Small Wars Journal

Perspective: Türkiye Forges New Routes for Latin American Cocaine Destined for Europe

Tue, 05/28/2024 - 5:16pm

Perspective: Turkiye Forges New Routes for Latin American Cocaine Destined for Europe

Mahmut Cengiz

Cocaine seizures both internationally, spanning Latin America, the Mediterranean Sea, and the Aegean Sea with a focus on Türkiye (formerly known as Turkey), as well as within the country itself, have brought attention to the emergence of new cocaine routes. Before the corruption scandals of 17–25 December 2013, which resulted in the removal of almost the entire anti-narcotics police force, Türkiye's cocaine seizures were relatively small, typically amounting to several hundred kilograms per year. However, since then, these seizures have escalated to tons of cocaine. The consistent high-volume seizures suggest a significant presence of cocaine trafficking networks operating between Latin American countries and Türkiye.

Türkiye has a history of involvement in drug trafficking within the region. It served as a source country for opium in the 1970s, leading to tense relations with the United States government and resulting in sanctions. Drug traffickers have exploited its strategic geographical position along the Balkans routes to transport heroin from Afghanistan and Iran through Türkiye and the Balkans countries, ultimately reaching Western Europe. However, heroin is not the only drug impacting Türkiye. Additionally, traders of Captagon in Eastern European countries and Syria have utilized Türkiye's territory to transport Captagon to destinations in the Gulf, while methamphetamine sourced in Iran is transported to Türkiye before being transferred to destinations in Far East Asian countries. Among these drug types, cocaine has emerged as a significant concern, with its prevalence increasing within Turkiye.

The effectiveness of Turkish law enforcement in combating drug trafficking has varied, often influenced by government officials' ties to criminal groups. Türkiye's democratic status has also influenced its anti-narcotics policies. For instance, during the early years of the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi– AKP) government, Türkiye pursued European standards in hopes of EU membership, leading to significant drug seizures, including heroin and methamphetamine. However, the recent shift of the AKP government towards authoritarianism has not only eroded Türkiye's democratic progress but also plunged the country into the realm of complex criminal activities and networks. This article delves into the recent emergence of cocaine networks between Türkiye and Latin America, analyzing cocaine seizures and the actors involved in trafficking.

Why is Türkiye at the Crossroads of Latin American Cocaine?

Exploring several vital factors is crucial to comprehending the evolving cocaine routes between Latin America and Türkiyee. Türkiye's geographic location along trafficking routes, its borders with conflict zones, its proximity to corrupt countries, and its lack of police cooperation are all significant contributors to its involvement in the drug trade. These factors have had a profound impact, but perhaps most significantly, regime change has played the most crucial role.

Türkiye's political landscape has undergone a notable transformation from a fragile democracy to an authoritarian regime, significantly influencing drug trafficking dynamics. Since 2002, the AKP government has maintained control in Türkiye and has progressively consolidated authority following successive electoral victories, with aspirations to amend the constitution. The corruption scandals of December 17–25, 2013, laid bare extensive corruption within the government, implicating cabinet ministers and the prime minister embezzling millions of dollars from Türkiye's budgets. In response to these scandals, the AKP government implemented measures to secure immunity, shielding themselves from prosecution for their illicit actions.

The AKP government, alarmed by the potential legal repercussions of its extensive corruption, mobilized state resources extensively to silence opposition voices. By branding the investigators of the 17–25 December corruption scandals as terrorists and Gulenists, despite compelling police evidence, the AKP government constructed a narrative demonizing Fethullah Gulen and his followers. Through absolute control of the media, they effectively manipulated public opinion, fostering animosity towards this perceived enemy. The contentious events surrounding the 15 July 2016 coup attempt provided a pretext for the AKP government to purge hundreds of thousands of state officials, particularly within law enforcement, including organized crime and anti-narcotics units. Despite the resultant loss of institutional knowledge, the government prioritized shielding itself from scrutiny and perpetuating corruption within the political system. These actions not only reshaped law enforcement priorities but also created vulnerabilities for criminal infiltration and impeded international cooperation efforts. Since the anti-corruption scandals, the AKP government has shifted law enforcement resources towards targeting perceived adversaries.

The widespread removal of narcotics police units significantly weakened law enforcement efforts against drug trafficking organizations. Between 2014 and 2021, the volume of seized cocaine in Türkiye surged by seven times. Figure 1 below illustrates the trend in cocaine seizures conducted by the police from 2009 to 2022. Before the corruption scandals on 17–25 December 2013 (covering the period from 2009 to 2013), the amount of seized cocaine remained relatively modest, typically only reaching several hundred kilograms. However, following the dismissal of the entire anti-narcotics department, there was a notable increase in cocaine trafficking directed towards Türkiye. It is worth noting that this graph excludes the tons of cocaine seized by Turkish customs officials and intercepted in Latin America while en route to Türkiye over the past four years.

Fig 1

Figure 1: Cocaine Seizures by Turkish Police (20092022)

Moreover, endemic corruption within governmental institutions and law enforcement agencies in both Latin American countries and Türkiye has significantly facilitated the establishment and operation of drug trafficking networks. Despite being ranked as the 52nd most corrupt country in 2013, Türkiye's rapid decline in corruption rankings has seen it plummet to 116th by 2023. This endemic corruption undermines efforts to combat drug trafficking effectively and emboldens criminal organizations, providing them with a sense of impunity. For example, Türkiye has recently served as a safe haven for international criminals with red notices. Meanwhile, state officials, including police chiefs and prosecutors, have become involved in drug trafficking, understanding that loyalty to the government could grant them immunity. High-level politicians are implicated in drug trafficking in today’s Türkiye, taking advantage of the newly flourishing criminal environment. No police officers dare to investigate the AKP politicians involved in criminal activities.

Furthermore, the lack of robust international cooperation and coordination hampers efforts to address the transnational nature of drug trafficking. Limited collaboration between countries along the cocaine supply chain undermines attempts to disrupt trafficking routes, share intelligence, and prosecute criminal networks operating across borders. Both authorities in Latin America and Turkish law enforcement agencies fail to conduct thorough investigations, fearing repercussions from implicating government officials. European Union countries have also raised concerns about the lack of police cooperation with Türkiye. During the early years of the AKP government, there was a leaning towards the European Union, driven by concerns over the party's potential closure due to anti-secular activities. This period witnessed significant collaboration between Turkish and EU narcotics divisions, with EU liaison officers working to establish trust-based relationships between their home countries and Turkish officials. However, the AKP's authoritarian turn following the 17–25 December investigations and the suspicious 15 July coup attempt in 2016 strained relationships between law enforcement agencies. EU officials state that Turkish authorities are only inclined to collaborate on investigations concerning groups unaffiliated with AKP politicians.

Cocaine Seizures

The frequency and quantity of cocaine seizures, both in the source countries of Latin America en route to Türkiye and within the country itself, indicate the existence of complex trafficking networks. Some notable cocaine seizures made in Turkiye include the following:

  • In May 2017, Turkish customs officials x-rayed and seized 294 kilograms of cocaine in a cargo ship in Izmit. Five traffickers were arrested.
  • In June 2021, a ship arriving from Ecuador to Türkiye was reported to have drugs in banana containers. Following the tip-off, a container under surveillance yielded a total of 1.3 MT of cocaine.
  • In June 2021, Customs Enforcement teams of the Ministry of Trade seized 463 kilograms of cocaine in a container loaded with bananas brought by ship from Ecuador at Mersin Port.
  • In October 2021, Turkish police seized 610 kilograms of cocaine hidden in another cargo ship among bananas in Mersin.
  • In August 2021, Customs Protection teams of the Ministry of Trade seized 30 kilograms of cocaine in a container loaded with bananas at Mersin Port.
  • In October 2021, the Narcotics Division teams of the Mersin Police Department received a tip-off that a ship, known as ‘Liberia,’ was carrying a legal cargo of bananas from South American countries. The officials seized a total of 60 kilograms and 950 grams of cocaine hidden among banana crates in the opened container, divided into 52 packets.
  • In October 2022, the police seized 49 kilograms of cocaine in containers loaded with bananas aboard the ship Delphis Riga, flagged in Hong Kong, coming from Ecuador to Mersin International Port.
  • In November 2023, the police seized 51 kilograms of cocaine on the cargo ship Berge Torre, anchored in the Iskenderun Gulf under the flag of Liberia.
  • In January 2024, the Narcotics Crimes Unit of the Edirne Police Department seized 109 kilograms of cocaine, packaged in 67 parcels, during a search conducted on a truck and a trailer apprehended in Edirne.
  • In April 2024, the Narcotics Crimes Units of Kocaeli, Antalya, and Tekirdag conducted simultaneous operations, resulting in the seizure of 608 kilograms of cocaine, primarily in liquid form. Among the 13 individuals apprehended were members of an international drug trafficking organized crime group, with its leader identified as Dani Talal Awad Abushanap, a Lebanese and Venezuelan national. The traffickers stored the chemicals in a rural house in Tekirdag and transported them to Antalya, where they processed the cocaine substance soaked in fertilizer in vineyard houses.

The cocaine seizures in Türkiye share several commonalities, indicative of a systematic approach employed by drug traffickers. Cocaine was consistently concealed within shipments of legal cargo, primarily bananas, highlighting the exploitation of legitimate trade routes for smuggling purposes. Originating from countries in South America, mainly Ecuador, the drugs were intended to enter Türkiye through various ports, including Izmit, Mersin, and İskenderun. The utilization of shipping containers as concealment points highlights the traffickers' dependence on containerized shipping for their illicit operations. Additionally, the involvement of international criminal networks is apparent, with suspects from various nationalities implicated in the seizures. The seizures suggest that the cocaine was intended for transfer to EU countries. Moreover, the seizure of chemicals used in cocaine processing indicates that criminals have designated Türkiye as a source country.

Meanwhile, cocaine destined for Turkiye, primarily from South African countries, is sometimes intercepted even before leaving their countries of origin.

  • In June 2020, Colombian authorities intercepted 4.9 MT of cocaine at the Buenaventura port, intended for shipment to Türkiye. Notably, convicted mafia boss Sedat Peker alleged in a May 2021 video that Erkam Yildirim, the son of then-Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, was involved in drug trafficking between Türkiye and Venezuela. Peker claimed that following the seizure of 4.9 MT of cocaine in Colombia, Erkam Yildirim traveled to Caracas twice in 2021—once in January and again in February—to relocate cocaine networks from Colombia to Venezuela, where the US Drug Enforcement Administration has limited authority.
  • In September 2020, Panamanian police seized 1 MT of cocaine on a ship in the port of Cristobal and 500 kilograms on a cargo ship that entered the Panama Canal. Both were destined for Türkiye.
  • In May 2021, in Panama, 616 packets of cocaine were seized from a banana container destined for Mersin Port. It was revealed that the ship carrying the cocaine originated from Ecuador.
  • In April 2022, Spanish police seized 2.9 MT of cocaine hidden in one of the fuel tanks on a Turkish vessel and arrested four Turkish traffickers. 
  • In September 2022, the Ecuadorian Police raided a ship at the Guayaquil Port and seized 68 kilograms and 812 grams of cocaine from a banana container destined for Türkiye and Germany.
  • In March 2023, officials from the Narcotics Control Unit in Peru seized a ship carrying 2.3 MT of cocaine en route to Türkiye. According to officials, the cocaine, which was intercepted on a sea route increasingly used by drug cartels, was concealed in containers of a cargo ship with ceramic coating.
  • In July 2023, Italian police seized 5.3 MT of cocaine in transit from a commercial ship to a fishing boat at sea off the coast of the island of Sicily. Police officials stated that the commercial ship, flagged under Palau, was determined to have Türkiye as its final destination after unloading its cargo.
  • In May 2024, the Greek police seized 210 kilograms of cocaine in shrimp containers at the Piraeus port. Four individuals, two Albanian and two Greek citizens, were detained. It was indicated that the group smuggled drugs from South America to Europe and Türkiye.

The commonalities among cocaine seizures originating from South American countries but intercepted before reaching their intended destinations include several vital factors. Firstly, the drugs are often concealed within legitimate shipments, such as banana or shrimp containers, highlighting the use of commercial cargo as a cover for smuggling activities. This tactic allows traffickers to exploit the large volume of legal trade passing through ports, making detection more challenging for authorities. Secondly, these seizures frequently involve international criminal organizations orchestrating trafficking operations, indicating the involvement of well-established networks with extensive reach and resources. Thirdly, the interceptions typically occur at major ports or transit hubs, underscoring the strategic importance of these locations for drug smuggling activities. This suggests that traffickers target key maritime routes and logistical nodes to facilitate the movement of narcotics across borders. Additionally, the involvement of high-profile individuals or political figures, as alleged in some cases, raises concerns about potential corruption or complicity within government institutions, highlighting the need for greater transparency and accountability in law enforcement efforts.

Who are the Cocaine Traffickers?

A variety of cocaine groups, ranging from local traffickers to transnational criminal organizations to business people and politicians, are involved in cocaine trafficking.

Local groups

The surge in cocaine trafficking into Türkiye has opened up new avenues for local groups. As depicted in Figure 2 below, the number of cocaine trafficking incidents and individuals involved steadily increased from 2020 to 2022. In 2020, Türkiye recorded 2,573 cocaine-related incidents, leading to the apprehension of 4,446 traffickers. By 2022, these figures had risen to 3,827 incidents and 5,647 traffickers. This trend continued into 2023, with a notable incident in Antalya where police seized 10 kgs of cocaine from a vehicle carrying two traffickers who aimed domestic demands. The exact number of drug addicts in Turkiye remains unknown due to the government's restrictive policies. Rehabilitation centers operate at limited capacity, serving only a fraction of those in need. While heroin remains the most prevalent drug, the country's involvement in the transit of Latin American cocaine has contributed to the rise in cocaine addiction cases.

Fig 2

Figure 2: The Number of Cocaine Incidents and Traffickers (2020-2022)

Politicians, Bureaucrats, and Businesspeople

This group presents a significant challenge in gathering evidence implicating politicians in illicit activities. The sheer volume of cocaine transfers occurring without consequence strongly hints at the involvement of politicians and government officials. Behcet Canturk, a prominent heroin trafficker from the late 1980s, once noted the substantial amount of heroin passing through Turkiye, suggesting the possibility of political complicity. However, Türkiye remained largely unaware of such cocaine involvement until Sedat Peker’s revelations, alleging the former Prime Minister’s son's role in transporting large quantities of cocaine from Venezuela. Additionally, recent mafia investigations in Ankara, particularly those involving Ayhan Bora Kaplan, have accused the former Interior Minister of drug trade involvement. Such accusations raise concerns about the potential complicity of high-ranking police chiefs in drug trafficking activities.

The increasing political relations between Türkiye and Venezuela have sparked concerns about the potential growth of illicit drug trade ties between the two countries. This suspicion is further fueled by accusations of illegal gold trading between the two countries. Specifically, Venezuelan gold has reportedly been processed by a Turkish company known to have cultivated close relationships with members of the AKP government in Turkiye. These developments suggest a deepening nexus between political connections, economic interests, and illicit activities, warranting further investigation and scrutiny.

Another suspicious group likely involved in the drug trade consists of businesspeople. The AKP government has fostered its own network of corrupt business figures, some of whom have been awarded government contracts without proper oversight. Turkiye's affluent class currently comprises companies with ties to the AKP government. One such businessperson was implicated in a case involving 1.3 MT of cocaine seized from a Turkish jet in 2021. It is believed that Sergio Roberto de Carvalho, dubbed by some as a Brazilian Escobar, was among the traffickers involved in the operation. However, Turkiye has not pursued further investigation into these allegations and has failed to cooperate with Brazilian authorities to ascertain details about the aircraft.

Transnational Criminal Organizations

Seizures of cocaine within Türkiye or en route to Türkiye underscore how transnational criminal groups have capitalized on emerging opportunities. The apprehension of international traffickers in Türkiye and source countries across Latin America suggests the deep involvement of transnational criminal networks. These criminal entities have expanded their operations to include fentanyl trafficking as well. For instance, in March 2023, Guatemalan authorities seized 480 barrels of chemicals testing positive for fentanyl in containers aboard a Turkish-flagged vessel at the Puerto Barrios rail terminal in Izabal. These containers originated from Türkiye and were destined for Guatemala, with transit through France and Colombia.

In summary, Türkiye's rise as a central hub in the global cocaine trade highlights crucial lessons for scholars and practitioners. It reveals how corruption scandals involving government officials have led them to seek immunity from investigation, eroding democratic progress. By creating scapegoats and pursuing regime changes to evade accountability, these officials have inflicted significant harm on the Turkish population. Their tolerance of cocaine trafficking in exchange for bribes has opened the door for other transnational criminal organizations to enter the trade. While much of the cocaine passing through Türkiye is bound for EU countries, a portion remains within Türkiye, posing a threat to its youth. The AKP government has been effective in manipulating public perception with fabricated threats; however, the truth cannot be overlooked. Although Turkish citizens may not immediately realize the extent of their country's damaged reputation, they will eventually uncover the reality behind the actions of those serving their own interests.

Categories: El Centro

About the Author(s)

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.