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COLUMN: Emerging Cocaine Trafficking Routes Between Latin America and Middle East Fuel Drug Trade Expansion

Countries typically develop one of three types of relationships with drug-trafficking organizations: collusive, tolerant, and confrontational.

Latin American drug cartels have inundated the United States with tons of cocaine since the late 1970s and during that time have expanded their market to include countries of the European Union. Since their involvement in this trade, cartels have responded to the counter-drug-trafficking policies either by changing their modus operandi or transit routes; however, their appetite for transferring more and more cocaine and increasing their profits has never waned. The cartels’ resourcefulness has enabled them to adapt easily to new environments. That resourcefulness includes using the power of money to bribe corrupt officials and expand their networks in the United States, Europe, Asia, Africa and, most recently, the Middle East.

A U.N. assessment of world drug-market trends for cocaine and amphetamine-type stimulants found that close to a half million people died from illicit drug use in 2019 and that around 1,400 metric tons (MT) of cocaine, intended for around 20 million cocaine users, were seized by authorities. About 900 MT of the total were seized in Latin American and Central American countries, followed by 300 MT in the United States and 100 MT in Europe. Colombia alone accounted for 34 percent of world cocaine seizures, followed by the United States at 18 percent, Brazil at 7 percent, Panama at 5 percent, and the Netherlands at 4 percent. Middle Eastern countries ranked low in terms of tonnage and percentage of world cocaine seizures, even though tons of cocaine have been transited through or were destined for locations in the region. The main traffickers are Hezbollah and the increasingly influential Sinaloa cartel, both of which typically use routes that lead to final destinations in Turkey and routes that pass through the country to destinations in Europe and elsewhere in the Middle East.

It was not until the early 2000s that Turkey seized more than small amounts of cocaine of around several hundred kilograms, usually from African couriers who had stashed the drugs in their bodies. Turkey since then has recorded an increasing number of cocaine seizures each year, including almost 2 MT in 2020 (see Figure 1). According to a 2021 drugs report from the Turkish Ministry of the Interior, Turkey conducted more than 4,000 cocaine seizure operations between 2018 and 2020. The report noted that the uptick in the number of seizures indicates the potential for increased cocaine activity in the country.

COLUMN: Emerging Cocaine Trafficking Routes Between Latin America and Middle East Fuel Drug Trade Expansion Homeland Security Today

Figure 1: Cocaine Seizures (kgs) in Turkey between 2014 and 2020

Turkey invariably has been a source, transit, and destination country for drug trafficking. Opium cultivation and Turkey’s increasing role as a source country in the 1970s created tense relations between Turkey and the United States. When opium cultivation moved from the Golden Triangle countries –Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand – to Afghanistan in the 1970s, new heroin trafficking routes began to emerge in the Middle East. Turkish drug-trafficking groups with their partners in Iran and the Balkans countries were quick to start new trafficking routes. Well-known drug kingpins Huseyin Baybashin, Orfi Cetinkaya, and Hursit Yavas became the targets of European police in the 1980s and 1990s. Since the 2000s, Turkish groups have dominated the heroin market in Europe. These groups also have been involved in the trafficking of other drugs, such as Ecstasy and Captagon in the Gulf States and methamphetamine in Asia.

The government’s response to the drug-trafficking activity has varied over the years, depending on how close or far away it was from operating as a democratic system of government. When Turkey was a fledgling democracy in the 1980s and 1990s, corruption was an endemic and Turkey’s stance against drug-trafficking groups was inconsistent. At times that stance was serious, while at other times it was less robust. When Turkey began the process of applying to join the European Union in the early 2000s, Turkish officials strengthened the country’s democratic system and focused their efforts on curbing corruption. Turkish police performed superbly as a key player in these anticorruption activities. This period lasted until the early 2010s and was marked by a record number of drug seizures. The European Union and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency cooperated effectively with Turkey, engaging in joint controlled-delivery operations. The number of government officials involved in corruption and then charged with complicity in drug trafficking was no more than several tens of police officers during this entire period. Starting in the early 2010s, the situation changed dramatically. The government morphed into an authoritarian state and adopted a more kleptocratic system of government. Turkey’s performance against drug trafficking deteriorated considerably. The country now lacks the capacity to counter drug-trafficking groups. It has instead become a source and destination country for methamphetamine and a transit and destination country for cocaine trade, and it has networked with Mexican drug cartels.

Who Is Involved in the Cocaine Trade?

Countries typically develop one of three types of relationships with drug-trafficking organizations: collusive, tolerant, and confrontational. Countries that have a collusive relationship are actively involved in drug trafficking. Countries that have a tolerant relationship accept bribes from drug traffickers and turn a blind eye to the illicit activity. Countries with a confrontational relationship are concerned about protecting the sovereignty of the state from drug-trafficking groups that control a portion of the country’s territory and will use force to eliminate the groups’ territorial control. The Mexican government’s war-like response to drug cartels in the country is an example of a confrontational relationship with drug-trafficking groups.

Drug-trafficking groups in Turkey have either a collusive or tolerant relationship with the government. Convicted mafia boss Sedat Peker, for example, claimed in a May 2021 video post that Erkam Yildirim, the son of then-Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, was involved in drug trades between Turkey and Venezuela. Peker further claims that after the seizure of 4.9 MT of cocaine in Colombia in June 2020, Erkam Yildirim visited Caracas twice in 2021 – once in January and again in February – to move cocaine networks from Colombia to Venezuela where the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration office has no control. Moreover, rumors indicate that politicians and high-level bureaucrats in the Turkish government have formed domestic heroin-trafficking organizations. Statements from an increasing number of police officers, judges, prosecutors, and state officials since the early 2010s also indicate that state officials not only have colluded with drug traffickers but also been actively involved in ongoing drug-trade activities. As a result of the Turkish government’s tolerant counter-drug policies, Turkish transnational drug trafficking groups have seized the opportunity for further involvement in the drug trade and the chance to sell, and are eager to expand the types of drugs they can offer including cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, Ecstasy, and Captagon.

Turkish cocaine-trafficking groups have networked with Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Sinaloa Cartel in Mexico, and Sito Miñanco in Spain as well as the drug cartels in Colombia, Panama, and Brazil. On several occasions, Turkish police seized shipments of cocaine that had been transferred by Hezbollah from Lebanon to Turkey. It should be noted that Hezbollah launders money in Turkish state banks. The Sinaloa Cartel is actively involved in transporting cocaine both to and through Turkey. The relationship between the Sinaloa Cartel and Turkish trafficking groups began in the early 2010s when the cartel hired Turkish chemists to produce drugs. Turkish cocaine traffickers networked extensively with the Galician drug smuggler Sito Miñanco until Miñanco was arrested in February 2018 in Algeciras, Spain, and sent to prison for allegedly being the leader of a plot that distributed cocaine to Italy, Albania, and the Netherlands. Turkish traffickers subsequently expanded their cocaine networks and their influence in countries bordering the Atlantic Ocean, such as those in Central America.

Ongoing Middle East Latin America Drug-Trafficking Networks

Drug seizures in Turkey, Spain, and Latin America as well as the arrests of Turkish drug traffickers continue to be indicators of active drug-trafficking networks involving groups in the Middle East and Latin America. For example, in 2017, Paraguay arrested two Turkish citizens, Münir Öztürk and Eray Üç, for cocaine trafficking. Both men, who also are members of Hezbollah, were charged with transferring cocaine to the Middle East and sent to prison; however, they escaped from the prison after 10 months. In 2018, Venezuelan prosecutors targeted a cocaine-trafficking group led by Turkish-Venezuelan trafficker Ozer Murat for allegedly transferring cocaine from Venezuela to Paris, Istanbul, and Beirut. In 2020, Colombian police seized 4.9 MT of cocaine in the port of Buenaventura. Investigators discovered that the cocaine was destined for Turkey. Also in 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 vessels were destined for Turkey. In 2021, Turkish customs officials seized 1.3 MT of cocaine and 439 kilograms in two separate operations in one week at the port of Mersin. The drugs had been transferred from Ecuador. That same year, Spanish police arrested the crew of a Turkish ship that was transporting cocaine on a route through the Atlantic Ocean on its way to Spain. Again in 2021, 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. It is believed that Sergio Roberto de Carvalho, referred to by some as a Brazilian Escobar, was one of the traffickers behind the operation. In 2022, Spanish police seized 3 MT cocaine on a Turkish vessel and arrested four Turkish traffickers. Based on these seizures and arrests, it would not be wrong to say that Turkish traffickers have strong networks with Latin American traffickers.

Why Turkey and the Middle East?

Drug-trafficking groups, particularly those in Turkey and the Middle East, are resourceful and quick to adapt as circumstances change and new opportunities arise. The groups prefer to operate in areas where the risk of seizure is low, the presence of corruptible state officials is likely, and police and customs officials are willing to turn a blind eye toward illicit drug activity. These criteria explain, in part, why drug traffickers have chosen Turkey and the Middle East as an alternative to other land and sea routes to destinations worldwide. Other factors, however, are at play.

First, heroin prices fell after the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in August 2021. Finding itself in desperate need of funds in the wake of widespread economic sanctions imposed by several Western countries, the Taliban began supplying more heroin to traffickers in exchange for a portion of the profits. Some Turkish heroin-trafficking groups, in turn, have moved to cocaine trade because of its profitability.

Second, highly experienced and well-networked transnational Turkish groups in Europe networked with Mexican cartels to use Turkey as an alternative route for their own drug-trafficking operations. These cartels already dominated the heroin market and were active in human smuggling, human trafficking, and drug trafficking in Europe. They drew on their experiences in Europe and moved their networks to a new route that passes through Turkey. These cartels also have assigned traffickers to the ports of Antwerp and Rotterdam, where seizures of cocaine have reached record highs of 66 MT and 33 MT, respectively.

Third, an increase in U.S. and European operations against Mexican drug cartels has forced them to find less risky routes. Cartels that targeted the European cocaine market therefore began to use Turkey as an alternative through route.

Fourth, Turkey’s fast transformation into an authoritarian and kleptocratic state created a favorable playing field for groups interested in joining any of the cocaine-trafficking networks in the country. The involvement of high-level politicians only made matters worse and pushed more state officials to get involved in the cocaine trade.

Fifth, the government’s retaliatory attitude after the December 17 and 25 corruption scandals in 2013 that implicated President Erdogan, his cabinet, and his entourage and an equally harsh response to the suspicious July 15, 2016, coup attempt resulted in the firing of 40,000 police officers – including entire units of narcotics officers. Erdogan and his ministers did not care about the negative effects of these purges and instead prioritized safeguarding their high-level positions in the government.

Sixth, extensive corruption in the Turkish government has created opportunities for cocaine-trafficking groups. According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, Turkey in 2012 had a score of 49 (on a scale ranging from 0 = very corrupt to 100 = very clean) and a rank of 54 (where higher rank means more corruption). By 2021, Turkey had a score of 38 and a rank of 96. As evidence of the increase in corruption, a number of military personnel, police, judges, prosecutors, customs officials, and government officials are known to have been involved in drug trafficking since the early 2010s.

Seventh, Turkish companies have made investments in Latin America, where the volume of exports has tremendously grown in the last 20 years. The Turkish company Yilport Holding, which was created in August 2011 to consolidate the country’s port and container terminal operations in Latin America, now runs the port of Puerto Bolívar in Ecuador and the port of Paita in Peru. It may be no coincidence, of course, that cocaine recently has left from these ports and destined for Turkey.

Eighth, ongoing suspicious governmental relations between Turkey and Venezuela have increased the role of Turkey in Venezuelan government affairs. The close friendship between Erdogan and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, for example, led to ongoing illegal trading of gold and to cocaine trafficking between the two countries.

To conclude, recent autocratic and kleptocratic transformations in Turkey have created obstacles for effective investigations and international cooperation in countering the new cocaine networks that are now flourishing in the Middle East. Turkey’s tepid response to numerous cocaine seizures in Spain and Latin America and destined to Turkey is far from satisfactory. The government turns a blind eye to the trafficking and makes no attempt to investigate any of the recent seizures of several metric tons of cocaine. The failure to investigate is not surprising, given that the son of Turkey’s former prime minister and the current politicians are active accomplices in cocaine-trafficking operations. Turkey has been reluctant to trace the source of the cocaine that enters the country and to cooperate with Latin American countries in their efforts to do so. European Union officials are appalled by the willingness of Turkish authorities to cooperate with transnational cocaine-trafficking groups. The United States’ 2022 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report underlined how Turkish officials did not accept invitations to collaborate on drug-related investigations. Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that Latin American cocaine traffickers will continue to use Turkey as a passageway to other countries for the sale of illicit drugs and that Middle Eastern and European countries will continue to be targets for a seemingly endless supply of cocaine.

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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