Turkey could become the next narco-state in the Middle East

The assassination of Turkish Cypriot casino magnate Halil Falyali last week was the latest installment in Turkey’s underground wars against drug trafficking and illicit finance. Turkish mobster turned whistleblower Sedat Peker accused Falyali last year of being a key player in cocaine trafficking and colluding with Erkan Yildirim, the son of former Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim. Peker alleged that Turkey, which has long been part of a major route for the heroin trade, has also become a hub for cocaine, following the nearly twenty-year rule of the Justice Party and the development (AKP), of Islamist origin. These developments raise the question of whether Turkey is becoming another narco-state in the Middle East, alongside Lebanon and Syria.

Timur Soykan, one of Turkey’s leading investigative journalists specializing in narcotics, claimed that Falyali, who is known for his vast collection of incriminating videos of high-profile political figures, could have used such a tape to make sing Erkan Yildirim so that he sets up a cocaine route. to Latin America. Erk Acarer, a Berlin-based investigative journalist, also claimed that Falyali was blackmailing politicians and officials with “inappropriate videos”.

Last year, former Turkish Cypriot President Mustafa Akinci accused Falyali of having illicit ties to and supporting the hardline Ankara-backed government in northern Cyprus. It is not surprising that after the murder of Falyali, dozens of Turkish-speaking users take from Twitter, calling the attack an attempted cover-up aimed at “silence Falyali”.

A week before Falyali’s assassination, Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu boasted that drug seizures in the country had reached an all-time high since the establishment of the Turkish Republic. In 2021 alone, he added, police confiscated some 2.8 tonnes of cocaine. What the Minister of the Interior presented as a success story appears to others as the result of an alarming trend. Cocaine seizures in the country have steadily increased over the past four years: 1.5 tonnes in 2018, 1.6 tonnes in 2018 and some 1.9 tonnes in 2020.

Last June, in what was the biggest cocaine bust in Turkish history, police seized 1.3 tonnes of the drug hidden amid bananas being shipped from Ecuador to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Mersin. Shortly after, police discovered an additional half ton of cocaine concealed in another shipment from Ecuador at the same port. Seizures in these two cases alone exceed the annual totals of just a few years ago.

These figures are just the tip of the iceberg and do not include cocaine shipments destined for Turkey but captured at exit ports in Latin America. Last June, for example, Colombian police seized 4.9 tons of cocaine in the southwestern port of Buenaventura en route to Istanbul’s Ambarli port. Similarly, the previous month, Panamanian authorities captured 1.3 tonnes of cocaine en route from Ecuador’s largest port, Puerto Bolivar, to Mersin. These two seizures alone were more than twice the size of the total number of cocaine seizures in Turkey last year.

In addition to sea routes, traffickers also use airplanes. Last August, for example, Brazilian police seized 1.3 tonnes of cocaine from a Turkish private jet previously owned by the Turkish prime minister, now operated by a private company run by an Erdogan AKP parliamentary candidate. Earlier last year, Turkish police also seized cocaine en route from Colombia to Turkey at Istanbul airport.

Many Turkish citizens suspect that senior Turkish officials are in bed with kingpins, facilitating drug trafficking and protecting traffickers. Peker’s allegations that Yildirim is a central figure in cocaine trafficking through Turkey prompted the former prime minister’s son to sue Peker, who has been in exile in the United Arab Emirates since last year.

Peker claimed that Yildirim, the owner of a shipping company involved in the Malta files – a huge trove of leaked documents revealing illicit financial activity that was published by a European investigative journalism network in 2017 – visited Venezuela twice in 2021 to set up new traffic. beyond the reach of the United States Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). Turkey’s former prime minister has defended his son by saying he traveled to Caracas to deliver Covid-19 test kits and masks, a claim refuted by both Turkish customs records and testimonies from Turkish citizens residing in Venezuela. Falyali, meanwhile, was on criminal indictment in federal court in Virginia for his alleged role, as stated in a DEA special agent’s affidavit, in laundering the proceeds of drugs through the US financial system.

What further raises suspicions about the complicity of Turkish officials is that the cocaine shipped to Turkey disproportionately comes from the Ecuadorian port of Puerto Bolivar, which a Turkish company backed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan won a fifty-year concession to operate in 2016. This week, Israeli authorities reportedly disqualified this Turkish port operator from participating in the Haifa port privatization tender due to alleged links with Hezbollah of one of the owners and its involvement with a shipping company operating the port of Beirut in Lebanon. Of the major drug seizures in Turkey in 2021, four originated from Puerto Bolivar, not counting the 1.3 tonnes of cocaine shipped from the same port, bound for Turkey but seized in Panama.

However, what makes the alleged impunity of AKP-linked figures most visible to Turkish citizens is not the large seizures of cocaine at seaports or airports, but the involvement of party cadres of low level.

In March 2021, footage of Kursat Ayvatoglu, the parliamentary aide to AKP Vice President and lawmaker Hamza Dag, snorting cocaine in the driver’s seat of a luxury vehicle went viral and shook the country. Before his political involvement in the ranks of the AKP in 2014, Ayvatoglu, a high school dropout, was a lowly graphic designer driving a barely functional car in the small town of Kastamonu, northwest of the Black Sea. After working for local AKP mayoral candidate Tahsin Babas and his subsequent mayoral victory, Ayvatoglu mysteriously rose from rags to riches. When his footage went viral in March 2021, Ayvatoglu quickly denied the allegations and managed to free himself by simply stating that he was sniffing “powdered sugar”. Similarly, in 2020, when Turkish customs officials seized 100 kg of heroin from the car of a former press adviser at the Turkish embassy in Brussels close to senior AKP officials, the Turkish authorities hid the news to the press for two weeks and then submitted a gag order.

Turkey’s ongoing financial meltdown and growing need for foreign currency amid the depletion of its central bank’s net international reserves will only make the country’s political elite and struggling citizens more susceptible to the lure of narco-dollars. Traffickers seem to enjoy impunity, and drug seizures are more like window dressing attempts to hide the real size of the iceberg. If Turkey joins Syria and Lebanon as the eastern Mediterranean’s third narco-state, it will only aggravate the region’s money-smuggling and money-laundering problems, while providing illicit non-state actors with greater exploitation opportunities.

Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament and senior director of the Turkey program to the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD).

Kursat Gok is a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University – Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and a research intern for the Turkey program to the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD).

Picture: Reuters.

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