Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 100

Turkey remains a major transit route for heroin trafficking with a substantial proportion of the revenue being used to finance radical organizations, such as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), according to a recent report by the Department for Anti-Smuggling and Organized Crime (KOM) in the Turkish Interior Ministry.

In its annual report for 2007, KOM stated that its research showed that an increasing proportion of the heroin being trafficked out of Afghanistan was now entering Europe through the Caucasus and around the northern shore of the Black Sea. Nevertheless, KOM reported that in 2007 the Turkish authorities seized 13.2 tons of heroin, which it claimed was more than the total seizures in all 27 EU member countries (KOM website, www.kom.gov.tr).

The Turkish police, who are responsible for security in urban areas in Turkey, seized 9.08 tons in 2007. The Turkish Gendarmerie, who are responsible for security in rural areas, confiscated another 2.18 tons, while Customs officials were responsible for seizing another 1.97 tons (the website of the Turkish Under Secretariat, www.gumurk.gov.tr, gives a figure of 2.7 tons, see EDM, May 23).

Most of the heroin trafficked through Turkey enters the country from Iran. As a result, many of the seizures of heroin in 2007 occurred in the provinces of eastern Turkey along the country’s border with Iran. However, 4.69 tons of heroin were seized in the western city of Istanbul, where many shipments are loaded onto trucks, buses and ships before being forwarded to markets in Europe. In 2007 a total of 77.8 percent of all seizures of heroin in Turkey occurred either in the provinces of Van and Hakkari, which border Iran, or in Istanbul and the province of Edirne, which borders Bulgaria.

The KOM report suggested that in recent years there has been a change in the way in which the heroin is transported inside the country, with traffickers trying to avoid detection by reducing the size of individual shipments and sending them across Turkey by car or by bus. In 2007, the average size of an individual seizure of heroin was 10 kilograms. Most of the heroin was 60 percent pure.

The KOM report also claimed that the PKK was responsible for a significant proportion of the heroin being trafficked through Turkey into Europe. Although there is evidence to suggest that the PKK is sometimes directly involved in heroin trafficking, it is believed to more commonly exact a levy on the heroin trade by taxing the actual traffickers. Ethnic Kurds now control most of the heroin trade through Turkey into Europe, having displaced the organized crime networks from the Turkish Black Sea region that dominated the trade in the 1980s and early 1990s.

The KOM report praises what it describes as Turkey’s great success in combating the heroin trade, noting that seizures by the Turkish police alone had risen from 3.55 tons in 2003 to 6.66 tons in 2005 and 9.08 tons in 2007. It also criticizes the level of cooperation from the law enforcement authorities in the EU, claiming that European countries were much more interested in trying to prevent heroin from entering the EU than in preventing synthetic drugs manufactured in laboratories in Europe from entering Turkey; either for Turkey’s still very low domestic drugs problem or in transit to countries in the Middle East (KOM website, www.kom.gov.tr).

Nevertheless, there are still concerns about the efficiency of Turkey’s own efforts to combat organized crime. The country’s borders remain notoriously porous (see EDM, May 23). Even if most of the ethnic Kurds engaged in heroin trafficking now live outside Turkey, it is common knowledge that there are also powerful tribal chieftains in southeastern Turkey who are involved in the trade. Although the narcotics trade has undoubtedly helped finance the PKK, there is considerable evidence that, in return for supporting the Turkish state’s war against the PKK – such as through the provision of recruits to the state-sponsored militia known as Village Guards – the Turkish authorities have sometimes been prepared to overlook the illegal activities of some of the tribal chieftains in the predominantly Kurdish southeast of Turkey. One known heroin trafficker even served as a member of parliament in the 1990s, not only for parties of the center-right but also for the Islamist Welfare Party (RP), trading his ability to deliver the political support of his tribe in return for de facto immunity from prosecution.

There is also little doubt that Turkey still has a long way to go in terms of cracking down on the laundering of the profits from the heroin trade, a large proportion of which are ploughed back into the country. In the 1990s the authorities closed down all casinos in Turkey on the justified grounds that most were controlled by underworld figures who were using them to launder profits from the narcotics trade. Many, however, have simply relocated to other countries. For example, several known heroin traffickers now operate casinos in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), which is beyond international jurisdiction.