aug. 4, 2021. The jet, belonging to Erdoğan-linked businessman Ethem Sancak, was found to be carrying 1.3 tons of cocaine.

It is clear that Turkey has become an alternate hub for cocaine in recent years following large-scale operations against cocaine drug lords in Belgium and Rotterdam in the Netherlands. Turkey is a key heroin route from Afghanistan to Europe, and the drug lords reportedly prefer to collaborate with the Turkish mafia and other high-profile government-linked people to transport the drugs through Turkey, where they are unlikely to face consequences.

Libya has become another significant location for drug trafficking. Turkey has had a military presence in the country since Ankara supported the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) against Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s Tobruk-based Libyan National Army (LNA). Western Libya has a historic drug trafficking connection with southern Europe, and the power vacuum left by the fall of the Gaddafi regime in 2011 means movement is easy for drug lords in the region. Turkey is committing regular and increasingly blatant violations of the UN arms embargo on Libya, and the European Union has imposed sanctions on Turkish Avrasya Shipping for smuggling weapons into Libya.

Turkey is currently in the midst of negotiations with the Taliban to operate the Kabul airport. Several Turkish media agencies have reported suspicions that Turkey’s real intention is to control drug trafficking from Afghanistan. Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid said at a press conference in August that no narcotics will be produced in the country, but UN officials have stated that the Taliban earned more than $400 million between 2018 and 2019 from the drug trade. Bearing in mind the accusations against both the AKP government and the Taliban, it isn’t unreasonable to assume that the Erdogan government and the Taliban might eventually collaborate in drug trafficking.

For decades, the Turkish government has torched cannabis fields in its battle against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Kurdish militant group that has been waging an armed struggle against Turkey since 1984, but Erdoğan has been urging regional leaders to promote the crop in the country for the last few years. Erdoğan, who has plunged Turkey into a deep economic crisis, no longer promotes Turkey’s traditional food or textile exports or construction investments; instead, his close business allies transport drugs from Latin America to Turkey.

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