Drug Trafficking and Countermeasures in Turkey: A General Assessment

Drug trafficking has been on the global agenda for more than a century.1 In simplest terms, it is a global illicit trade involving the cultivation, manufacture, distribution, and sale of substances which are subject to drug prohibition laws.2 Globally, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimates that between 149 and 272 million people, or 3.3% to 6.1% of the population aged 15-64, used illicit substances at least once in the previous year.3 These numbers are worrying, especially for countries on inter-regional trafficking routes where there are numerous non-state actors involved in manufacturing, importing, exporting, distributing, dispensing or possessing drugs across the borders.

Turkey is one such country; with its unique geographical location at the center of the drug smuggling crossroads, it has been one of the most negatively affected countries by drug trafficking in Eurasia. It has been a transit country, where drug trafficking has provided a breeding ground for other organized crime activities and a financial relief for Kurdish terrorist organization Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan (PKK) for years. These harsh realities necessitated Turkey to take concrete steps to fight against drug trafficking at the national, regional, and international levels and embrace a cooperative, multi-faceted, and decisive approach. The following sections contain detailed information regarding the major trafficking routes affecting Turkey, drug trafficking-PKK terrorism nexus, and Turkey’s domestic and international efforts against drug trafficking with particular emphasis on the aspect of intelligence sharing.

Major Drug Trafficking Routes Affecting Turkey

According to 2011 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report published by the US Department of State, Turkey is affected by three main heroin drug trafficking routes, namely: the Balkan route, the northern (Black Sea) route and the eastern Mediterranean route.4 In addition, starting from early 1990s, traffickers began to use a new route called the ‘Silk Road,’ where the inadequate border controls between the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries allowed traffickers to transit illicit drugs from Afghanistan to Russia, Ukraine, Eastern and Central Europe, the Baltic and the Nordic countries.5

Given its excellent strategic location between Europe, Central Asia, and the Middle East, Turkey acts as a transit route for opium and its derivates originating from Afghanistan6 en route to Western Europe, for methamphetamine from Iran for markets in the Far East, for captagon tablets originating in Eastern Europe en route to countries in the Middle East, and cannabis from Lebanon, Albania, and Afghanistan.7 As an outcome of this high rate of drug trafficking, approximately 75% of heroin seized in Europe has a Turkish and Kurdish connection; having either transited through Turkey, been processed there, or been seized in connection with Turkish criminal syndicates.8 According to more recent sources, the percentage is even higher; Robins indicates that 90% of the heroin trade is controlled by Turkish and Kurdish gangs.9 This trend is no different within the country. Many major traffickers based in Turkey are ethnic Kurds and many of the same individuals and families have been involved in smuggling contraband for years.10

Indeed, there are other factors fueling drug trafficking in Turkey and the region. To name a few, smuggling has a long tradition within the east and southeast regions of Turkey. Common ties of language, culture, and religion among the residents of southeast Turkey, northern Iraq, and northwest Iran encouraged the smugglers to continue their business.11  As clearly put by a Kurdish smuggler living in Van, a city in eastern Turkey, “in this region, smuggling is part of [the] economy. If it weren’t for animal husbandry and smuggling, the people in this region would not have survived for centuries. Smuggling is a way of life here and is not something negative.”12 Another fueling factor is high profit margins; the market is so lucrative that a kilogram of heroin worth $1,000 to $2,000 in Thailand or Afghanistan rises to $6,000 to $8,000 in Turkey and $20,000 to $80,000 in Germany with a street value of $200,000.13  These factors combined indicate how profitable drug trafficking business is for illegal non-state actors, such as organized crime groups and terrorist organizations in need of instant money especially for operational capability.

Drug Trafficking-PKK Terrorism Nexus

It is by and large the case that politically motivated terrorist organizations, mostly due to financial burden, have established links with the illegal businesses. The PKK is no exception to this. The ongoing lawlessness, disorder, and poor sociopolitical and socioeconomic conditions of the region paved the way for the organization to carry out illegal operations to finance its activities. In this context, the PKK aimed to exploit a considerable amount of money in a short time span in order to be capable of continuing its fight against conventional Turkish forces. Towards this end, the organization was involved in the taxation of drug shipments, the protection of drug traffickers throughout the southeastern Turkey,14 and illegal drug trade.15

Drug trafficking-the PKK nexus is not mere speculation; there are clear evidences regarding PKK’s involvement in the business. To name a few, for example, International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) concluded that nearly 178 Kurdish organizations were suspected of illegal drug trade involvement in 1992. In addition, Germany’s Chief Prosecutor maintained that 80% of the drugs seized in Europe were linked to the PKK in 1994.16 As expected, the revenue the PKK has raised out of drugs is considerably high. According to Turkish intelligence sources who wished to remain anonymous, the revenues of the PKK earned from the control over the drug as well as arms trafficking between Central Asia and Europe during the first half of the 1990s vary between 5 to 7 billion dollars a year.17 The numbers suggest that the PKK has found the financial relief it has sought through drugs; considering that these large sums are used to purchase arms and maintain the core military cadre controlling the military wing of the organization.

PKK’s trafficking activities are interlinked with other Turkish organized crime networks as well; traffickers are thus able to take advantage of the freight traffic into Europe. In addition, with almost 8 million Turks and Kurds living in Europe, half of whom visit Turkey each year, there are tremendous opportunities to take out the drugs and bring in the cash in return.18 It has also been alleged that persons whom Turkish state had granted some rights and privileges as the civilian counterinsurgency forces in southeastern Turkey contributed to the untrammeled growth of the drugs trade through eastern Turkey, and enabled criminal networks to gain control over parts of the Turkish state apparatus.19 Drug smuggling, therefore, constitutes a major part of the PKK’s financial apparatus, given the involvement of the organization in almost all phases of drug trafficking to sustain its activities. Turkey, in response, is indeed taking counter measures at home and abroad to prevent the activities of organized crime groups and terrorist organizations both to maintain its national security and contribute to regional stability.

Turkey’s Efforts Against Drug Trafficking

As mentioned earlier, Turkey’s struggle against drug trafficking is multi-dimensional and multi-level. To begin with the domestic level, first and foremost, the essential need for the fight against addictive substances is stated under the Turkish Constitution. According to the Article 58, “the state shall take all the necessary measures to protect young people from alcohol addiction, illicit drugs, delinquency, gambling, illiteracy and other similar bad habits.”20 To this end, Turkish law enforcement organizations focus their efforts on stemming the traffic of drugs and intercepting precursor chemicals. The Department of Anti-Smuggling and Organized Crime of the Turkish National Police (TNP), Gendarmerie, and Coast Guard are all part of the Ministry of Interior and have significant anti-narcotics responsibilities.21 The other state agencies that actively participate in the struggle are Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Labor and Social Security, Ministry of National Education, Ministry of Health, Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, Supreme Council of Radio and Television, Directorate General for Turkish Radio and Television Corporation, Directorate General of Turkish Grain Board,22 and Undersecretariat of Customs. This extensive list, along with a considerable number of local authorities and NGOs assisting state agencies, manifests Turkey’s commitment to disrupt narcotics trafficking at home.

To illustrate Turkey’s efforts to fulfill this commitment, the country has adopted a series of new pieces of legislation in late 1990s; the most operationally important change was most likely the new legislation that would permit international controlled deliveries of illegal drugs.23 Also, more recently, Turkish International Academy against Drugs and Organized Crime (TADOC) organized 60 training programs focusing on drug law enforcement, intelligence analysis, illegal immigration and human smuggling, interview techniques, surveillance techniques, and antiterrorism training for judges and prosecutors for 1500 local and regional law enforcement officers and trained a total of 639 Turkish officers in computer-based training centers throughout Turkey in 2009.24 In addition, during 2010, Turkish counternarcotics officials began a series of efforts to address the increase in narcotic smugglers using international airports to smuggle illegal drugs either from Turkey or through Turkey. Since the inception of this program in January 2010, 133 couriers were arrested and over 329 kilograms of illegal drugs were seized, a dramatic increase from the previous year.25 It should also be noted that the increase in the quantity of heroin seized between 2002-2007 is five-fold,26 thanks to Turkey’s momentum and dedication in institution building, training, and supply and demand reduction.

Turkey’s global strategy on the fight against illicit trafficking of drugs, on the other hand, is based on the principle that the issue can only be addressed by extensive cooperation, exchange of information and expertise within the international community.27 Under this principle, Turkey has concluded more than 65 bilateral and multilateral cooperation agreements as of 200628 to continue its anti-trafficking efforts and contribute to related projects together with the international community, specifically the ones addressing the problem and its implications in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran, three countries forming the “Golden Route” for traffickers.

For this purpose, Turkey has assisted other countries to take substantial steps to address the drug-related issues in Afghanistan not only by hosting and attending international meetings such as Paris Pact Round Table Meeting, but also funding and planning training programs for Afghan law enforcement officers.29 Its contribution to solve the drug-related problems emanating from Iran should not be underestimated, either. In 2008, Turkey and Iran signed agreements to cooperate in the fight against illicit drug trafficking, organized crime and terrorism.30 To strengthen the cooperation, Iranian President Ahmadinejad has announced a newly passed law on an Iran-Turkey agreement to work together in the same areas in 2011.31 In a similar vein, Pakistan and Turkey have agreed to take measures to “broaden an deepen” security cooperation and greater interaction between their intelligence agencies against terrorism, illicit arms and, drug trafficking, under the name “intensified cooperation” in 2009.32 President Zardari and his Turkish counterpart Gul agreed to further deepen, broaden, and strengthen the partnership between two countries in every field for better results in 2011.33 These agreements suggest that Turkey aims to take preemptive measures against drugs entering its soils from Central Asia, where the illicit cultivation and production is the highest in the world.

Indeed, Turkey has not directed its attention solely towards the Golden Route; there are numerous bilateral agreements signed between Turkey and European countries affected by drug trafficking. To name a few, for instance, under Turkey-UK Strategic Partnership, two countries agreed to strengthen ties and deepen the level of cooperation on the fight against terrorism, aviation security, illegal drugs trade, illegal immigration, and other organized crimes, and also to regularly update their joint assessments of the threats in 2007.34 A similar cooperation mechanism exists among Turkey, the Netherlands and Germany. Turkey accepted to share wiretap evidence with those countries as a part of its efforts; specifically the close relations established between MIT, Turkish National Intelligence Organization, and German Verfassungschutz generated positive results in terms of their fight against drug trafficking and PKK.35 Additionally, in line with Turkey’s EU accession process, Turkey became a full member of the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) after the European Parliament ratified Turkey’s participation in 2006, following a successful EU twinning project.36

Turkey cooperates closely with the US as well. Drug Enforcement Administration and the US Embassy in Turkey work closely with Turkish officials to offer regional training opportunities to Turkish Law Enforcement officials throughout the country and at the TADOC center to provide additional investigative and prosecutorial tools to Turkish officials and their international counterparts.37 The US government also provides Turkish National Police with equipment support for intelligence gathering and interdiction operations and assists Turkish Customs to improve interdiction at Turkey’s main land border crossings with Bulgaria, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Georgia.38 Most notably, to break the drug trafficking-terrorism nexus, the US imposed sanctions on the PKK to cut off its funding resources under Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act, froze any assets some senior PKK leaders might have in the US, and banned US citizens from engaging in any business with these persons.39

In addition to bilateral agreements, Turkey has ratified major multilateral agreements and international conventions in the combat against addictive substances. These include, but not limited to, Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (1961) and Protocol amending the convention (1972), Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (1988), Agreement Between the European Community and Turkey on Precursors and Chemical Substances frequently used in the illicit manufacture of narcotics drugs or psychotropic substances (2004).40 Turkey also actively contributes to the work of most relevant major international and regional platforms such as the UNODC (the Commission on Narcotic Drugs-CND, the Paris Pact), the International Narcotics Control Board, the Pompidou Group, the Southeast European Cooperative Initiative, Black Sea Economic Cooperation Organization, and Economic Cooperation Organization.41 Still, intelligence sharing plays a critical, yet overlooked role in the cooperation to prevent trafficking. In terms of this matter, Turkey has been a member of Central and Eastern Europe Regional Intelligence Liaison Office (RILO) since 1994, concentrated its focus on tight coordination with its neighbors, and presented proposals for the “Istanbul Platform”, which contained the creation of a regional coordination and analysis unit for Turkey and its neighbors, and also the setting up of a regular dialogue between drug and police liaison officers from several countries stationed in Turkey, other Balkan countries, and in some countries of the South Caucasus.42 Additionally, FBI’s Office of International Operations runs the Legal Attaché Program in Turkey.

Conclusion and Way Forward

Just as terrorism, drug trafficking can be reduced and contained, yet cannot be totally eliminated. Inter-regional and intra-regional drug trafficking is likely to continue, given the high and growing demand for drugs in destination countries and high production rate, lawlessness, poverty, and instability in the source countries in Central Asia. In addition, so long as the windfall gains and profit margins remain high, terrorist organizations are likely to continue their involvement in drug taxation, protection, production, and trafficking. Accordingly, Turkey, as an outcome of its location, is likely to remain as a key transit country for drug traffickers for a considerable period of time in the future.

Turkey’s national, regional, and international efforts against drug trafficking appear to be effective, yet better results can be achieved through more intelligence cooperation and case-by-case collaboration. Even though intelligence and security cooperation is problematic due to the fundamental tension between an increasingly networked world and highly compartmentalized national intelligence gathering,43 cooperation at international level has become an effective tool of foreign policy conducting, of using that intelligence for ensuring their national security,44 and of combating drug trafficking and terrorism nourishing from organized crime. In addition, liaison arrangements reduce the risks of collection operations against adversaries, particularly if the collaborating party has ethnic, geographical, or historical ties that offer improved cover, language skills, or physical access to the target.45 Under this light, Eurasian countries on the critical trafficking routes can initiate a regional intelligence sharing mechanism where Turkey, with its location, mixed identity, and long-standing experience in fighting against drugs, may be the key actor in intelligence gathering against targets that European governments have difficulty tracking.46

Without a doubt, establishing such mechanism is a difficult task. However, similar mechanisms established earlier in the past, such as “5 Eyes” group that permitted the division of effort in sharing signals intelligence (SIGINT) among the US, UK, Commonwealth countries, Denmark, Norway, Germany and Turkey47 in 1947, or Treaty of Periphery (TRIDENT) initiated by Turkish, Israeli, and Iranian intelligence in 1958 to provide intelligence cooperation against the rising tide of Arab nationalism48 prove its feasibility.  In the same vein, a similar intelligence sharing and liaison arrangement mechanism can be initiated in Eurasia with the support of specifically Western intelligence services that are operationally more capable, experienced, and knowledgeable of drug trafficking.

It should be noted that establishing liaison relationships can be highly difficult and costly, even among close allies. There is always the risk that a weak power may be able to inflict considerable strategic damage on a great power by manipulating its asymmetric advantages in intelligence liaison relationships or by using its counterintelligence apparatus to effectively capture the great power’s intelligence system for its own purposes.49 It is also possible that some smaller countries in particular regions may lack regional SIGINT capabilities; in the Mediterranean region, for instance, the intelligence services cannot afford extensive global coverage with the possible exception of Israel and Turkey.50 Similarly, some advanced intelligence services may lack human intelligence (HUMINT) and suffer from insufficient numbers of linguists, difficulty accessing certain countries, and the challenges of infiltrating tribal organizations in Eurasia. There is also the problem of national interests. As one former director general of Britain’s Security Service notes, international intelligence sharing “is [still] something of an oxymoron,” since intelligence services embody “individual state power and national self interest.”51 Apart from these, differences between legal systems, the lack of knowledge of these differences, different law enforcement systems as well as diverging interests and cultural differences, excessive bureaucracies, endemic corruption,52 strict privacy laws are other obstacles that complicate the cross-border liaison arrangements and intelligence sharing.

In sum, drug trafficking is an international problem with growing and dangerous links to other criminal activities and terrorism. In Turkey’s context, PKK’s engagement in trafficking and marketing drugs is a sound example supporting this argument. Turkey remains strongly committed to disrupting drug trafficking and addressing its implications on its national security and regional security. Still, for Turkey and other actors, increasing the level and quality of cooperation with particular emphasis on an intelligence-driven approach is strongly needed to counter drug production and trafficking in Eurasia, given the complexity of emerging security threats, changing threat perceptions, and the incapability of states to address non-traditional threats alone in changing international relations environment. Thus, taking steps towards this end is a necessity, not an option for more effective future counter-trafficking policies and responses at national and regional levels.

Show 52 footnotes

  1. “World Drug Report 2009,” UNODC (New York: UN, 2009).
  2. “Drug Trafficking,” UNODC, 2010. Available at: http://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/drug-trafficking/index.html
  3. “The World Drug Report 2011,” UNODC (New York: UN, 2011). Available at:http://www.unodc.org/documents/data-and-analysis/WDR2011/World_Drug_Report_2011_ebook.pdf
  4. “2011 INCSR: Country Reports – Somalia Through Zambia,” US Department of State, March 3, 2011. Available at: http://www.state.gov/p/inl/rls/nrcrpt/2011/vol1/156363.htm#turkey
  5. Vladimir Fenopetov, “The Drug Crime Threat to Countries Located on the ‘Silk Road’,” China and Eurasia Forum Quarterly 4, No. 1 (2006): 5-13.
  6. Afghanistan is the major source of heroin, producing approximately 70-90% of the world’s supply of opium, which is converted to heroin. Conversion of local opium into heroin is increasingly common in Afghanistan because all Afghan-based drug traffic is destined to the lucrative illicit markets in Europe where the street price of heroin is 20-fold higher than in the areas close to the Afghan borders.
  7. “2011 INCSR: Country Reports – Somalia Through Zambia.”
  8. Salih Fuat Sahin, “Case Studies In Terrorism-Drug Connection: The Kurdistan Workers’ Party, The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, and The Shining Path” (M.Sc diss., University of North Texas, 2001).
  9. Philip Robins, “Back From the Brink: Turkey’s Ambivalent Approaches to the Hard Drugs Issue,” Middle East Journal 62, No. 4 (Autumn 2008): 630-650.
  10. “2011 INCSR: Country Reports – Somalia Through Zambia.”
  11. Salih Fuat Sahin.
  12. Ahmet Icduygu and Sule Toktas, “How Do Smuggling and Trafficking Operate via Irregular Border Crossings in the Middle East?,” International Migration 40, No. 6 (2002): 25-54.
  13. Salih Fuat Sahin.
  14. Philip Robins, 630-650.
  15. Salih Fuat Sahin.
  16. Michael P. Hankard and Saruhan S. Hatipoglu, “The Workers’ Party of Kurdistan (PKK),” United States Global Strategy Council, 1994. Available at: http://www.fas.org/irp/world/para/docs/studies5.htm
  17. Mustafa Kibaroglu, “Turkey’s Concerns About the State-Building Efforts in Iraq,” The Iranian Journal of International Affairs 18, No. 4 (2005): 443-454.
  18. Michele Steinberg, “PKK Terrorists Named ‘Drug Kingpins’; Nations Move Against Narcoterrorism,” Executive Intelligence Review, August 1, 2008 http://www.larouchepub.com/other/2008/3530pkk_terrorists.html
  19. Martin van Bruinessen, “Transnational Aspects of the Kurdish Question,” (working paper) (2000).
  20. “Agenda Item 4: Cooperation in the Field of Drugs,” Screening Chapter 24, Justice, Freedom and Security: Turkey’s Country Session, February 15, 2006.
  21. “2011 INCSR: Country Reports – Somalia Through Zambia.”
  22. “Action Plan For the Implementation of National Policy and Strategy Document on Counteracting Addictive Substance and Substance Addiction,” Ministry of Interior in Turkey (2007).
  23. Philip Robins, 630-650.
  24. “2011 INCSR: Country Reports – Somalia Through Zambia.”
  25. Ibid.
  26. Abdullah Bozkurt, “EU Cannot Sustain Drug Policy Without Turkey,” Today’s Zaman, November 7, 2009, http://www.todayszaman.com/tz-web/mobile.do?load=wapDetay&link=192242
  27. “Turkey’s Efforts Against The Drug Problem,” Republic of Turkey Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Available at: http://www.mfa.gov.tr/turkey_s-efforts-against-the-drug-problem.en.mfa
  28. “Agenda Item 4: Cooperation in the Field of Drugs.”
  29. “Turkey’s Efforts Against The Drug Problem.”
  30. “Iran, Turkey Ink Pact to Fight Drug Trafficking, Terrorism,” Thaindian News, August 15, 2008, http://www.thaindian.com/newsportal/uncategorized/iran-turkey-ink-pact-to-fight-drug-trafficking-terrorism_10084243.html
  31. “Iran, Turkey to fight terror, narcotics,” Press TV, May 23, 2011. Available at: http://drugbustsworldwide.com/2011/05/iran-turkey-to-fight-terror-narcotics/
  32. “Pakistan, Turkey Resolve Against Terrorism,” Asia News, October 25, 2009, http://www.asianews.com.pk/13079/pakistan-turkey-resolve-against-terrorism.html
  33. “Pakistan, Turkey agree to deepen, broaden and strengthen partnership in every field,” The President of Pakistan Press Center, October 31, 2011. Avaiable at: http://www.presidentofpakistan.gov.pk/index.php?lang=en&opc=3&sel=3&id=763
  34. “Turkey UK Strategic Partnership 2007/2008,” Foreign and Commonwealth Office, October 25, 2007, http://www.fco.gov.uk/resources/en/news/2007/10/fco_not_251007_turkukstratpart
  35. Enis Berberoglu, “MIT’in Orta Asya Zirvesine Sabotaj,” Hurriyet, September 2, 1997, http://hurarsiv.hurriyet.com.tr/goster/haber.aspx?id=-262509&yazarid=6
  36. “2011 INCSR: Country Reports – Somalia Through Zambia.”
  37. Ibid.
  38. “International Narcotics Control Strategy Report: Turkey,” US Department of State Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (March 1996), http://www.hri.org/docs/USSD-INCSR/95/Europe/Turkey.html
  39. “Kongra-Gel’s Drug Kingpins,” VOA News, October 24, 2009, http://www.voanews.com/uspolicy/2009-10-25-voa4.cfm
  40. “Agenda Item 4: Cooperation in the Field of Drugs.”
  41. “Turkey’s Efforts Against The Drug Problem.”
  42. Vladimir Fenopetov, 5-13.
  43. Richard J. Aldrich, “Transatlantic Intelligence and Security Cooperation,” International Affairs 80, No.4 (2004): 732-733.
  44. Shlomo Shpiro, “The Communication of Mutual Security: Frameworks for European-Mediterranean Intelligence Sharing” (2001).
  45. Jennifer E. Sims, “Foreign Intelligence Liaison: Devils, Deals and Details,”International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence 19, No. 2 (May 2006): 195-217.
  46. Stephane Lefabve, “Turkey’s Intelligence Community in Changing Times,” International Journal 61 No. 124 (2005-2006): 105-124.
  47. Derek Reveron, “Old Allies, New Friends: Intelligence-Sharing in the War on Terror,” Orbis 50, No. 3 (Summer 2006): 453-468.
  48. Shlomo Shpiro.
  49. Jennifer E. Sims, 195-217.
  50. Shlomo Shpiro.
  51. Stephen Lander, “International Intelligence Cooperation: An Inside Perspective,” Cambridge Review of International Affairs 17, No. 3 (October 2004): 481-493.
  52. Ludo Block, “Cross-Border Liaison and Intelligence: Practicalities and Issues,” in Clive Harfield, Allyson MacVean, John GD Grieve and David Phillips, eds. The Handbook of Intelligent Policing (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).


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