Turkey has become a global trafficking hub for South American cocaine, fuelling rising demand for the drug in Eastern Europe and the Persian Gulf, according to organised crime experts.
A two-part analysis by InSight Crime, an investigative organisation, published today and last week reveals that gangs in Turkey, a country notorious for its major role in heroin trafficking between Afghanistan to Europe, now have major interests in the cocaine trade.
The rise in Turkey’s involvement came about, the research said, when South American cocaine producers needed a new route eastwards for their product, as so much of it was being seized going into western Europe.
Turkish gangs were attracted to the cocaine business due to their maritime expertise, diminishing profits from heroin due falling wholesale prices, a growing demand for cocaine in badly supplied parts of eastern Europe and the Middle East, and closer links between Turkish criminals – including the far-right Grey Wolves – and cartels in Latin America.
As a result, Turkish traffickers have become key players supplying South American cocaine to emerging markets in Russia, the Balkans and a new desert cocaine route through northern Iraq into the Persian Gulf, according to the research.
It found that seizures of cocaine within Turkey, and heading from South America to Turkey, have jumped in just a few years. Between 2017 and 2021 cocaine intercepted in Turkey doubled from 1.4 tons to 2.8 tons, while amounts of the drug seized en route have spiralled, including one massive shipment of nearly 5 tons discovered on its way to Turkey from the Colombian port of Buenaventura.
Turkey's emergence as a cocaine smuggling hub means that drug markets in eastern Europe, Russia, the Caucuses and the Gulf states – which until now have been awash with cheaper, synthetic stimulants such as mephedrone, speed and captagon – have a new way of getting the real thing.
Locked out of the cocaine trade in western Europe, which is dominated by Italian and Albanian crime gangs, Turkish smugglers, ideally situated between Europe and the Middle East, are sending around 60-70 percent of their product to the Persian Gulf, with 30 percent going to the Balkans, Caucasus, but most often, Russia, according to experts interviewed by InSight Crime.
Wastewater analysis has found evidence of rising cocaine use in Lithuania and Latvia and more seizures of the drug found being trafficked north through Romania, Moldova, Georgia and Armenia.
But experts told InSight Crime that by far the most profitable market for cocaine trafficked through Turkey was in the Persian Gulf, “the world’s most expensive cocaine market”. Most notably Saudi Arabia and the UAE, home to the rising criminal hotspot of Dubai.
Even though consumption is relatively low compared to Western Europe, the rarity of cocaine in the region means successful smugglers can sell it for huge profits. In Saudi Arabia a gram of cocaine retails at $500 (around £415) – around 10 times the price in London.
Some arrives from Turkey into the Persian Gulf by sea and air, while the rest is smuggled via a new route: from Turkey by truck, across Iraq and the Arabian Desert. According to the research, the route was set up by Syrian drug traffickers displaced by the country's civil war who took over the banana trade out of Mersin in order to hide multiple kilos of cocaine in fruit trucks crossing the desert.
The research found the rising use by Turkish gangsters of their homeland as a cocaine trafficking hub has been made easier by institutional corruption. In 2013 a bribery scandal erupted involving more than 50 members of the ruling Justice and Development (AKP) party, including three sons of cabinet ministers.
Last year a series of further corruption allegations against the Turkish government were made by Sedat Peker, a convicted Turkish gangster living in Dubai. He released several videos accusing leading AKP party members of cocaine trafficking and homicide, allegations that went viral in Turkey. A month later, perhaps coincidentally according to InSight Crime, Turkish authorities made their largest cocaine seizure ever of 1.3 tons.