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Friday, June 2, 2023

COLUMN: Cocaine Networks Merge with Fentanyl Trafficking Between the Middle East and Central America

Fentanyl in containers from Turkiye was seized at the Puerto Barrios rail terminal in Izabal, which is one of the important transit hubs for cocaine smuggled from Honduras into Guatemala.

The Guatemalan police seized 480 barrels of chemicals positive for fentanyl in containers of a Turkish-flagged vessel at the Puerto Barrios rail terminal in Izabal on March 23. The containers came from Turkiye and were bound for Guatemala, passing through France and Colombia. Drug trafficking organizations, resourceful and flexible in moving to more profitable criminal markets, are well-adapted to emerging opportunities. It seems that Turkiye’s sophisticated criminal networks that have emerged and flourished in the cocaine trade between the Middle East and Latin America have recently merged with fentanyl trafficking.

So far, the weak investigation has failed to reveal networks and groups involved in the fentanyl seizure in Izabal. However, the involvement of politicians, bureaucrats, criminal groups, and corrupt businesspeople in the cocaine trade in Turkiye makes it challenging to determine who the traffickers are. This article examines how Turkiye has become a cocaine hub and analyzes the likely accomplices of the recent fentanyl seizure in Guatemala.

Turkiye has a strong history of drug trafficking. Moving the heroin trade from Golden Triangle countries to Golden Crescent countries in the 1970s dramatically affected the country. As a result, Turkiye became a bridge over the Balkans route, hosting the drug trade between the source countries, such as Afghanistan and Iran, and the destination countries, such as the Western European countries in its history. In addition, economic issues and endemic corruption presented opportunities for Turkish drug groups in the 1980s and 1990s that were mainly involved in heroin trafficking.

The Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi – AKP) government, which took over the government in 2002 and still rules the country, has exhibited two conflicting approaches against drug trafficking. The first period lasted until 2011 and recorded AKP’s prioritizing policies to join the European Union, yielding compelling results. Modernizing the police force and making judicial improvements contributed to Turkiye’s successful fight against drug trafficking. The first period reported small-scale cocaine seizures by the couriers between Latin America and Turkiye, and no Latin American country seized big-scale cocaine seizures in this period. However, the AKP government’s authoritarianism starting in 2011 has destroyed Turkiye’s gains and paved the way for trafficking routes in the country. The purging of more than 95 percent of drug trafficking teams right after the December 17-25 corruption scandals in 2013 and the suspicious July 15 coup attempt in 2016 that fired more than 40,000 police officers have created a favorable environment for criminal markets. The following years witnessed the country’s swift transition into a kleptocratic regime that turned a blind eye to corrupt politicians and bureaucrats who pillaged the country’s resources. Today, Turkiye has become a hotbed for international trafficking groups who are at war against each other as well as a cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine hub involving transnational criminal groups, bureaucrats, and politicians.

Who Is Involved in the Drug Trade Between Turkiye and Latin America?

Despite many cocaine seizures in Turkiye or Latin America, the AKP government has failed to shed light on these investigations. Law enforcement has glossed over these seizures and seemed reluctant to cooperate with seizing countries, arising from two factors: either (a) the involvement of politicians or state officials or (b) the fear of investigators paying a cost if they happen to see the involvement of politicians. However, the recent seizures between the two regions carry the hallmarks of those involved in the drug trade.

First, politicians are involved in the cocaine trade linked to Latin America. For example, Turkish and Venezuelan governments have already established relationships based on the mutual interests of both countries’ corrupt leaders. Ongoing illegal gold trade and cocaine seizures between Turkiye and Venezuela prove that active networks play a vital role in the criminal markets. For instance, Sedat Peker, a mafia boss cited in the Department of State’s International Narcotics Control Strategy Report in 2021, alleged that the son of then-prime Minister Binali Yildirim was involved in a 4.9 MT of cocaine seizure in Venezuela transferred from Colombia.

Second, the transition to the kleptocratic regime in Turkiye has presented opportunities for bureaucrats. The police, prosecutors, and judges have become increasingly involved in the drug trade in the country. For example, the deputy chief of Edirne province, a city that shares a border with Bulgaria and Greece, was arrested due to his involvement in the drug trade in March 2023, similar to many other state officials in recent years. Furthermore, bureaucrats are reluctant to probe cocaine seizures in Turkiye. No criminal group, politicians, or bureaucrats have been convicted in these seizures.

Third, AKP’s corrupt businesspeople are increasingly involved in cocaine trade. Authoritarian regimes create their businesspeople, a win-win strategy to take bribes in government contracts but exploit them as the regime’s financiers. Today’s AKP has a long list of corrupt businesspeople who have gotten wealthy with government contracts. One of them was linked to a cocaine seizure in Brazil in 2021 when the Brazilian police forced the landing of a Turkish jet that had taken off from a small airport in Ribeirao Preto and seized 1.3 MT of cocaine. Moreover, several of these businesspeople have already established illegal gold trade relations with the Venezuelan government and run ports in Ecuador and Peru, where cocaine has begun to transfer from these ports to Turkiye. For instance, Turkiye’s customs seized 1.3 MT of cocaine transferred from the Puerto Bolivar port run by Yilport Holding in Ecuador. The same port transferred another 616 packages of cocaine seized in a vessel in the Panama Canal. Finally, the recent cocaine seizure in Peru recorded 2.3 MT of cocaine en route to Turkiye in March 2023.

Fourth, Turkish organized crime, one of the top criminal groups in the heroin trade, is predominantly active in Western European countries. They are also networked with drug trafficking groups in the countries situated on the Balkans trafficking route that carries Afghan heroin to Western Europe. Furthermore, Turkish groups are involved in methamphetamine trafficking in the region, collaborating with Iranian criminal groups. In the past few years, the arrests of Turkish traffickers have proved their presence in Latin America. For example, three Turkish traffickers were arrested in Paraguay in 2017. The Venezuelan prosecutor indicted another three Turkish traffickers due to their complicity with Hezbollah in a drug trafficking investigation in 2018. In 2021, the Peruvian police arrested one Turkish trafficker with 100 kgs of cocaine, followed by the arrest of another one in Colombia.

Fifth, the Grey Wolves, officially known as Idealist Hearts, is a far-right group paramilitary organization that has begun to operate in Turkiye since the late 1970s. It is affiliated with the Nationalist Movement Party, a supporter and coalition partner of the AKP government. Many of its members were previously involved in the drug trade. The Grey Wolves were allegedly accused of assassinating the group’s former chair, Sinan Ates, in December 2022 due to his investigation of the involvement of Grey Wolves members in cocaine trafficking in Mersin, a port city in the Mediterranean city. Mersin also was recorded as a top destination city for the cocaine seizures recently made in Latin American countries. It is worth bearing in mind that the Grey Wolves have linkages with the Sinaloa Cartel. The series of videos posted on social media in 2020 show its saluting of the Sinaloa Cartel and its leader Ismael Zambada Garcia.

Who Is Behind Fentanyl Trafficking?

No detailed information is available showing who is involved in the transfer of fentanyl seized at the Puerto Barrios rail terminal in Izabal, which is one of the important transit hubs for cocaine smuggled from Honduras into Guatemala by land, as well as for cocaine arriving by plane or sea from Colombia and Venezuela. Sinaloa Cartel is one of two Mexican cartels actively linked to local drug trafficking organizations in Guatemala. According to the Treasury Department, the Los Huistas group smuggles drugs from its base in northern Guatemala to the United States with the networks of the Sinaloa Cartel and the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion (CJNG). Connecting dots that point out the Grey Wolves’ active presence in cocaine destination cities in Turkiye and its relationship with the Sinaloa Cartel make both organizations the most suspicious actors, likely accomplices of the recent fentanyl seizure in Izabal.

In conclusion, existing networks will apparently continue to transfer cocaine from Latin America to Turkiye and merge with other types of drugs, including fentanyl, demanded in both regions. The U.S. needs to cast a big lens on these networks and routes. Tracing the recent vessel seizure and cooperating with Turkish and Guatemalan officers is necessary. However, it seems that Turkish officials are reluctant to cooperate and deepen the investigation to determine who is behind this trafficking, as seen in other tons of cocaine seizures that have taken place between Turkiye and various Latin American countries over the past few years. The involvement of politicians and bureaucrats in cocaine trafficking in Turkiye makes it burdensome to conduct a reliable investigation.

It is worth noting that upcoming elections in May in Turkiye are also critical in seeing the evolution or changes in trafficking routes. If the opposition wins the elections and turns the country to its democratic setting, Turkiye can again close its doors to drug trafficking and fix its tarnished image as a cocaine hub. On the contrary, however, the AKP winning will bring more flourishing drug networks between Turkiye, the Middle East, and Latin America.

Mahmut Cengiz
Dr. Mahmut Cengiz is an Associate 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 research projects for the Brookings Institute, European Union, and various U.S. agencies. Dr. Cengiz regularly publishes books, articles and Op-eds. He is the author of six books, a number of articles, and book chapters regarding terrorism, organized crime, smuggling, terrorist financing, and trafficking issues. His 2019 book, “The Illicit Economy in Turkey: How Criminals, Terrorists, and the Syrian Conflict Fuel Underground Economies,” analyzes the role of criminals, money launderers, and corrupt politicians and discusses the involvement of ISIS and al-Qaida-affiliated groups in illicit economy. Dr. Cengiz holds two masters and two doctorate degrees from Turkey and the United States. His Turkish graduate degrees are in sociology. He has a master's degree from the School of International Service Program of American University and a Ph.D. from the School of Public Policy program of George Mason University. He is teaching Terrorism, American Security Policy and Narco-Terrorism courses at George Mason University.

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