Turkey remains vital route for drug trafficking

Turkey sits along a well-known Balkan route for Afghan heroin destined for the European markets. Drugs have also been smuggled into the country from Brazil and Colombia in recent months. For decades, Turkey has grappled with serious challenges related to the illicit trade and use of narcotics.

Turkish authorities seized 18.5 tons of heroin, 80.7 tons of cannabis, as well as 1.5 tons of cocaine in last year's operations. They also confiscated 566 kilogrammes of methamphetamine and more than 1.2 tons of a cheap synthetic cannabinoid colloquially known as bonzai. Authorities also seized 8.9 million ecstasy pills and 22.7 million pills of captagon, a psychostimulant particularly popular in the Middle East, in nationwide counter-narcotics operations.

Despite the substantial amounts of illegal drugs seized in recent years, the number of drug traffickers operating in Turkey appears to continually increase. Many of these local networks have connections to Turkish drug trafficking groups operating in Europe.

The smugglers arrested by Turkish authorities in recent years originated from a considerable number of countries and reveal that foreign traffickers have also been operating in Turkey. The illegal drug trade in Turkey thus has a transnational character. 

Given Turkey’s geographical location as a land bridge between supply countries in the East, such as Afghanistan, and key markets in nearby Europe and the Middle East, it is hardly surprising that it serves as a key vector of the lucrative drug smuggling route.

Although drug cultivation within Turkey has decreased since the 1970s, after its authorities put effective licensing schemes for poppy cultivation into force, Turkish traffickers have grown in power, global reach and market control across Europe – particularly in heroin trafficking, according to a 2017 Brookings report.

Turkey sees drug trafficking as a matter of national security. The drug trade has been a key source of terrorism financing in Turkey, especially for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), according to the Turkish authorities. The PKK has been fighting an insurgency against the Turkish state for four decades.

In June, Turkey launched a cross-border air and ground campaign to target the PKK in various regions of northern Iraq’s mountainous Qandil area in response to an increase in attacks against Turkish military forces at home.

Since then, Turkey has intensified anti-drug operations across its Kurdish-majority southeast, so far confiscating several million cannabis roots and tonnes of cannabis, according to reports published by pro-government news agencies.

However, recent reports on the relationship between Naji Sharifi Zindashti, a prominent Iranian heroin smuggler, and Burhan Kuzu, a former deputy of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), reveals how complex of drug trafficking is in the country.

Zindashti was arrested in Istanbul for possession of 75 kg of heroin in 2007, only to be mysteriously released in August 2010. Kuzu is currently facing charges of pressuring the judiciary for the Iranian drug lord’s prison release.

Current Turkish drug policies are not effective, comprehensive or integrated. The volume of narcotics flowing through Turkey has increased significantly in recent years. Drug traffickers in the country are estimated to generate approximately $15 billion annually.

Drug use has been on the rise, with a corresponding increase in the number of addiction cases. The drugs most frequently consumed are cannabis and bonsai, but consumption of heroin, a highly dangerous and addictive substance, is rising as well, according to a separate Brookings report.

Ryan Gingeras, associate professor at the Naval Postgraduate School and an expert on Turkish and Middle East history, said the relative weakness of Turkish money laundering laws play a role in the problem, citing the example of the Turkish government’s lifting of declaration limits on the amount of money inbound travellers were allowed to carry on their person.

The move in 2015, ostensibly to encourage foreign investment, raised concerns among international watchdogs including the Financial Action Task Force, which has long lobbied Turkey to strengthen its laws against money laundering, he said.

Gingeras also wrote in Foreign Affairs: “Over the last ten years, there has been a dramatic expansion in illicit trading and smuggling across the country. Part of the uptick has to do with the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011 and the worsening state of Iraq’s internal affairs after the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS). In 2014, more than 8,000 individuals were taken into custody on charges of heroin smuggling, a twofold increase since 2009 and a fivefold increase since 2001.”

An increase in drug seizures does not necessarily indicate a change of trade flow through a country nor that its authorities are taking drug trafficking more seriously. Since there is no independent method of calculating trade volume, large seizures can either account for a large or small percentage of the flow.

In short, it is genuinely difficult to determine whether Turkey is as important or more important to the drug trade than it was in the last two decades.

Another issue to consider is the ongoing politicisation of Turkey’s Department for Combating the Drug Trade and Organised Crime. This department was clearly gutted after 2014 and remains somewhat tainted by its association with Gülenists, but still plays a big role in Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu's morality-driven approach towards narcotics.

A 2017 report by Global Financial Integrity estimated the global drug trade to be somewhere between $426 and $652 billion a year. While the huge black market remains, it will likely continue to be a profitable business for criminal organisations and outlawed groups like the PKK.

The global war on drugs, driven primarily by the United States and its European allies, has been waged for almost 60 years without any success in reducing consumption nor the harm caused by the criminals who profit from it.

Successive Turkish governments have gone along happily with this drug war, and their policies are unlikely to change until global attitudes do. Without the political will to think of new policy approaches, the drug war will likely continue to generate political capital for politicians and profits for criminal organisations.