Small Wars Journal

The Impacts of Authoritarianism on Organized Crime in Turkey

Sun, 11/08/2020 - 5:27pm


The Impacts of Authoritarianism on Organized Crime in Turkey

Dr. Mahmut Cengiz and Dr. Kutluer Karademir 


For many years, Turkey was a model country in the Middle East for its potential to combine Islam and democracy. Recent publications in the Western world has been labeling Turkey as an “uncertain ally”[1] or mafia state,[2] and international reports have been emphasizing how opponents of the Turkish government are targeted with scant evidence[3] citing ongoing torture practices[4] by antiterror and organized crime units of the police. The country’s law enforcement was modernized within the scope of the then-flaring European Union accession process, starting with the early 2000s, and waged a serious fight against organized crime groups. The modernized police model yielded successful results along the country’s eastern and southern borders, curbing the flow of illicit materials. This period was marked by the elimination of organized crime groups and the seizure of large amounts of smuggled materials. European Union countries enjoyed the presence of a reliable ally and a well-developed law-enforcement effort to control the use of the Balkans trafficking route. A little more than a decade later, however, the authoritarian tendencies of the AKP government moved in the opposite direction. The country turned its back on the Western block and installed a full-fledged dictatorial regime. After the corruption scandals in late 2013 involving Erdogan, his family members, and his inner circle, Erdogan took a heavy-handed approach. He changed laws in an authoritarian manner, controlled the media, purged entire organized crime, antiterror, and intelligence units within the Turkish National Police, as well as many members of the judiciary to cover up the scandal. Unfortunately, Erdogan succeeded in his efforts to strangle democracy in Turkey. These actions distanced Turkey from the European Union and curbed the capacity of law enforcement to effectively fight against well-developed criminal networks in the region. This study examines how Turkey, under Erdogan’s regime, has become an authoritarian state with detrimental impacts on the state as exemplified by the performance of police organized-crime units that worked to combat drug trafficking, oil smuggling, cigarette smuggling, human trafficking, human smuggling, and money laundering.

The AKP’s Authoritarianism and Organized Crime

As of 2020, the AKP has been ruling Turkey for 18 consecutive years since 2002. In retrospect, Erdogan’s AKP belongs to the school of political Islam in Turkey. The AKP has progressed through four periods on its way to authoritarianism. As seen in Figure 1, the first period (1970s-2002) was characterized by the victimization of the AKP’s predecessors. The second period started in 2002 when the AKP rose to power for the first time, though it came under harsh attack by the regime’s secular elite. During this second period, the AKP appeared to be a democratic party because it ostensibly supported Turkey’s entry into the European Union. This period ended in 2011. The third period started in 2010 with a referendum victory on amendments to the Turkish Constitution and the consecutive general election victory in 2011 when AKP defeated the secular elite and felt free to apply its own authoritarian-leaning agenda. By 2013, the corruption scandals involving Erdogan, his family, and his close associates came to light, though Erdogan survived a challenge to his rule. This period ended around July 15, 2016. The fourth period began in the aftermath of the July 15 coup attempt and Erdogan’s response that included the purging of the army, police and judiciary, perpetration of systematic torture and human rights violations, and the repression of government and political opposition of any kind. This period continues today.  

Chart 1 Turkey



Figure 1: The historical development of the AKP and its impacts on organized-crime police


First Period: Victimization of the AKP’s Predecessors (1970s-2002)

The common perception of persecuted religious groups in Turkey has been shaped by the oppression that the country’s secular elite has exerted on these groups by creating opportunities for Islamist political parties. These parties have focused their policies, strategies, and rhetoric on secular repression in Turkey. The AKP was founded by Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Abdullah Gül, both of whom became shining stars in Necmettin Erbakan’s Welfare Party (RP – Refah Partisi) founded in 1987.[5] Erbakan became the leading figure of political Islam in Turkey with his  renowned manifesto “National View,” which is an idealist perspective emphasizing industrialist development based on national resources and establishing a social order prioritizing religious values. Erbakan entered in the Turkish political domain in the 1970s with his National Order Party (MNP – Milli Nizam Partisi), which was banned after the 1971 military coup. Erbakan then founded the Nation Salvation Party (MSP – Milli Selamet Partisi) in 1972, and the group became a coalition partner with the Republican People’s Party (CHP), which then was led by Bülent Ecevit. The MSP and its leader Erbakan were banned again after the 1980 military coup; however, Erbakan continued his political career with the WP he founded in 1987.

Erbakan was a charismatic and impressive opposition leader. Since the 1980s, he consistently pointed to the chronic problem of corruption in Turkey. Corruption was a very sensitive issue in Turkish politics during that time, as the people were suffering heavily from harsh economic conditions. Turgut Özal’s Motherland Party (ANAP – Anavatan Partisi), which had come to power in a landslide victory in 1983, lost the 1989 municipal elections to the Social Democratic Party (SDP) because of corruption scandals involving the party’s politicians.[6] In the 1990s, mayors affiliated with the SDP were implicated in corruption scandals. These mayors also managed their cities poorly, which resulted in residents being frustrated about frequent water shortages and hills of garbage in the streets. Erbakan’s effective political moves against not only the poorly performing mayors but also the corrupt incumbent parties allowed him to increase his popularity among the conservative right-wing electorate.[7]

Erbakan reaped the fruits of this popularity in the 1994 municipal elections in which his party, the RP, won by a landslide, and the RP candidate, Erdogan, was elected metropolitan mayor of Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city. The successful performance of municipalities run by RP mayors paved the way for the party’s victory in the 1995 general elections and its establishment of a coalition government under the premiership of Erbakan in 1996. However, Erbakan’s actions to strengthen his power over the country provoked the secular elite which, historically, had been led by the military, and unfolded into a process that ended up with the forced resignation of the RP-led government after Turkey’s historic National Security Council meeting on February 28, 1997. Afterward, the country’s Constitutional Court banned the RP from operating as a political party. In addition, Erdogan was imprisoned for four months in the same year having charged with provoking people due to a non-secular poem he read during a political rally in 1997. Proscribed from politics, Erbakan immediately got his entourage to establish another party, namely the Virtue Party (FP-Fazilet Partisi), in 1998 to be banned only three years later. By then, a total of four political parties, MNP, MSP, RP and FP, founded by Erbakan had been banned for the same reason: violating the secularism principle in Turkey’s constitution. A bifurcation in the “national view” among members of the FP occurred in the wake of the court’s ruling on the FP. In 2001, the reformist wing of the FP, pioneered by Erdogan, Abdullah Gül, and Bülent Arınç founded the AKP; the traditional wing of the FP, inspired and led by Erbakan, founded the Felicity Party (SP – Saadet Partisi).   

In sum, Erdogan’s AKP was born out of the ashes of four banned Islamist parties in a political setting where the entire political system had been exhausted by decades of unstable coalition governments, corruption scandals, increasing dominance of the military in politics, and a devastating economic crisis in 2001. After having been repressed by the secular elite several times, he AKP succeeded in winning the hearts and minds of the conservative electorate in a very short time by adopting a modern and reformist agenda with the European Union accession criteria at the core and bringing together a young, dynamic, and promising team under the leadership of a charismatic figure. Erdogan’s party won its debut general elections and the democratization process was started.

Second Period: Democratization and Proliferation of Corruption Process (2002-2011)

The second period began in 2002, when the AKP came to power winning 34% of the votes cast and lasted until 2011 when the AKP won its third consecutive general election victory by a 49% landslide following a 58% referendum victory the year before. This period is characterized primarily by the AKP’s close relationship with the European Union abroad and its struggle with the military and secular elite within the country. When the AKP began to rule the country in 2002, the party administration formulated a political strategy based on the European Union’s accession requirements because they wanted to avoid making the same mistakes their predecessors had made. Chief among those mistakes, in the AKP’s view, was the adoption of a strict Islamic rhetoric that had pushed the sensitivities of Turkey’s secular power holders. The AKP chose a pragmatist path, deciding instead to make use of popular support for E.U. membership. That popular support enabled the AKP to implement the reforms needed to ensure that Turkey would be in compliance with E.U. membership requirements- particularly the requirement for separating the military from politics. The strategy worked to a certain extent and mainly in terms of the AKP’s ability to pass new legislation it had adopted from E.U. laws to strengthen the government’s hand and restrict the military’s involvement in governmental affairs. These new laws and other AKP democratic reforms were supported by Western countries and attracted a considerable amount of foreign investment in the country.

Close relations with the European Union paved the way not only for a democratic governmental system but also the modernization of law enforcement. Cooperation and training agreements between Turkish and European law-enforcement units facilitated the development and professionalization of the Turkish National Police. The AKP increased the government scholarship provided for civil servants to receive graduate education abroad. Within this framework, the government sent more than 300 police chiefs to receive graduate education in the United States and in European countries such as the United Kingdom, Germany, and France on the topics including but not limited to organized crime, terrorism, intelligence, and financing of terrorism. Such a well-educated group of police chiefs developed effective models for countering organized crime and terrorism as shared their knowledge through training sessions for the Turkish National Police. These efforts were reflected in police statistics in these years. For example, organized crime units were able to put well-known mafia leaders, who had been threatening the business world since the early 1990s, behind the bars, and successful police investigations led to a reduction in many types of trafficking and smuggling activities as well. The police also seized record amounts of narcotics, cigarettes, antiquities, and pharmaceuticals.

The second period of AKP rule in Turkey also was marked by the internationalization of the country’s police force. The police opened an international police training center in Ankara and trained organized crime units from more than 90 countries. Turkish police also became members of international organizations and cooperated with Western police in the fight against many types of smuggling and trafficking. At the same time, Turkish police participated in a record high number of controlled-delivery investigations with European police against drug trafficking groups.

Many other countries took notice and began to emulate the Turkish police model. For example, the lead author was invited to Pakistan in 2012 for the modernization of the Pakistani police. Turkish police began to serve in many United Nations police missions in conflict zones such as East Timor, Liberia, Kosovo, Bosnia Herzegovina, and Haiti. Upon their return and based on their experiences, the participating police officers were able to develop and implement effective models against many types of trafficking and smuggling at the national and provincial levels. For example, in Igdir province, the police developed an investigation model that included surveillance and undercover agents and resulted in saving more than 400 human trafficking victims and jailing around 100 traffickers.

The successful drug trafficking model impaired the Balkans trafficking route and pushed traffickers to find alternative routes such as the Mediterranean route and the Black Sea route. The new policing model also led to a record low number of police misconduct complaints and police-involved crimes and far fewer instances of police corruption and torture, both of which had been prevalent in previous years. With cooperation being one of the hallmarks of the new policing model, the law enforcement in EU countries enjoyed doing business with the Turkish police in the fight against trafficking and smuggling groups targeting their respective countries.

The then AKP invested a considerable amount of time, money, and effort in building the capacity of the TNP to fight organized crime and terrorism, though it apparently was not enough to prevent the AKP from becoming increasingly involved in what would eventually become rampant corruption. Thanks to the political atmosphere of the day, which was dominated by the struggle against the civil and military power circles putting pressure on the government through the use of secularism as a leverage, the rampant corruption scheme being perpetrated by AKP politicians was not fully realized by most of the respective actors. The government was subtly hindering police investigations of corruption cases following in the footsteps of former political parties that had vowed to fight corruption but even themselves were deeply involved in it.[8] The AKP not only failed to enact effective legislation, but it also abolished an independent anti-corruption unit to protect itself from any potential corruption investigations. For example, the AKP government received a draft corruption law in 2003 when the party assumed national power, but it rejected the legislation. In the second period of Erdogan, only a few anti-corruption investigations were undertaken despite a history of many successful police investigations against organized crime groups. The limited number of corruption investigations that did occur targeted municipalities run by members of opposition parties and other individuals who were not affiliated with the AKP. 

According to the lead author’s research in 2009, public perception of corruption within municipal governments was more than 85%.[9] In another study conducted by the lead author in 2015, the performance of police organized-crime units during the second period of AKP rule had only a temporary impact on the fight against criminal groups and corruption. Four factors contributed to this outcome: The first factor is related to sociological composition of the country. In the eastern and southeastern regions of the country, smuggling and trafficking were routine activities and were not seen as serious crimes. The government ignored smuggling and trafficking groups, prioritizing instead the fight against the PKK terrorist organization. The government used a laissez faire model[10] and took a hands-off approach to local smugglers and traffickers. The message was that you could continue criminal activities as long as you are not part of the terrorist organization. It was like a reward for local residents for choosing to side with the state. The government’s approach, however, routinized such criminal activities to the point where local residents did not consider oil smuggling or cigarette smuggling as crimes. Even today, open local markets continue to sell smuggled commodities. Along similar lines, the Turkish population had become desensitized to corruption. All of the political parties in Turkey were perceived to be corrupt, with the only difference being the amount of corruption the parties committed. The Turkish people, therefore, came to prefer political parties that were “stealing, yet working at the same time.” The AKP’s followers in Turkey therefore closed their eyes and ears to serious corruption allegations against their political party because they saw hospitals, bridges, airports, and highways being constructed by their party.[11] The second factor is related to the country’s laws and its judiciary system. The AKP and its predecessors abstained from enacting effective laws against money laundering and corruption; therefore, the successful performance of police organized-crime units had little impact on criminal groups. These efforts were insufficient to institutionalize the fight against crime and terrorism.[12] The third factor is related to the impact of politicians. Political parties, including the AKP, exploited the police organized-crime units to intimidate their opponents. The head of the organized crime department heard the government’s message and redirected their attention to opposition political parties.[13] Finally, the fourth factor is related to economics. The Turkish government deliberately failed to control the flow of illegal money because this money provided considerable liquidity, which was essential for the weak economy.[14]  

Third Period: Erdogan’s Survival Game in the Face of the Graft Probes (2011-2016)

The third period started with consecutive referendum and general election victories for the AKP in 2010 and 2011, respectively, prompting AKP to declare that the party was entering into its “mastery era.”  Now the unquestionable ruler of the country, Erdogan started to oppress his opponents and consolidate his power at every level of the state body. Nonetheless, with the December 17 and 25, 2013, corruption investigations, the AKP ran into a stone wall while going at full speed with his unbridled authoritarianism. Stumbled by the graft scandals, the AKP leadership could either step down and resign himself to his fate or fight back and turn the situation into an advantage. Needless to say, the party chose the second option at the cost of purging thousands of members of the police and judiciary, amending the Code of Criminal Procedures, the National Intelligence Agency Law, and several other laws and regulations to restrict personal freedoms and give excessive authority to the country’s intelligence units.

December 17 Investigation: Zarrab’s Economic Jihad (ZEJ)

Faced with the difficulty of dealing with the destructive consequences of an international embargo, Iran started to look for ways to bypass the restrictions by transferring money into Iran through affiliate companies. At the same time, the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, declared 2011 as the onset of economic jihad and a milestone for the reforms intended to boost the economy.[15] Reza Zarrab and Babak Zanjani were the most important affiliates of Iran in this regard, and both considered themselves to be the executors of the economic jihad. Zarrab was a young businessman who had earned Turkish citizenship in 2013 and whose name was known by the Turkish population following his marriage to a famous pop star in Turkey. Still, Turkey learned much more about Zarrab when he was detained as part of a corruption probe conducted by the police on December 17, 2013. After the investigation started, Erdogan publicly denounced the police and prosecutors who conducted the operation, accusing them of “plotting a judicial coup against himself” and backed Zarrab, calling him “a benevolent businessman.” Curiously enough, Zarrab was released soon after being hailed by Erdogan on television. Zarrab and Zanjani were helping Iran skirt the embargo imposed by the United Nations, the United States, and the European Union through a complicated scheme.

The police found solid evidence of corruption by wiretapping phone conversations between the minister of economy and Zarrab. For example, the police discovered that the minister of economy had accepted bribes in the amount of $50 million. The minister of economy provided connections between Zarrab and the director of Halkbank, which played a critical role in transferring money from China to Turkey and in committing the fictitious trade between Turkey and Dubai in return for large amounts of bribe money. The police were able to prove that Zarrab had paid 15 installments of bribe money to the director of Halkbank for a total of around $5 million. Zarrab also paid $10 million in bribes to the minister of interior and $1.5 million to the minister of the European Union.

Until Zarrab was arrested in Miami, Florida, on March 19, 2016, Erdogan thought that he had successfully ceased the prosecution of the case and covered up everything in relation thereof. The United States District Court for the Southern District of New York had filed an indictment charging the suspects in the December 17 corruption case with conducting transactions in violation of U.S. sanctions proscribing commercial transactions with Iran, and Zarrab’s arrest was based on this indictment. The suspects were charged with laundering the money earned by their illegal activities and with deceiving a number of banks through disinformation.[16] Moreover, the Turkish police investigative report of the December 17 case was acknowledged by the U.S. prosecution and used as evidence to support the U.S. indictment.  Zarrab’s monetary links with the Erdogan family, for example his generous donations to the Social Development Center Association, which had been established by the first lady, Emine Erdogan, also were mentioned in the indictment.[17]

Erdogan used several strategies to meddle in the prosecution of Zarrab in the United States. He first made a concerted effort to secure Zarrab’s release from U.S. custody. Erdogan also visited former President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump to ask how Zarrab could be extradited. Erdogan took further action by having some American citizens in Turkey arrested and used as bargaining chips in the Zarrab case. Erdogan, for example, had Resurrection Church Pastor Andrew Craig Brunson arrested in Izmir for his alleged connection with the Gulen movement. U.S. citizens Serkan Golge, a 38-year old NASA employee, and Islam Kul, a faculty member at Widener University, also were arrested on the same allegations. In addition to these U.S. citizens, Drug Enforcement Administration liaison officer Metin Topuz and Hamza Ulucay, a translator for the U.S. consulate in Istanbul, were arrested as part of the AKP government’s investigation of the Gulen movement. 

Erdogan’s efforts on Zarrab’s behalf ultimately failed. In October 2017, Zarrab pleaded guilty and agreed to fully collaborate with U.S. Justice Department attorneys. Zarrab confessed everything in his testimony. That is, he admitted to having set up a scheme with Turkish officials to help Iran bypass the embargo[18], confessed that he continued to launder money even after his release from prison in Turkey after the December17 corruption investigation; and implicitly revealed the name of Erdogan and his family members, such as Berat Albayrak, Erdogan’s son-in-law and current minister of economy, as his accomplices in the corruption scheme. Once Zarrab’s confessions were learned in Turkey, the “benevolent businessman” Zarrab was substituted by the “charlatan” Zarrab. “Charlatan” was the new adjective attached before Zarrab’s name when he was referred to by the Erdogan ecosystem.[1]

December 25 Investigation: Erdogan’s Pool System  

Erdogan’s history of corruption started in the mid-1990s when he was elected as Istanbul metropolitan mayor. He created a volunteer extortion system based on public tenders called the pool system. The system required the winning bidder for a municipal project to pay an upfront 10% commission (i.e., extortion money) on the total value of the project. The money from all such projects would be accumulated in a pool to be used for AKP activities. Erdogan justified the pool system with false Islamic rhetoric, saying that Muslims should have enough funds to wage a proper struggle against the enemies of the religion.[19] Thus, several tenders would be initiated to feed the pool as much as possible. The tenders were granted to the businessmen affiliated with the party.[20] After the 10% extortion was paid, the respective firm was assured that its work process would not be audited.[21]

Note that early applications of the pool system were confined to the municipal level. Evidence from the December 17 and 25 corruption investigations, however, revealed that the pool system gradually had become a complex international scheme after Erdogan seized the premiership in 2003. Iran and the Gulf countries were the primary actors in this complex network of corruption. The December 25 investigation, which focused on Erdogan and his family, uncovered a myriad of evidence indicating that Erdogan created and ran the sophisticated corruption scheme himself. According to the evidence, Erdogan had extended his pool system to include all sorts of public tenders. The system can be explained as follows: The AKP government constantly generated large construction projects regardless of whether they actually were needed. The tenders were granted to AKP-affiliated businessmen who were allowed to finance the entire project through public banks with long-term, low-interest loans. The businessmen who were awarded the tenders paid to Erdogan a predefined percentage of the total value of the project. Wiretap records that were leaked to the media, after the investigation was completed, showed that while businessmen were frustrated about the extortion money they had to pay, they continued to reassure one another they had a the brilliant future ahead of them.[22]

Illegal Arms Transfer to Syria

On January 19, 2014, a number of trucks were stopped and searched by the gendarmerie forces in Adana province based on a tip that the trucks were loaded with arms to be delivered to terrorists in Syria. Curiously enough, the governor of the province came to the scene during the search process and ordered the gendarmerie forces to cease the search process because the trucks were operated by the National Intelligence Agency (MIT in its Turkish acronym) and their merchandise belonged to the agency. Such an intervention was a clear violation of the search warrant issued by a court. Although the gendarmerie commander asked for a legal letter indicating that the trucks were operated by the MIT, the governor declined to provide one, and the trucks continued on their journey toward Syria.

When the incident was known publicly, the government’s first reaction was to announce that the merchandise on the trucks was a national secret. However, as the issue was repeatedly brought up by the opposition, conflicting statements were made by different government actors. Some of them, for example, said that the trucks were loaded with humanitarian aid, food, and medicine to be delivered to Bayirbucak Turkmens, while others claimed that the trucks were carrying hunting rifles only. The opposition parties insisted that the trucks were supplying arms and arsenal to ISIS. To make things more complicated, Bayirbucak Turkmens declared that they did not receive any humanitarian aid from Turkey.[23] The truth was revealed on May 29, when Can Dundar, who was then the editor of the Cumhuriyet Daily newspaper, shared video footage on the newspaper’s website showing the search of the trucks. The video showed that  heavy weapons had been placed underneath packages of food and medicine.[24] Erdogan and his ecosystem reacted to the leakage of the footage the same way they had done after the December 17 and 25 corruption probes. They accused the prosecutors and the gendarmerie commanders who conducted the operation of plotting a coup against the government blamed the journalists who reported the news about the incident with treason. All of the actors involved in the process were arrested and imprisoned.

Both the December 17 and 25 investigations and the MIT trucks scandal forced Erdogan to further his authoritarian policies to prevent the occurrence of similar scandals and secure his place in office. This caused a vicious cycle of authoritarianism which culminated with the July 15 coup attempt.

To sum up, the AKPs authoritarization process, which started with the landslide victories in the 2010 referendum and 2011 general elections, skyrocketed after Erdogan faced a survival challenge following the December 17 and 25 graft probes by the police. After seeing that his electorate continued to give their support for him despite solid evidence of corruption, Erdogan was encouraged to take authoritarian steps purging thousands of law-abiding police officers and judiciary members and undermining the entire legal system built up during the E.U. accession process.

The Impacts of AKP’s Third Period on the Organized Crime Police

In the third period, the AKP intensified its authoritarian tendencies, targeting officials who were not loyal to the party’s ideology and who strictly enforced the laws regardless of whether the offenders were politicians or high-level bureaucrats. The police investigations that proved the involvement of AKP members and leaders and government and bureaucrats in corruption scandals and arms trafficking to Al-Qaeda affiliated groups in Syria accelerated the process of the solidifying AKP authoritarianism in Turkey. Although the evidence from the graft investigations and the MIT trucks case showed that Erdogan and his entourage had been deeply involved in systematic corruption and had provided financial and arms support to the most dangerous terrorist organization, Erdogan was able to convince his base that these investigations were attempts by members of the so-called parallel state which, to Erdogan and his ecosystem, was a reference to the Gulen movement. The pool media played an important role in this process because the electorate whom Erdogan targeted with his message consisted primarily the uneducated members of society who could easily be deceived through propaganda broadcast on television. Erdogan won the local elections in March 2014.

In the meantime, a comprehensive mobbing process was started against certain members of the police and judiciary who had been blacklisted earlier as Gulenists. The mobbing process, which started with arbitrary reassignment of the personnel to insignificant posts and the initiation of administrative investigations with flimsy allegations, grew over time to include thousands of members of the police and judiciary. Worse still, legal investigations were started against the police and judiciary personnel who had conducted the December 17 and 25 investigations. Erdogan had successfully covered up these investigations without being subject to any prosecution by demonizing the police, prosecutors, and judges who conducted these investigations; nevertheless, the evidence found during these investigations were included in the Zarrab case tried in the United States and, moreover, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies awarded the FBI agents who conducted the Zarrab investigation with the Alberto Nisman Award for Courage in August 2018.[25] During the award ceremony, Jennifer Mcreynolds, who was one of the FBI agents awarded, made the following statement:

We especially recognize the sacrifices of you, the innocent people in Turkey and Iran, who are persecuted for your struggles against oppression and corruption. What you and your families have endured, no one should have to, but even in the darkest hours you have courageously strived for truth and justice.Very much like Alberto Nisman.

Although Erdogan prevented the prosecution of four ministers, including the minister of interior who had been involved in the graft scandal, he ordered all of them to step down. One of the ministers held a press conference to disclose the letter he had received from Erdogan asking for his resignation. He also said, “Erdogan would better resign to relieve the country”. The new minister of Interior was Efgan Ala, a former governor who had ambitiously dedicated himself to the substitution of all critical posts in the police force after the December 2013 investigations. As part of that process, all of the police chiefs who had executed the December 17 and 25 investigations were assigned to insignificant positions immediately after the onset of the investigations. Ala was replacing the police chiefs with people who would be loyal to the government at any cost. In addition, Ala orchestrated the reassignment of the staff of the Intelligence and Anti-Terror Departments and the organized crimes and narcotics units. Staff of the Financial Crimes Investigation Board (MASAK) and all other public institutions with the authority to investigate corruption cases were replaced as well. Prosecutors of the corruption investigations were reassigned to different positions shortly after the onset of the operations.[26] As part of this process, several wiretapped phone conversations of Erdogan and AKP politicians and bureaucrats were leaked to social media. The recordings provided evidence that the government had covered up the corruption investigations. Some of the records featuring Ala revealed that Ala had made an extensive effort to cover up the investigations and persecute the police officers who conducted the operations.[27]

The December 17 and 25 investigation gave Erdogan a deep shock. The police force members who were administratively under the command of the minister of interior had conducted a long-lasting investigation on the minister of interior and other members of the cabinet and even the prime minister without arousing any doubt in the subjects whatsoever. Although he used his political skills to convince the gullible AKP electorate, Erdogan was gravely afraid of taking a similar blow from the police once again. Erdogan therefore reasoned that the police should be either transformed into a fully loyal force or totally abolished and replaced by a completely new force. Erdogan gave this duty to Efgan Ala, who followed an interesting strategy in the early phase of the transformation of the police. Most of the police chiefs who were assigned to replace their colleagues who conducted the December 17 and 25 investigations previously had been punished or investigated for committing certain types of misconduct. These were police chiefs who had no expectations to be assigned to such important positions given their dirty histories. Most of them also were full of hatred for their successors, having seen them as the cause of their undervaluation. By assigning these deposed police chiefs to critical positions, Ala was able to ensure that the new police chiefs would be loyal to the party and that the police chiefs targeted after the December 17 and 25 investigations would be persecuted using them as the perpetrators as Erdogan had instructed. After the reassignments, the accumulated know-how and experience in the critical departments of intelligence, anti-terrorism, organized crimes, financial crimes, and narcotics went up in smoke. Needless to say, Erdogan had deliberately impaired the capacity of these departments because in normal conditions, every properly conducted corruption or organized crime investigation would have connections to Erdogan one way or another. Still worse, the same replacement process was applied to the judiciary by Bekir Bozdag, who was minister of justice at that time. Bozdag replaced all of the critical judges and prosecutors with judges who were affiliated with the party and loyal to Erdogan. Thus, the system in Turkey was made totalitarian with the concerted efforts of the Erdogan ecosystem following the corruption scandals.

The next step in Erdogan’s effort to solidify his authoritarian rule involved using the newly assigned cadres as a tool for persecuting the civil servants blacklisted as allegedly Gulenists. The primary targets of this next phase were the members of the police and judiciary who had conducted the December 17 and 25 investigations. Erdogan was hitting his “enemies” hard in order to deter any further actions against him, believing that he never would be able to trust the police after the blow he had taken in late 2013. The first probes of Erdogan’s perceived police-officer enemies were conducted on July 22, 2014, and 104 police officers were captured. The operation was conducted in the month of Ramadan at midnight, violating the extant laws and regulations on detention. Moreover, the maximum detention period, which is four days, also was violated, with the detainees being held in custody for eight consecutive days. The detainees also were subjected to inhumane treatment by their colleagues.[28] [2] Erdogan’s move towards totalitarianism was going on at full speed, but the worst had yet to come.

Fourth Period: Absolute Authority (2016-Ongoing)

The AKP’s efforts to solidify authoritarian rule in the country continued into the fourth period. Erdogan asserted control over state institutions by eliminating “uncontrollable”[3] officials and labeling them as terrorists. He then proceeded to redesign the entire country by oppressing all sources of opposition to the government. Apparently, a small fraction of military officers plotted what appeared to be a badly orchestrated coup. The events that unfolded on the night of July 15 are full of question marks, indicating that the coup was designed to fail. First, the timing of the coup was odd. It began on a Friday night at 10 p.m. when scores of people were out on the streets. Second, the coup plotters blocked only one direction of one of the two bridges over the Bosporus strait at a time when traffic is heaviest. Third, the perpetrators of the coup did not take full control of Ataturk airport. The coup apparently had forgotten to capture these and other high-level politicians at the start of the coup. Most of the media outlets were allowed continue their broadcasts, and only a few of the outlets were the targets for occupation and control—and then by only a handful of soldiers. A number of bombing incidents, however, did occur in Ankara during the coup attempt. The bloodiest ones of these were against the police. It is clear that the masterminds of the coup, that apparently was designed to fail, intended only to provoke the police by cruelly killing tens of their colleagues in order to vent their frustration and ire about the upcoming persecution of the thousands of people who would be persecuted in the aftermath of the coup. The unlawful actions of especially the Ankara police and the SWAT police, the headquarters of which had been attacked with machine guns from helicopters clearly show that the coup plotters’ tactics had worked. [29]

The AKP government made up flimsy stories about who was responsible for the failed coup, first blaming Americans and then declaring that Fethullah Gulen and his followers had plotted the coup attempt. However, as the lead author points out in articles published in Small Wars Journal, the coup attempt left many unanswered questions. Evidence presented by the lead author in those articles shows that Erdogan, military force commanders, and the chief of intelligence were informed about the coup attempt before it happened and allowed coup plotters execute their badly orchestrated plan; provoked and allowed the clashes happen; and did nothing to stop the murder of hundreds of innocent people. Erdogan blamed the Gulen movement from the moment the coup began and repeated the erroneous assessment so frequently and with so much intensity that the citizens of Turkey believed the statement must be true. Moreover, the images of badly tortured army generals who were allegedly taken part in the attempt and beheaded soldiers who had been surrendered were deliberately broadcast on the TV.  These images were so intimidating that no one could dare to raise the slightest objection against the claims of the government. Requests for parliament to investigate the coup attempt were rejected by a vote of AKP deputies. The entire Turkish public opinion about the coup attempt was singlehandedly controlled by the Erdogan ecosystem, and whoever pointed out inconsistencies in the government’s official storyline, even with a tweet, were readily imprisoned.

The July 15 coup attempt continues to serve as a pretext for the AKP government to crack down on its opponents. Given its control of almost all media outlets in Turkey, it would not be difficult for the AKP to influence public opinion to the point where Turkish citizens would believe the government’s ungrounded theories about the coup plotters. The AKP scapegoated Gulenists as the coup plotters from the very beginning and began to purge thousands of the allegedly Gulenists from the government on the basis of scant and fabricated evidence. In total, the government fired more than 30,000 police officers and 20,000 military personnel. The number of judges and prosecutors sacked totaled 4,463.[30] The government’s pressure also encompassed seculars and Kurds in the country. The government arrested journalists from two newspapers, Sozcu and Cumhuriyet Daily, and jailed hundreds of Kurds. Also, more than 50 elected Kurdish municipality mayors were removed illegally and replaced with trustees assigned by the AKP.

Erdogan was strategic enough to appoint Suleyman Soylu as his new minister of interior. The hawkish former leader of the Democratic Party (DP) was transferred by Erdogan to the AKP. Soylu was smart enough to know well that Erdogan was seeking protection from being prosecuted for his crimes and a guarantee that he would be exempt from prosecution in the future. Soylu therefore recklessly weaponize law-enforcement against Erdogan’s opponents. Mehmet Agar, Soylu’s predecessor as leader of the DP and former minister of interior (whose son is still an AKP deputy in parliament) helped Soylu redesign the Turkish National Police. Agar was no stranger to shady dealings, having been convicted for his relations with criminal groups following the Susurluk scandal in the 1990s.

Soylu continued to assign previously convicted police chiefs to critical police departments. After the December 17 and 25 corruption scandals, for example, Soylu’s predecessor appointed a police chief as head of ASOD who had been indicted and sentenced to more than 250 years in prison for his involvement in organized crime and corruption. Soylu’s choice for head of ASOD had a similar background that included being suspended from his position for his involvement in illegal wiretapping. Members of Soylu’s newly designed police units were unqualified and had been involved in criminal and terrorism cases. For example, one of self-radicalized police officers has been linked to Jabhat al Nusra, an al Qeada affiliated group operating in Syria, and was responsible for the assassinating the Russian ambassador in Ankara in December 2016.[31]

Soylu exploited the organized crime police for the benefits of his party. ASOD was founded in 1981 to fight against organized crime groups that have committed smuggling and trafficking crimes. The department was active in responding to mafia-style groups that were threatening national security. After the July 15 coup attempt, however, the AKP exploited the organized crime unit and assigned it to fight against the enemies of the government. ASOD yearly reports were first published in 1993[32] and included only information on how organized crime police fought against mafia-style organizations and trafficking and smuggling groups. In 2016, a new chapter titled “Crimes against National Security” was added to the ASOD reports. This chapter summarizes the activities, investigations, police raids, and operations of the police organized-crime units against Gulenists in the country. In the past, the Anti-Terrorism Department typically was responsible for fighting against the groups that posed a threat to national security. In 2018, instead of conducting investigations against smuggling and trafficking groups, the police organized-crime units conducted 815 police investigations against the Gulen group and arrested 15,467 Gulenists.[33] All of the alleged Gulenists who had been arrested were former policemen, teachers, small businessmen, housewives, and university students. Details in the 2018 ASOD report show how the police organized-crime units spent a significant portion of its funding and energy to oppress Erdogan’s enemies. It is clear that the AKP authoritarianism that started in 2011 and was firmly in place after the 2016 coup attempt has negatively impacted the capacity of the police organized-crime units to investigate smuggling and trafficking cases while creating opportunities for organized crime groups to flourish.

Impacts of Authoritarianism on Criminal Markets

Police reports have recorded considerable decreases in drug trafficking, human trafficking, human smuggling, corruption investigations, and mafia-style crimes. The following is a discussion of each crime category.

Drug Trafficking

The drastic purge of the police and judiciary led to an unprecedented opportunity for criminal networks, primarily drug traffickers. The annual law-enforcement report for 2014 clearly shows that the replacement of the law-enforcement cadres gravely curbed the effectiveness of the police compared with previous years. In 2014, cannabis seizures were down by 49.5%, Captagon seizures were down by 94.5%, ecstasy seizures were down by 53.6%, and acetic anhydride seizures were down by 98.1% compared with the previous year.[34] Likewise, when the heroin seizures in Van, Istanbul, and Hakkari, which are the provinces with the highest amounts or heroin seizures, are examined, the data show that the number of seizures declined considerably in 2014, 2015, and 2016 compared with 2013, 2014, and 2015, respectively. Take Hakkari, for example. The Turkish border province one of the major routes for the smuggling of Iranian heroin, heroin seizures in the first quarter of 2014 totaled 2.5 kg compared with 500 kg during the same period in 2013.[35]

In a clear sign that the declining effectiveness of the narcotics police unit as a whole had encouraged drug lords to set up production plants in Turkey to levels seen in the 1980s, several such facilities were uncovered in the country between 2015 and 2017. The increase in the number of drug-production plants in Turkey represents one of the detrimental impacts of AKP authoritarianism on the narcotics police units and reverses the units’ gains in the decades-long struggle against drug cartels. The proliferation of drug-production labs, however, is not limited to heroin facilities. The number of methamphetamine production plants also increased during the same period and, since 2014, Turkey has been an easy route for drug trafficking, primarily for Iranian traffickers.  

Another casualty of the AKP’s authoritarian rule is the demise of cooperative network the Turkish National Police had established before 2014 with law-enforcement agencies in several countries, including the United States and the European Union. The inexperience and lack of focus among the newly assigned cadres, however, become significant obstacles to developing and maintaining international cooperation with the narcotics units in other countries. Controlled-delivery operations declined significantly as a result of this lack of cooperation. Needless to say, Turkey’s European counterparts in the fight against drug trafficking are extremely uneasy about prospects for future cooperative operations.

At the same time, the number of police corruption cases has increased significantly since the AKP’s purge of police officers and police officials. Some of the chiefs of narcotics units in major provinces, for example, have been bribed by drug trafficking groups. When the AKP government halted the internal and external control mechanisms intended to prevent corruption within the Turkish National Police, dishonest police officers found vast opportunities to engage in drug trafficking activities.[36] In December 2014, for example, two policemen and one public prosecutor were captured by the police while transferring 161 kg of cannabis and 13 kg of heroin.[37] Another policeman was arrested for having 205 kg of cannabis in his car in 2015.[38] Yet another policeman was captured with 40 kg of heroin in Diyarbakir.[39] In 2019, one military personnel was arrested with 21 kg of heroin in Bolu.[40]

Mafia-Style Crimes

Organized crime groups that operate like a mafia typically commit crimes in their home countries and focus on businesses with high profit margins. Other common features of mafia-type groups are excessive use of violence and shifting the business areas in which they operate in response to the ability of law enforcement to hinder their activities. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Turkish mafia-style organizations mainly engaged in activities such as extortion, land fraud, the purchase of toxic checks, and “snatching[s].”[41]

Turkey’s efforts to join the European Union and govern as a democracy in the second period of AKP rule led to the transfer of counter organized crime activities from Europe to Turkey, resulting in the arrest of well-known mafia leaders such as Alaattin Cakici, Ayvaz Korkmaz, Kursat Yilmaz, Sedat Sahin, and Sedat Peker. During the third and fourth periods of AKP rule, however, the government developed and nurtured close relationships with mafia-style groups. In 2020, the Erdogan government’s amnesty law paved the way for the release of well-known mafia leaders. Currently, the government turns a blind eye to the activities of mafia-style leaders who were involved in many homicide and extortion cases. These leaders seem to be more highly regarded within the country than the former police officers who arrested them while risking their own lives to do so. One of the released mafia leaders made an official visit to Devlet Bahceli, the leader of the Nationalist Movement Party (Milliyetci Hareket Partisi – MHP) and the de facto coalition partner of the AKP, who shared his photo with the mafia leader.[42] Another released mafia leader, Sedat Peker, who has been an outspoken supporter of Erdogan, made a speech inciting hatred and abetting a criminal act, but the court ruled that his speech was not a crime.[43] 

Organized crime policing is a highly demanding field that requires a specific group of staff who have knowledge and experience in technical and physical surveillance methods and are able to infiltrate undercover agents into organized crime groups. Comparative statistics on the number of organized crime investigations are the major indicators of an investigative unit’s level of expertise in the field. The sharp decline in both the number of organized crime operations and the number of suspects captured in each of three years starting in 2014 show how the capacity of the police organized-crime units has been undermined by the AKP government’s purging of experienced police officers (see Figure 2).  


Chart 2 Turkey


Figure 2: Number of operations conducted, and suspects captured in mafia-style criminal cases[44]


Corruption and Financial Crimes Investigations

As was previously noted, corruption has been a major problem in Turkey since the mid-1970s. Nonetheless, starting with the December 17 and 25, 2013, corruption investigations, the prevalence of perceived corruption has skyrocketed in the country. We explained earlier that Erdogan was backed by his political base even after the revelation of the most obvious corruption scandals in which he has been personally involved. Seeing the nonchalant reaction from the majority of the Turkish population to his corrupt activities, Erdogan and his ecosystem behaved more recklessly in spending public money. As a corollary, Transparency International’s 2017 Corruption Perception Index showed that the ranking for Turkey dropped 28 steps, from 53 in 2013 to 81 in 2017 out of 180 countries.[45] The decline in Turkey’s corruption perceptions index ranking continued in 2019, with the country ranked 91st out of 198 countries.[46] Shocked by the December 17 and 25 corruption investigations, Erdogan, the corruption epicenter of the country, significantly shifted the focus of the police from their primary duties—including fighting corruption. This policy paid off for Erdogan and his ecosystem, as the number of government officials subjected to corruption or graft investigations dropped by 87% between 2013[47] and 2018.[48] By the same token, investigations conducted by police organized-crime units in relation to corruption cases dropped by 64% over the same period.[49] Figure 3 shows the sharp decline in the number of corruption investigations in municipalities that historically have been the primary locations for graft activity.


Chart 3


Figure 3: Number of investigations targeting corruption in Turkish
municipalities between 2010 and 2018[50]

The decline in police performance with respect to organized crime also was evident for financial crimes where the perpetrators were highly clever and skilled people who were able to commit the illegal activity in a sophisticated manner (e.g., Halkbank’s role in the Zarrab case). To effectively investigate these crimes, which also are referred to as white-collar crimes, police investigators need to be at least as knowledgeable and skillful as the perpetrators. Figure 4 shows that the number of financial crimes investigations dropped by 64.1% between 2013 and 2017.[51]


Chart 4


Figure 4: Number of financial crimes investigations conducted
in Turkey between 2013 and 2018[52]


Smuggling is central to the Turkish illicit economy. Pervasive smuggling activity in Turkey has threatened the country’s legitimate economy for years. Meanwhile, the value of the illegal market for cigarettes, oil, and pharmaceuticals amounts to billions of dollars. The demand for cheaper goods and the perception of smuggling as a relatively legitimate activity have presented a plethora of opportunities for criminals.

The government’s massive purge of the police ranks has allowed smuggling groups to culminate their activities in Turkey. The number of smuggling investigations conducted, and the number of suspects captured decreased sharply between 2013 and 2018 (See Figure 5). These decreases are more visible in oil and cigarette smuggling cases.



Chart 5


Figure 5: Number of smuggling cases and number of suspects
captured in Turkey in 2013 and 2018[53]

Oil Smuggling

Oil smuggling is one of the most lucrative activities for both organized crime groups and terrorist organizations. Turkey is not an oil producing country and, therefore, it has to import most of its oil. The government levies a tax of more than 60% on the price of retail oil products, making the Turkish population consume some of the most expensive gas in the world. High oil prices and geographical proximity to oil-rich countries with porous borders inevitably paved the way for an illicit oil market to flourish.[54] That is, while the price of a liter of gasoline was $2.70 in Turkey, it was 10 cents in Turkey’s eastern neighbor, Iran, around 20 cents in its southeastern neighbor, Iraq, and 25 cents in its southern neighbor, Syria, in 2012.[55] 

The number of oil smuggling investigations conducted, the number of suspects captured, and the amount of oil seized (see Figures 6 and 7) began to decrease sharply after 2014, even though the number of oil smuggling cases increased as a result of the ongoing civil war in Syria.


Chart 6



Figure 6: Number of oil smuggling investigations and number of suspects
arrested in Turkey between 2009 and 2018[56]



Chart 7


Figure 7: Amount of oil, in millions of liters, seized in Turkey
between 2010 and 2018[57]

Cigarette Smuggling

Cigarette smuggling has significant negative consequences on public health, the economy, and security in Turkey. Illicit cigarettes wreak more harm to human health than legal cigarettes, lead to a considerable loss of tax income for the government, create disequilibrium in the legal market, and provide an astronomical amount of income for terrorist organizations. Cigarette smuggling is attractive to organized crime groups and terrorist organizations and to certain people living in the southeastern border area of the country because the demand for cigarettes is high and the tax on legal cigarettes is so high that the purchase of cigarettes comes with a hefty price tag. Another factor that makes cigarette smuggling attractive to organized crime groups and terrorist organizations in particular is the relatively lower penalties and the higher odds of being tried without arrest if captured by law-enforcement officers.[58] Cigarette smuggling is attractive to people living in eastern and southeastern Turkey because these regions are the poorest ones in the country, and unemployment rates are very high. With few job prospects, cigarette smuggling has been the primary way of making a living in this part of the country for decades. The smuggling of cigarettes—and other goods—is totally welcomed and is not considered a crime in these regions.[59] Thus, cigarette smuggling is prevalent in these regions and the number of cigarettes seized by law-enforcement officers is expected to be high in a country with a well-functioning law-enforcement.

As of 2014, the amount of tax levied on tobacco products in Turkey was 82.2%—the sixth highest in the world.[60] Official statistics show that there are 14.5 smokers in Turkey and that approximately 83,000 people die from health problems caused by smoking each year.[61] The huge illicit cigarette market in Turkey would lead to a high volume of seizures by law-enforcement officers in a properly governed country. Erdogan’s authoritarianism, however, has severely undermined the ability of the police to fight cigarette smuggling. During the third and fourth periods of the AKP rule, cigarette seizures dropped sharply in provinces bordering Iran and Syria and in metropolitan cities. For example, the total number of cigarettes seized by law-enforcement officers in the four provinces bordering Iran decreased about 80% between 2013 and 2018 (see Figure 8).


Chart 8


Figure 8: Number of packages of smuggled cigarettes seized in the
Turkish provinces bordering Iran
in 2013 and 2018[62]

The decrease in seizures of smuggled cigarettes continued in metropolitan cities, where the total decrease in cigarette seizures between 2013 and 2018 was around 75% (see Figure 9). 


Chart 9


Figure 9:  Number of packages of smuggled cigarettes seized in Turkey’s
metropolitan cities in 2013 and 2018[63]

Another example of the undermined ability of police organized-crime units to stop cigarette smuggling is the dramatic drop in seizures in Turkish provinces along the country’s border with Syria (see Figure 10), where groups affiliated with ISIS and al Qaeda take advantage of the porous border between Turkey and Syria. International reports have noted that a significant number of these militants traveled to Syria through Turkey’s weakly secured borders. Figure 10 shows the drop in cigarette seizures in the area along Turkey’s border with Syria between 2013 and 2018.  


Chart 10


Figure 10: Number of cigarette packages seized in Turkish provinces bordering Syria
between 2013 and 2018[64]

Human Smuggling and Human Trafficking

Turkey has been both a bridge country and a target country in terms of human smuggling and human trafficking. When the expert organized-crime police were replaced by inexperienced officers after the December 17 and 25 corruption investigations, the 20th edition of the U.S. Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report underscored the lack of experience and specialization among prosecutors and judges regarding trafficking. The report noted that the Turkish government purged more than 150,000 government workers between 2016 and 2018.[65] Although the Turkish government stopped sharing statistics on human smuggling and human trafficking in 2015, police and judicial weakness related to human smuggling and human trafficking can be inferred from open-source data. For example, the diverse array of ethnicities represented by the captured subjects of human smuggling shows the scope of the market and proves that human smugglers prefer Turkey as a bridge to Europe because Turkey’s law-enforcement system is disoriented and lacks the experience needed for it to be effective.

Moreover, millions of Syrian refugees in Turkey further expanded the human-smuggling market, and Syrian human traffickers have been an important link in the global human trafficking nexus. After failing to take the necessary steps to fight human smuggling and human trafficking, Erdogan used the Syrian refugees in Turkey as a trump card, threatening European governments with opening Turkey’s borders unless the Europeans come to terms with him. Erdogan, however, did at one point follow through on his threat when he transferred thousands of Syrian refugees to the Greek border and opened the border gates in February 2020, causing a crisis in Europe. Unfortunately, European governments mostly turn a blind eye to Erdogan’s authoritarian actions and human rights violations out of fear that refugees will inundate their countries. For example, the Turkish government organized and conducted the smuggling of illegal immigrants from Turkey to Europe in early 2020 and reported that more than 142,000 Syrians left the country.[66]

Human trafficking is another crime that has been negatively affected by the authoritarian AKP government. Until 2014, organized-crime police typically arrested around 100 traffickers each year;[67] however, human-trafficking statistics have not been published by the government since then. The lead author spent years developing anti-human-trafficking models in Turkey, and one of those models was implemented successfully in Igdir province on the border with Iran. The lead author’s model was applied in this province in 2012 and 2013 and resulted in the arrest of more than 100 traffickers and the emancipation of around 400 victims of human trafficking. AKP policies, however, curbed the capacity of the police in Igdir as well. The chiefs of the organized crime unit was purged and replaced by someone who previously had been prosecuted for human trafficking. This personnel move was enough to destroy what had been a successful anti-human-trafficking model, create opportunities for traffickers.[68]

Money Laundering

Turkey is one of the prominent regional finance hubs for countries in Central Asia, Middle East and Eastern Europe.[69] Turkey’s status as a regional financial center attracts criminal groups and terrorist organizations looking for a place to launder money made through illegal activities. Money laundering and other components of the underground economy in Turkey account for 25% to 30% of all economic activity in the country. The money laundering methods used by criminal and terrorist organizations involve the transportation of large sums of cash across borders, complex bank transfers, trade fraud, and investments in real estate and luxurious goods.[70] Smurfing and structuring methods are widely used for laundering money. Catering and transportation are the major sectors where organized crime groups launder money.

Another factor that has facilitated the money laundering activities of criminal organizations is a legal regulation passed by the Turkish government in 2015 to allow the transfer of money into the country without an upper limit on the amount and without an obligation to state the source of the money.[71] This legislation was advantageous to organized crime groups such as Turkish drug cartels operating in Europe and terrorist organizations such as the PKK that collect money from expatriate Kurds in Europe, as they now could bring the money they raised from their activities abroad into Turkey. The most popular sectors for laundering money with this method are real estate and tourism. In Antalya province, one of the most important tourism centers in Turkey, the 2015 law has been especially popular with Turkish and Russian organized crime groups that buy hotels to launder the money they make from drug trafficking.

Iranian firms also are major money laundering actors in Turkey, according to information uncovered during the Zarrab case investigation. Hampered by an international embargo against Iran, firms in that country needed a way to transfer their overseas cash into Turkey without running afoul of the embargo’s restrictions. The solution was to establish front firms trading in food and medicine, which were exempt from the embargo, and bribe Turkish banks to handle the cash transactions.[72]

The Turkish banking system has a major loophole that makes it rather difficult to track of suspicious activity on bank accounts. In the Western banking system, a warning alert is triggered when a money transfer exceeds a threshold amount defined in government regulations. When such transfers occur, a warning goes out to law-enforcement officials. In the United States, for example, the threshold is $10,000.  All money transfers greater than this limit are subject to monitoring. The situation is fundamentally different in the Turkish system where banks are supposed to notify the central bank when money transfers exceed $50,000. Such transfers are subject to export- or import-activity review by the central bank.[73] Money transfers below the threshold amount are able to escape central-bank scrutiny.

The Turkish banking system also does not have a proper due diligence mechanism with respect to suspicious account transactions. The ruling party, now the AKP, fills the executive boards of state-owned banks with people who are affiliated with that party. As a recent and notable example, a former Olympic wrestler and AKP deputy who had no economy education was assigned to the executive board of the state-owned Vakifbank. Such bank executive boards, whose members are party loyalists and not necessarily experts in economics, typically look the other way and do not exercise their due diligence responsibility when it comes to bank transactions by businessmen who are affiliated with the ruling party. The December 17 and 25 corruption investigations revealed that state-owned Turkish banks had been abused by corrupt AKP politicians and businessmen to finance their activities and to mediate the transactions of Iranian front companies. For example, Halkbank, one of the largest state-owned banks in Turkey, mediated the money laundering process of Iranians by accepting fraudulent documents. Likewise, the largest public bank in Turkey, Ziraat Bank, extended astronomical amounts of credit to businessmen who were closely affiliated with and extorted by Erdogan.

The lack of an ad hoc banking investigation unit, cooperation between agencies, effective oversight mechanisms, and sufficient law enforcement are major obstacles to the implementation of a robust strategy to combat money laundering in Turkey.[74] It is not a surprise, of course, that the 2017 interim compliance report prepared by the Council of Europe’s anti-corruption body, the Group of States against Corruption, states that Turkey “failed to comply with any of the nine recommendations covering ‘transparency of political funding’ adopted in March 2010.”[75]    

The Way Forward

It is obvious that Turkey has distanced itself from democratic values since 2013 and it is unrealistic to expect to see improvements in the short term. The July 15, 2016, coup attempt was a milestone in Erdogan’s quest for totalitarianism and the continuation of rampant and reckless corruption among members of the Erdogan ecosystem, personally orchestrated by Erdogan himself. In the aftermath of the failed coup, the heavy-handed AKP purged thousands of police officers and members of the judiciary, wiping out years of collective institutional knowledge; greatly diminished the quality of all state organs; imprisoned thousands of people based on scant and mostly fabricated evidence; and oppressed every single citizen of the country. The repercussions of Erdogan’s authoritarianism are gravely felt in every domain of public and social life; however, this study was an attempt to present evidence on how that authoritarianism has negatively affected the performance of the country’s police organized-crime units, which can be generalized to all other segments of the state body.

During the AKP’s tenure, Turkey has metamorphosed from a democratic regime into a Ba’ath-type dictatorial system that rewards supporters and loyalists while ruthlessly repressing all opposition groups in the country. Turkey currently uses an Iranian model in terms of silencing the media. International media have reported on Turkey’s strong linkages with terrorist groups in Syria, Yemen, and Libya; dire human rights violations; and ongoing torture in local police departments throughout the country. Within the borders of Turkey, however, it is impossible to mention, even imply, such arguments without fear of retribution.

The December 17 and 25 corruption scandals in Turkey can be considered within the scope of Louise Shelley’s theory of “dirty entanglement,” which argues that terrorism, corruption, and crime are mostly “entangled,” and they may constantly affect one another even in situations when they do not overlap.[76] Because these three areas of illegal behavior entangle most of the time, a successful struggle against them requires methods and tools that target each of behavior simultaneously.

The ongoing non-democratic governmental actions in Turkey are the efforts of a deeply corrupt ruling political party and its leader and their quest for immunity from prosecution on the basis of evidence from the December 17 and 25 corruption investigations and immunity from prosecution for all of the other crimes they have committed in the course of their incumbency. Solid evidence from the two investigations proved that Erdogan, his family members, and his inner circle took billions of dollars in bribes over the last 26 years—starting from when Erdogan was mayor of Istanbul in 1994. After the corruption scandals came to light, the AKP redesigned the police organized-crime units and the judiciary system and replaced police and judiciary officials with individuals who were loyal to the party’s corrupt ideology. Since then, the police organized-crime units have focused on investigating the government’s opponents rather than make any effort to counter organized crime groups.

The new governance model for Turkey under the AKP’s authoritarian rule has totally parted from the more democratic model into which it had transformed itself in the early 2000s and had enjoyed until government corruption scandals erupted about a decade later, sending the country spiraling back to the days of heavy-handed rulers bent on suppressing any kind of dissent and silencing the voice of the people. Despite this backward transformation, the AKP government still expects its counterparts in Western world to designate Gulenists as members of a so-called terrorist organization and extradite them to Turkey. The Western world, however, has rightly declined to do so, knowing that these people, if returned to Turkey, will be found guilty by heavily AKP-affiliated courts based on flimsy allegations and even flimsier evidence. The Western world also was aware that Erdogan knew in advance about the July 15, 2016, coup attempt but allowed it to unfold anyway, knowing that he could use the unrest as an excuse to demonize the Gulen group whom he blames for the December 17 and 25 corruption investigations that implicated Erdogan, his family, and his inner circle. By the same token, while the European Union’s organized-crime police want to cooperate with their Turkish counterparts in the fight against criminal groups, Turkey’s organized crime police are overwhelmed with the investigation of Gulenists, seculars, and Kurds based on scant and fabricated evidence. It is not realistic, therefore, to expect effective cooperation between the police organized-crime units in Turkey and the police organized-crime units in E.U. countries.

The relationship between the European Union and the Erdogan government has been characterized primarily by the refugee crisis that developed after the Syrian civil war and which coincides with the onset of AKP authoritarianism. The European Union, unfortunately, only occasionally spoke out against the undemocratic attitudes and human rights violations of the AKP regime when published progress reports on Turkey’s efforts to fulfill the requirement for membership in the European Union. At the same time, though, the European Union made every effort to not disturb Erdogan, who constantly complained about the refugee burden on his country and threatened to open the country’s borders to allow the refugees to flow into Europe. When the European Union did an about-face and refused to give its support to the Turkish government’s military incursions in Syria, Turkey opened its borders and permitted tens of thousands of Syrian refugees to travel to Greece. The European Union’s concerns about the refugee crisis, however, outweigh its failure to openly denounce the ongoing non-democratic practices—including torture, forced disappearances and arms transfers to terrorist groups—sanctioned by the Erdogan government. 

Worse still, the European Court of Human Rights is creating disappointment by still acknowledging the current Turkish judiciary system, which is fully controlled by the Erdogan regime and is used by Erdogan as an effective weapon to persecute his opponents by incarcerating them and confiscating their properties, as a proper domestic remedy. The Court is rejecting the applications of Turkish citizens heavily victimized by the Erdogan regime stating that the domestic remedies were not exhausted. Unfortunately, the Court’s stance clearly shows that it has yet to obtain full objectivity in the face of real politics and is behaving as a political organ of the European Union.

It is understandable why the European Union considers the refugee problem a top security issue, but the Western world also needs to see the danger associated with the serious gap in the struggle of the Turkish police against transnational organized crime groups. The lack of cooperation between the Turkish organized-crime police, who are swamped with running errands for the authoritarian AKP regime, and the European Union law-enforcement units in the fight against smuggling and trafficking groups inevitably results in the transfer of thousands of refugees and tons of drugs to E.U. countries through Turkey.

Given all the crimes—including war crimes and crimes against humanity—that have been perpetrated by Erdogan and his entourage, it would be unwise to expect the AKP regime to make a U-turn toward democratization and denounce authoritarianism. Such a drastic move would entail the execution of objective investigations of allegations that Erdogan and his political party were involved in the illegal transfer of weapons to terrorist groups in Syria and Libya and allegations that Erdogan and his blindly loyal bureaucrats were involved in the July 15, 2016, coup attempt. Erdogan has devastated every single domain of the state body and transformed the entire system into a Ba’ath-like Middle East dictatorship where all power is concentrated in the hands of an authoritarian leader who demands unquestioning loyalty from all state actors, including judges and prosecutors. The negative effects of such a system of governance are reflected in various international indicators related to the economy, foreign policy, internal security, human rights, and democratization—all of which are apparent in Turkey today. Under the current circumstances, Turkey might seem to be a ruined country; hope for a better future remains alive, as the majority of Turkish citizens have a strong belief in democracy and democratic values, and they will repair the monumental damage inflicted upon the country by corrupt AKP.    





[1] We use the Erdogan Ecosystem concept in reference to the block of actors including but not limited to the pool media, AKP politicians, AKP-affiliated NGOs, businessmen, artists, and social media trolls who are strictly devoted to Erdogan and support his words and actions without questioning, regardless of how inconsistent or self-contradictory they are.

[2] Erdogan and the AKP labeled former police officers as terrorists; however, these police officers never resorted to violence or committed any crimes, even though they lost their jobs, salaries, and benefits, and their family members were arrested on the basis of scant evidence. Purged and laid-off police officers in Turkey acted differently compared with their colleagues in different parts of the world. For example, it was common to see laid-off police officers commit crimes, form criminal groups, or join gangs in countries such as Georgia, Guatemala, and El Salvador.

[3] The AKP perceived some officials as risky because they would enforce the laws whenever they were required to do so.


[1] David Phillips, An Uncertain Ally: Turkey under Erdogan’s Dictatorship, (New York, NY: Routledge, 2017)

[2] Ryan Gingeras, “Is Turkey Turning into a Mafia Sate? The Case of Reza Zarrab and the Rise in Organized Crime,” Foreign Affairs, (2017, November 30),

[3] “Country Reports on Terrorism 2018,” U.S. Department of State,

[4] “2019 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Turkey,” U.S. Department of State,

[5] Kayhan Delibas, The Rise of Political Islam in Turkey, (New York, NY: I.B. Tauris, 2015), p. 286.

[6] Delibas, The Rise of Political Islam in Turkey, p. 67.

[7] Delibas, The Rise of Political Islam in Turkey, pp. 161, 163, 165.

[8] Baran, Zeyno “Corruption: The Turkish Challenge,” p. 129.

[9] Mahmut Cengiz, “How Corruption Becomes Embedded in the Municipalities,” Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Ankara University, 2009.

[10] Vanda Felbab-Brown, Shooting Up, (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 2011), p. 27.

[11] Mahmut Cengiz, Turkiye’de Organize Suc Gercegi ve Terorun Finansmani [The Organized Crime Reality and Financing of Terrorism in Turkey] ], (Ankara, Turkey: Seckin Yayincilik, 2015), p. 220.

[12] Ibid., p. 221.

[13] Ibid., p. 223.

[14] Ibid., p. 224.

[15] “Iran’s Bold Economic Reform: Economic Jihad,” The Economist,

[16] Tim Aranco, “After an Indictment, Turks Give U.S. Prosecutor a Hero’s Welcome Online,” New York Times, 2016, March 3,

[17]Zarrab, Togem-Der’e para yağdırmış” Evrensel, 2016, May 19,

[19] Donmez, Ahmet Yuzde On Adil Duzenden Havuz Duzenine (Istanbul: Klas yayinlari, 2014), pp. 98-99. It is believed that the bribes are normalized because of the fatwas (i.e., nonbinding legal opinions on a point of Islamic law given by a qualified jurist) given by Islamic law professor Hayrettin Karaman. In one of his articles, he stressed that corruption is not thievery. “Hayrettin Karaman: Yolsuzluga Hirsizlik Denilmez”

[20] Donmez, Yuzde, On Adil Duzenden Havuz Duzenine, p. 100.

[21] Shihata Ibrahim F.I., “The Role of the World Bank in Combating Corruption,” in Combating Corruption in Latin America, Joseph Tulchin and R. Espach (Eds.), (Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2000), pp. 205-209.

[22] “Mehmet Cengiz & bilal erdoğan küfür ediyor ses kaydı& akp”, YouTube, When businessmen were forced to give bribes in the form of donations, they spoke with each other to complain about the amount of money they had to pay. 

[23] “Turkey Declares Vanishing Truck to Syria ‘State Secret,’” Al Monitor,

[24] “MİT TIR’LARIYLA ILGILI videolar ortaya cikti” YouTube,

[25] “FDD’s Alberto Nisman Award for Courage,” Foundation for Defense of Democracies,

[26]Kronoloji: Yolsuzluk ve rüşvet operasyonu” Al Jazeera,

[27] “Efkan Ala Yolsuzlukları Örtmek İçin Polisleri Fizana Sürüyor” YouTube,

[28] Interviews with law-enforcement officials and researchers, 2015-2016.

[29] Mahmut Cengiz, “Who Is Behind Coup Small Wars?”

[30] “Turkey’s Post-Coup Crackdown,” Turkey Purge,

[31] “Russian Ambassador to Turkey Shot and Killed by Gunmen in Ankara,” The Moscow Times, 2016, December 12,

[32] “Raporlarimiz,” ASOD, 2019,

[33] ASOD, 2018, p. 87.

[34] Mahmut Cengiz, “Amped in Ankara: Drug Trade and Drug Policy in Turkey from the 1950s through Today,” (Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution),, p. 12.

[35] Mahmut Cengiz, “How the Crackdown in Turkey Created a Permissive Environment for Drug Trafficking,” Global Initiative,

[36] Cengiz and Roth, 2019.

[37] “Uyuşturucuyla yakalanan savcı ve polis tutuklandı” Cumhuriyet, 

[38] “Polis Memuru 205 Kilo Uyuşturucu ile Yakalandı” Haberler, 

[39] “Açığa alınan polis 40 kilogram eroinle yakalandı” Birgun,

[40] “Uyusturucu Operasyonunda 21 Kilo Eroin Yakalandi,” Haberler,

[41] Cengiz, Turkiye’de Organize Suc Gercegi ve Terorun Finansmani, p. 62.

[42] “Alaattin Çakıcı, MHP lideri Devlet Bahçeli’yi ziyaret etti”Haber7,

[43] “Turkish Court Rules Convicted Gangster’s Pre-Election Call to Arms Was Not a Crime,” Ahval, 2019, August 1,

[44] 2016 Turkish Report of ASOD, p. 48. It is known that the AKP government specifically targeted its opponents in organized-crime investigations after the July 15, 2016, coup attempt. Therefore, the 2017 and 2018 statistics were not used.

[45] “Corruption Perceptions Index 2017,” Transparency International,

[46] “Corruption Perceptions Index 2017,” Transparency International,

[47] 2013 Turkish Report of ASOD, p. 41.

[48] 2018 Turkish Report of ASOD, p. 3.

[49] 2013 Turkish Report of ASOD, p. 41; 2018 Turkish Report of ASOD, p. 3.

[50] 2013 Turkish Report of ASOD, p. 43; 2018 Turkish Report of ASOD, p. 5.

[51] 2016 Turkish Report of ASOD, p. 21.

[52] 2013 Turkish Report of ASOD, p. 58; 2018 Turkish Report of ASOD, p. 19.

[53] 2013 Turkish Report of ASOD, p. 80; 2018 Turkish Report of ASOD, p. 51.

[54] Behsat Ekici, “Illicit Transborder Trade between Iraq and Turkey in the Post Saddam Era,” Journal of International Relations, Vol. 9, No. 18 (2011), pp. 63-80, 70.

[55] “Petrol Price per Litre $ around the World,” Economics, (2012, October 5),

[56] 2013 Turkish Report of ASOD, p. 62; 2018 Turkish Report of ASOD, p. 29.

[57] 2013 Turkish Report of ASOD, 63; 2018 Turkish Report of ASOD, p. 29.

[58] Rajeev K. Goel, “Cigarette Smuggling: Price vs. Nonprice Incentives,” Applied Economics Letters, Vol. 15, No. 8 (2008, July), pp. 587-592.

[59] Sharon Melzer, “Counterfeit and Contraband Cigarette Smuggling: Opportunities, Actors, and Guardianship,” Unpublished doctoral dissertation, American University, Washington, DC, 2010, p. v.

[60] Joe Myers, “Which Countries Have the Highest Tax on Cigarettes?” World Economic Forum,

[61] “Dunya Sigarayi Birakma gununde Grafiklerle Turkiye” BBC,

[62] 2013 Turkish Report of ASOD, p. 66; 2018 Turkish Report of ASOD, p. 37.

[63] 2013 Turkish Report of ASOD, p. 66; 2018 Turkish Report of ASOD, p. 37.

[64] 2013 Turkish Report of ASOD, p. 66; 2018 Turkish Report of ASOD, p. 37.

[65] “Trafficking in Persons Report: 20th Edition,” U.S. Department of State,

[66] “Kac Suriyeli Siniri Gecti” Bolge Gundem,

[67] 2013 Turkish Report of ASOD, p. 78.

[68] Mahmut Cengiz, “Entrenched Political Corruption Squelches New Crime-Fighting Model Designed to Combat Human trafficking Operations in Turkey,” Global Initiative,

[71] “Getirmek serbest götürmek beyanla” Gazetevatan (2015, December 31),

[72] John A. Cassara, Trade-Based Money Laundering, (NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2015), p. 26.

[73] Yilmaz Sezer, “Yurtdışına para transferinde bunlara dikkat!” Dunya,

[75] “GRECO: Turkey’s Compliance with Recommendations to Fight Corruption Is Globally Unsatisfactory,” Turkish Minute (2017, June 12),

[76] Louise Shelley, Dirty Entanglement, (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2014), p. 5.

About the Author(s)

Dr. Kutluer Karademir is a Senior Research Fellow in the Global Center for Security Studies. Dr. Karademir’s research focuses on terrorism, policing in democratic transitions, and crisis management.

Dr. Mahmut Cengiz is an Assistant Professor and Research Faculty with Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TraCCC) and the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. Dr. Cengiz has international field experience where he has delivered capacity building and training assistance to international partners in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. He also has been involved in the research projects for the Brookings Institute, European Union, and various US agencies.



Thu, 09/23/2021 - 9:10am

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