The Politics of Turkey’s Coke Connection

Why have so many drug kingpins come to reside in the country?

The Politics of Turkey’s Coke Connection
Cocaine hidden inside bags of fertilizer is displayed after being seized in Istanbul. (Xinhua/Osman Orsal via Getty Images)

In early November 2023, Turkey’s minister of the interior announced that they had arrested a man whom newspapers styled the “king of cocaine.” Police apprehended Dritan Rexhepi in the exclusive seaside community of Beylikduzu, just outside of Istanbul.

Interior Minister Ali Yerlikaya proudly tweeted video footage of police raiding Rexhepi’s palatial home, including shots of officers laying out what appears to have been the suspect’s extensive collection of luxury watches. Despite an international warrant for his role in South American drug trafficking, the images suggested Rexhepi’s life in upscale Istanbul was one of comfort and leisure. Nevertheless, Turkish news outlets rejoiced at the announcement.

Rexhepi is just one of a series of high-profile drug trafficking suspects apprehended in Turkey in the last year. In one sense, this reflects a deepening Turkish war on narcotics. Recent statistics drawn from the Turkish prison system underscore the sheer scale of the government’s counternarcotics agenda. Almost 350,000 people are currently incarcerated in the country, far more than any other state in Europe. Of this number, a whopping 34% are in prison on drug-related charges.

An even starker indicator of current events in Turkey can be found in the size of drug seizures at Turkish ports. Over the last several years, police have intercepted a series of shipments arriving from South America, each containing several tons of cocaine. It would appear that it is this trend that led Rexhepi to take up residence in Istanbul.

In truth, Turkey is one of many European nations that have been inundated by a tidal wave of cocaine. In 2022, for example, police in the Netherlands interdicted more than 200,000 pounds of cocaine entering the country, more than three times the amount five years before. One explanation for this is the continued growth of coca cultivation in South America, which has continued at a record-setting pace over the last several years. The ready supply of the drug has helped maintain strong demand in Western Europe and created new markets in the Balkans, Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

Yet critics of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have interpreted the country’s current cocaine problem in an entirely different light. The apprehension of numerous drug kingpins comes in the wake of accusations and scandals concerning corruption within the ranks of the government. With the country continuing to flounder under the weight of hyperinflation and income inequality, the rising tide of doubt among embittered voters could not come at a worse time for Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party. With his tenure and legacy on the line, Turkey’s president appears determined to fight allegations that his government is corrupt.

A well-seasoned news consumer would likely be familiar with Turkey’s historic place within the international drug trade. Its notoriety goes back decades. At the height of the American heroin epidemic in the 1970s, Turkey drew admonishments from Washington for what was seen as the country’s inability or unwillingness to halt illicit production of opium.

Much has changed since those dark days, dramatized in the 1978 film “Midnight Express.” By the 1980s, Turkey had fully evolved into a transit state for heroin produced in Pakistan and Afghanistan. By then, an exclusive class of native Turkish traffickers had begun to branch out into Europe and North America. Integral to this transformation was the ability of Turkish gangsters to cooperate with like-minded partners in the Balkans.

A shocking display of this nexus came as a result of revelations stemming from the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II in May 1981. With the arrest of Mehmet Ali Agca, the pontiff’s would-be killer, international attention shifted to the fact that he had resided in Bulgaria alongside known Turkish heroin dealers working with a state-run import-export company. What became known as the “Balkan Route” grew in complexity through the 1990s. In the shadow of Yugoslavia’s dissolution, Turkish traffickers relied increasingly on ethnic Albanian collaborators bringing illicit heroin to the European marketplace. The depth and extent of these networks became the subject of greater European interest and anxiety as the new millennium got underway.

While this history remains crucial to the context of events happening now, there is not necessarily a direct line of continuity. To understand how and why a cocaine baron like Rexhepi came to settle in Istanbul, one must appreciate two parallel developments at the heart of his story.

On the one hand, Rexhepi’s criminal career is emblematic of an ongoing expansionist pattern specific to the global cocaine trade. Since the days of Pablo Escobar and the rise of the Medellin Cartel, cocaine traffickers have labored to find new routes and markets to sell their wares. The quest to find safer smuggling routes into the United States and Europe pushed criminal organizations in the Western Hemisphere to exploit a variety of points of transit in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. By the 1990s, particularly resourceful traffickers discovered equally effective routes through West Africa.

The diversification of trading corridors ran in tandem with the slow growth of cocaine consumption outside North America and Western Europe. By the early 2000s, scholars and journalists took increasing note of rising cocaine use in Russia and the Middle East. Until recently, Turkey and Turkish traffickers aided minimally in the growth and development of the cocaine trade. While there is evidence that Turkish gangsters bartered heroin for cocaine as early as the 1990s, it is generally assumed that the amount passing into or through Turkey tended to be small. In 2008, for example, only 230 pounds of cocaine was seized in the entire country. Of that, almost 60% came by way of couriers arrested arriving at Turkish airports.

Recent seizures now dwarf these early sums. In 2021, Turkish officers confiscated over 6,000 pounds of cocaine. United Nations data from 2022 suggests that the flow of cocaine into Turkey has not subsided. Nevertheless, Turkey appears to remain a relatively isolated point of entry for cocaine smugglers. By comparison, Belgian police confiscated more than 240,000 pounds of cocaine in 2022, more than double the amount seized five years earlier.

The second element enabling the likes of Rexhepi has been the incredible diversification of cocaine trafficking organizations. Of course, the smuggling of cocaine has always drawn an astonishing variety of characters and groups. Before the 1970s, muling cocaine was a small-scale trade plied by Bolivians, Peruvians, Chileans and others hailing from South America. Just before the dawn of the Medellin and Cali Cartels, authorities in the United States spoke warily of a “Cuban mafia” in charge of the trade. Fans of the Netflix show “Narcos” and “Narcos: Mexico” can readily attest to the events that came after.

What is generally less appreciated is the incredible number of European and Middle Eastern entrepreneurs who sought to establish their own cocaine pipelines back across the Atlantic. Among the earliest of these trailblazers was Sami al-Khoury, one of the reputed architects of the infamous “French Connection” heroin network. In addition to smuggling large quantities of opiates from Lebanon, Khoury also stood accused of being among the first to import cocaine via his Beirut-based prostitution ring. Other veterans of the French Connection network would join him, as would gangsters from Italy, Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union.

Rexhepi’s ascendency represents a particularly recent, but by no means unprecedented, wave in this pattern of transatlantic activity. Evidence of ethnic Albanian involvement in the global trade dates back to the Cold War. In the early 1980s, American officials touted the existence of an “Albanian connection” linking Turkish heroin exporters to Yugoslavia-born New York retailers.

Ethnic Albanian networks became more visible with Yugoslavia’s dissolution and the end of communist rule in Tirana. As hundreds of thousands left the Balkans during the 1990s, police and pundits widely noted Albanian involvement in petty drug dealing as well as other organized crime activity. In this regard, Rexhepi stands as something of an exception. Originally a law student in Tirana, it is reported that he chose to become an assassin and drug trafficker out of a desire for a better life. “I had two options,” he declared in 2022, “surrender to the rotten system in Albania or look for something else in my life.”

After evading a 25-year prison sentence for murder, Rexhepi drifted between Italy, the Netherlands and Spain. After gaining a slew of indictments in each of these states, he found himself in Ecuador, joining what became the first wave of professional criminals to settle in the country. With Ecuador’s lax visa restrictions and its proximity to the coca-producing regions in the Andes, Rexhepi and others found in Guayaquil a base in which to thrive. A hefty prison sentence for cocaine trafficking in 2014 failed to put an end to his dealings. From his cell he served as the head of a cartel made up of 14 Albanian crime groups calling themselves the Kompania Bello. And then in 2021, inexplicably, an Ecuadorian court granted him home release on the grounds that Rexhepi suffered from lupus. He promptly disappeared, only to emerge in police custody in Istanbul years later.

All of this, however, does not help address some fundamental questions: Why Turkey? What specifically brought Rexhepi there? And why have so many drug kingpins come to reside in the country? There are no definitive answers to these questions. Yet given recent events in Turkey, many critics suspect corruption may be a part of the puzzle.

Three summers ago, Sedat Peker took Turkey by storm. The Peker name is one that has long been synonymous with organized crime. His criminal career dates back to the 1980s and is associated with many of the greatest scandals to have rocked Turkey. After a stint in prison, he had sought to reinvent himself as an ally and advocate of Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party. Then, suddenly, he disappeared from Turkey and fled abroad. He reemerged in June 2021 via a series of YouTube videos, in which he teased viewers with what he claimed were some of the deepest secrets of the Turkish state.

Among the most lurid charges Peker made was his assertion that the son of a former prime minister had arranged for a massive cocaine shipment to arrive from Venezuela. Although the charges were denied, the allegation brought attention to a subject few actively followed.

With hindsight, the signs of Turkey’s growing role in the cocaine trade were visible long before Peker took to YouTube. In 2015, Turkish narcotics officers intercepted only 1,200 pounds of cocaine. Two years later, that number had increased nearly threefold. Even more ominous were cases involving ships destined for Turkish ports. In June 2020, Colombian officers took custody of a ship at the port of Buenaventura carrying an estimated 11,000 pounds of cocaine. Peker, speaking after the fact, declared that a former interior minister had arranged for the shipment to come to Turkey. Turkish police did eventually place 14 people under arrest two years after the Buenaventura story broke. Yet as of late 2022, Turkish judges have allowed all accused to walk free.

Mainstream Turkish media have long possessed a reputation for avoiding subjects that could potentially embarrass or undermine the government’s authority. Among the issues news outlets tend to avoid is the question of who or what lies behind this massive increase in cocaine trafficking in the country. Turkey’s national narcotics enforcement body, however, has been somewhat less bashful in casting blame. Since the bureau’s reorganization in 2017, it has consistently underscored the involvement of terrorist organizations in the country’s drug trade. The official statistics provided to the public make it clear, however, that Kurdish nationalists and coup plotters linked to Fethullah Gulen are minimally involved in the cocaine trade. Since 1980, for example, officials have linked PKK militants to the interdiction of only 20 pounds of cocaine inside Turkey.

More recent investigations from outside Turkey have added more color and detail to our picture of the cocaine trade in the country. Major cocaine importers in the Netherlands, as well as Denmark, have reportedly relied heavily on their connections in Turkey. A string of arrests by Turkish police in the last year alone has netted reputed cocaine kingpins from Croatia, Britain, Germany and elsewhere. More recent seizures at Turkish ports, particularly from boats traveling from Ecuador, speak to a pattern.

Yet amid these indicators, the question remains: What brought so many kingpins like Rexhepi to Turkey? A significant reason may be the ease with which foreigners can attain property and citizenship. One internationally wanted German national, for example, bought an Istanbul apartment likely priced in the millions of dollars years before his apprehension by Turkish police. At the time of his arrest, it was discovered he had also attained an official residence permit. “They come this way,” one noted journalist argues, “because Turkey is a strategic partner with Europol but information is not shared [between the two of them]. This [the traffickers] know.” Once they attain a Turkish passport, which is relatively easy, “they know that they won’t be extradited.” Indeed, according to a 2004 amendment to the country’s constitution, no Turkish citizen “shall be extradited to a foreign country because of an offense.”

It is also difficult to ignore the precise timing of Turkey’s ascendency as a node within the international cocaine trade. Mahmut Cengiz, an assistant professor at the Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center and the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, points out that cocaine seizures began to skyrocket in the years that followed the attempted coup against Erdogan’s government in July 2016.

The rise, he argues, may be linked to the gutting of the country’s police service, which government officials uniformly denigrated as having been key to the July putsch. Others, including Peker, have pointed to the influence of the country’s interior minister from 2016 to 2023, Suleyman Soylu. Despite being the man entrusted by Erdogan to clean up the police, Soylu was formally accused by the local Istanbul government of abetting corruption during his time in office.

Critics have seized on all these factors to cast doubt on the government’s sincerity when it comes to combating narcotics. The depths of these suspicions have seeped into the rhetoric of opposition parties in the country. “In tomorrow’s Turkey,” one candidate declared before last year’s presidential election, “we will save our country from becoming a narco-state.”

Erdogan and his allies in government have not taken suspicions of corruption and complicity in the cocaine trade lying down. When one opposition politician demanded more information about the state’s effort to get to the bottom of the massive 2020 cocaine seizure in Colombia, the national police threatened to file charges against anyone who tries “to degrade our state, damages its reputation and [tries] to damage its fight against organized crime and the drugs trade.”

An even more recent event suggests that Erdogan himself is prepared to take the gloves off. In May, Turkey awoke to news that the police had arrested several senior police officials in Ankara on charges of “crimes against the constitutional order.” The men, according to a secret witness, had been involved in the arrest of a prominent Turkish gangster by the name of Ayhan Bora Kaplan. Agents in Ankara had taken Kaplan into custody in the fall of 2023. Kaplan’s jailers, the witness has avowed, tried to force the gangster to implicate Soylu and generally discredit the governing Justice and Development Party. Erdogan has since dramatically weighed in on the case, declaring that he “won’t allow bureaucratic tutelage to reemerge.” Turkey’s media has broadly followed the president’s cue, declaring in one instance that the Kaplan case showed evidence of a potential coup, because news of the gangster’s arrest first appeared on a German-run website. Accusations that Kaplan was involved in cocaine trafficking have generally gone ignored.

Erdogan’s willingness to condemn his own national police service may underscore the potential stakes in play in Turkey today. It is indeed the case that the Turkish Republic has long struggled with narcotics trafficking. Yet an equally enduring aspect of this history is the degree to which Turkish drug traffickers have allied themselves to individuals and elements within the government. Mounting evidence of this pattern of behavior likely influences Ankara’s general unwillingness to deal transparently with the nature of the cocaine trade in the country.

Conditions today make any painful concession or admission on Erdogan’s part even more risky. As he enters another term in office, following controversy over the constitutional propriety of his third presidential run, suspicions continue to mount that he will attempt to secure yet another term in 2028. Erdogan’s general desire to change the constitution has led him to court rival politicians in order to nail down the necessary votes. Meanwhile, the country’s worsening economic conditions show no sign of abating. With the popularity of his party waning, the remainder of Erdogan’s current term may be important for how he is remembered hereafter. For this reason, the question, “Who are the country’s cocaine barons?” will likely continue to go unanswered.

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