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Thursday, Aug 11, 2022

Turkish Bananas: The Cocaine Road to Russia and the Persian Gulf

Turkish Bananas: The Cocaine Road to Russia and the Persian Gulf

Turkish criminals move cocaine from Latin America to the world's most profitable market, the Persian Gulf, using banana imports as a front.

Ahmet Yilmaz* shouldn’t be in a dangerous profession. He’s not a cop or a criminal. Ahmet is a banana importer in Turkey.

“This is my third decade in the industry,” he proudly told InSight Crime. “[My company] made the first transit sales from Turkey to countries [like] Iraq and Iran. Until 2010, we were the regional representative of companies such as Chiquita and Del Monte.”

Back then, fruit trading had little to do with organized crime. Local gangsters mostly used cargo ships and fishing boats to run Afghan heroin to Europe, almost never interacting with legal agricultural commodities. But that all changed as cocaine hit Turkish shores. Today, the banana sector is a lawless crime-warped shell, according to Yilmaz.

“This involvement started in 2010. It [quickly] got deeper…now most of the companies that did this job in the past are out of the market. The cartel has taken over the container market,” he told InSight Crime. "Banana boxes and containers are ideal for concealing contraband…[and] both the personnel structure and technical system are prone to bribery”.

A constant stream of banana containers now glide across the Atlantic from Colombia, Costa Rica and, above all, Ecuador. According to Turkey observers interviewed by InSight Crime, corruption helps them on their cocaine-laden way and oversees the transfer of drugs on to Russia, the Caucasus and the Persian Gulf.


Institutional Corruption


Turkish organized crime has relied on high-level corruption since the time of the Ottoman Empire. Upon the Empire’s fall in the early 20th century, these symbiotic ties were so deep that heroin helped build the new Turkish state, according to Professor Ryan Gingeras, author of Heroin, Organized Crime, and the Making of Modern Turkey.

“From the 1940s to the 1970s, the degree to which heroin traffickers were in alliance with political figures or were protected by political figures [was unparalleled],” he told InSight Crime.

By the 2000s, however, decades of democratization and US-Turkish counter-narcotics efforts had greatly improved things, said Gingeras. Turkey’s police and customs were an effective drug seizing force and, in 2013, the country even hit its best ever anti-corruption score on Transparency International’s annual index, ranked 53 out of 177.

But that all ended in December 2013. It began with a corruption scandal that ensnared 52 members of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), including three sons of cabinet ministers. The AKP’s recently elected Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, could have reacted several ways.

He chose fury. Within days, five police chiefs who had overseen the raids were sacked for what he called “abuse of office.” Another 350 were quickly dismissed across the country, including the heads of the organized crime unit and anti-smuggling and financial crime subunits.

“Almost all of the counter-narcotics division — around 8,000 police officers — lost their jobs…more than 95 percent of [personnel],” said Mahmut Cengiz, who was the division chief from 2011 to 2015.

“The government just destroyed the institutional memory,” he told InSight Crime.

This created an unprecedented opportunity for drug traffickers. Besides crippling the country’s counter-narcotics capacity, corrupting officials had suddenly become much easier. An attempted coup against Erdogan in 2016 — after which whole police departments were gutted — only accelerated this trend, according to Mahmut Cengiz.

“The message for the newly assigned officers was that if you just obeyed the government and Erdogan's regime, then they would turn a blind eye to wrongdoings,” he told InSight Crime. “After 2016, increasing numbers of prosecutors, judges, military and police [became] involved in cocaine trafficking.”

The next year, in 2017, cocaine seizures spiked in Turkey. They have increased every year since then, in direct contrast to the country’s corruption ranking by Transparency International, which has plummeted. Turkey now sits below Colombia and Brazil.

In May 2021, this culminated in a dramatic series of allegations. Sedat Peker, a convicted Turkish gangster living in Dubai, released several videos accusing leading AKP party members of cocaine trafficking and homicide. He claimed the 4.9 tons of seized in Colombia’s port of Buenaventura in 2020 had been part of this scheme.

According to Peker, the interdiction convinced certain government officials to find a new route to Turkey, this time through Venezuela. Without providing many details, he suggested cargo ships would leave Venezuela's northern port of La Guaira loaded with cocaine, stop off in Panama and then head to Turkey.

These accusations rocked the Erdogan regime. A month later, Turkish authorities made their largest cocaine seizure ever: 1.3 tons, in the port city of Mersin. A week later, again in Mersin, they seized another 463 kilograms. Certain news outlets expressed skepticism, given both seizures were the result of tip-offs and both had come from and arrived at the same ports.

"Everyone here knows that [Mersin's] X-ray devices cannot even see an elephant in a container," said banana importer Ahmet Yilmaz. "All captured containers were caught on notice."

InSight Crime attempted to contact Sedat Peker for this article but received no reply. InSight Crime asked all four of its interviewees about Sedat Peker’s allegations. They all said they believed his story.

“Sedat Peker represents a sub-stratum of organized crime that is historically not associated with drug trafficking…one of the things he’s said about himself is that he’s a gangster that fights drug trafficking, so the fact that he would [reveal] this is somewhat in character,” said Professor Ryan Gingeras.

“The picture outlined by Sedat Peker has been confirmed by many events. Especially with Venezuela, [cocaine] smuggling could be an extension of the oil and gold trade under embargo,” said investigative journalist Cengiz Erdinc.

No one was optimistic about Turkey’s chances in reversing the rot.

“I believe in the future Turkish heroin traffickers will move to the cocaine trade,” predicts former cop Mahmut Cengiz.

They are certainly not short of destinations.


Cocaine's Emerging Markets


Straddling both Europe and the Middle East, Turkey is ideally situated to traffic drugs to either region. Historically, heroin has gone from the Middle East to Europe, MDMA and opiate precursors have gone from Europe to the Middle East, and marijuana has gone both ways, according to the UNODC’s 2022 World Drug Report.

Cocaine has been a gamechanger though, with its importance growing as the compass moves from west to north to east. Experts remain divided on the size of the Turkish cocaine share going to each region, but there is consensus that at least as much is going to the Middle East as to Europe.

“As an estimate, we can say that 60-70 percent of transit smuggling goes to the Middle East and 30 percent to Europe,” said Cengiz Erdinc. “I think Russia has a significant share in the part that goes to Europe.

Ironically, Britain and the European Union, the global epicenter of the cocaine trade, may be less profitable destinations for Turkey-based cocaine smugglers, if only because of all the better-connected European groups who are closer to the end market.

This includes their former heroin trafficking partners in Albania, who along with Italy’s ‘Ndrangheta mafia now dominate the European cocaine business. Turkey's drug smugglers now sometimes just swap their cocaine in the Balkans, settling for fat cargos of Albanian marijuana, according to the US State Department’s 2021 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR).

They are not the first to lose out to the middlemen. As recounted in a 2021 InSight Crime investigation, it was just this geographic challenge that convinced Colombia’s cocaine lords to shift their focus from the US to Europe, leaving North America to their former Mexican drug transporters.

In a similar move, Turkish groups are increasingly looking northward to eastern Europe and the Caucuses. Cocaine use continues to spread across the former Soviet Bloc and customs officials in these countries have little experience in detecting the drug, notes the INCSR.

Russia is a key location, both via maritime channels in the Black Sea and overland routes through Armenia and Georgia, one expert told InSight Crime. The INCSR mentions Ukraine’s southern seaports as another cocaine transit zone, although the EU’s drug agency recently reported that Russia’s invasion has severed that connection.

Both Romania and Moldova, primary transit nodes on the Balkan Route, have also made big cocaine seizures in recent years.

However, experts said nowhere is as profitable for Turkey’s cocaine importers as the Middle East. Though consumption remains extremely low, the difficulty of accessing these markets means prices are staggeringly high.

For example, UNODC figures show that, on average, a gram of cocaine retailed in Belgium for $55 in 2017. That same year, a gram sold for over $115 in Israel and $170 in Jordan. By the time it had reached the Persian Gulf, that gram had skyrocketed in value, trading at $475 in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and over $500 in Saudi Arabia.

That makes the Persian Gulf the world’s most expensive cocaine market. The primary destinations are Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), according to journalist Cengiz Erdinc, which was corroborated by former Turkish counter-narcotics chief Mahmut Cengiz, who also listed Bahrain and Qatar.

Some of that product arrives by seaport, while sub-kilogram quantities are regularly seized from air couriers. But experts told InSight Crime an equally important but rarely detected portion travels from Turkey by truck, cruising Iraq and the Arabian Desert.

Banana importer Ahmet Yilmaz is adamant on this point. He, along with journalist Cengiz Erdinc, claim it was Syrian drug traffickers displaced by the country’s civil war who first set up the cocaine desert route, taking over the banana trade in Mersin and dispatching mixed drug-and-fruit trucks through northern Iraq.

Evidence remains scarce, but not entirely absent. A 2021 profile of Iraq by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC) concluded that although domestic consumption was rare, cocaine does transit the country on its way to neighboring markets.

Furthermore, in 2019, a foreign media article cited a senior Iraqi politician as saying a half-ton of cocaine had recently been interdicted in an Ecuadorean banana shipment, but that the smuggler was released without charge.

“A simple example. Last week, 679 containers of bananas arrived in Mersin: 30 of these were imported for the Turkish domestic market with a population of 85 million…more than 500 containers were sent to the Northern Iraq region,” said Ahmet Yilmaz.

The exasperation is evident in his words. “Northern Iraq has a population of 5 million. What are these bananas doing [there]?"

*Name changed to protect the anonymity of the source.

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