Maradona, that’s what they call him. And indeed, there is a resemblance, especially when you look back at the time when (the real) Maradona used a lot of cocaine. Even though we later learned his real name, thanks to the little side-business that the human smuggler has set up in Istanbul, it is better not to write it down. So Maradona it is.
"To be clear: we do not bring terrorists to Europe," said Maradona. He points out his pack of Gauloises cigarettes that cost him half a Euro because they were smuggled from Iraq to Turkey. "Look, I smoke during Ramadan. I have nothing to do with those Muslim fanatics out there. I only work with people that I trust."
It will be a recurring subject: smuggler Maradona is the good guy. He‘s not involved in filthy mob jobs. We should see it as charity work. Those poor refugees are stuck in Istanbul, where they have to work for twelve hours a day receiving a pittance. Maradona helps them because he cannot bear to see so much pain.
"A passage to one of the better countries like Germany, Sweden or Switzerland costs me between €6,000 [$8,090] and €10,000 [$13,466]," says Maradona. Not all smugglers are so expensive. Some only bring their refugees to the forest on the border between Turkey and Bulgaria, and then leave them to meet their fate.
"But it sounds like I'm getting rich from this activity, and that's not true," he continues while stirring sugar into his tea. "To get a refugee somewhere I need to invest heavily. A false passport costs around €700 [$942]. And the drivers have to be paid, in addition to hotels and restaurants. What remains for me is a mere €1,000 [$1,346] per refugee. "
The money is kept in one of the special "banks", that seem to have been set up for only such for activities: shops where the money is protected by a code that only the refugees know. Only when the refugee has arrived at his final destination, will they call the code through to Maradona. If it goes wrong, the refugee or his family get their money back. In other words: the risk is all the smuggler's.
"Think of it as gambling," he says. "Sometimes I make a profit, but just as easily I lose thousands of dollars. Recently, I lost €40,000 [$53,864] at once because twelve people were intercepted at the airport."
Refugees sleep in parks all over Istanbul.
One of Maradona's phones rings: as we speak, four refugees are being loaded on a truck to Bulgaria. Tomorrow they’ll arrive, if all goes well. Maradona puts his phone down with a satisfied grin on his face, which bares his yellow teeth. He orders a shisha for us to smoke.
We are in a teahouse in the multicultural district of Aksaray where, according to Maradona, the staff can be trusted. Several toned and tattooed figures come to him during our conversation to shake his hand and look suspiciously towards us. Maradona wanted to talk to us because he believes that everyone should know about the suffering of the refugees, but not everyone seems to appreciate it.
"It started in 1992," he starts again. His cousin was facing a hefty time in prison back in Syria, where he is originally from, so someone had to make sure he was transported to Europe. Maradona arranged it all. Because he knew the trick after doing it once, it was easy to sell the same route to others, including his contacts.
While most students make their money by working at the pub, Maradona made his money as a student studying in Kazakhstan by smuggling Kazakhs to China. After having worked some time in oil and gas, he went back to Syria and got married. If the war had not come to his country he wouldn’t be a smuggler.
"When you see a war on television, it is always something that happens outside of your reality," he says. "That is always the way we look at Afghanistan or Sudan. You start feeling it inside when the bombs start falling around you and you've come to recognize the smell of blood in the streets.’’
The main square in Aksaray, where smugglers and refugees meet.
Little remained rrom Maradona's village in the desert, so he left for Turkey. But as a Kurdish Syrian, he isn’t very loved in that country. And with Prime Minister Erdogan busy trying to keep his local Kurdish population under his thumb, Maradona saw a gap in the market: thousands of Kurds fled Syria thanks to him, and most of them preferably want to get to the EU.
Because human smuggling does not always generate the same amount of cash, Maradona is also taking on other “businesses." He doesn’t tell us a lot about it but if we are really interested, we will have to call him later. "I could use a contact person in the Netherlands," he says, deadpan. "How about 10,000 per month? I bet you don’t earn that with those articles of yours. "
Whether Maradona really is the humanist he claims to be, we don’t know. Well, he doesn’t wear bling-bling and was kind enough to pay the bill. But as he is chatting with one of his mob buddies sat at another table, our local friend tells us that he would prefer not to be seen with Maradona in Istanbul. He is afraid of a drive-by shooting, because allegedly Maradona has a few enemies in Istanbul.
The next day we called up Maradona. The four refugees arrived in Bulgaria.