• Eyal Pinko

Turkey stands at 12th place in the global organized crime index

The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime has published its annual global organized crime index. According to the organization's index, Turkey stands at 12th place out of 193 countries, with a 6.89 score (out of 9) for criminal activity, markets, and actors.

The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime report includes deep research about Turkey's organized crime environment.

Turkey’s pivotal location at the crossroads between Asia, the Middle East, and Europe, combined with its long borders, makes it a key player in the transnational markets for both human trafficking and human smuggling. Human trafficking, a prominent criminal market in Turkey, is characterized predominantly by trafficking for sexual exploitation and forced labor. Human trafficking is concentrated largely in the country’s tourist areas, in metropolitan cities and in cities at the country’s borders. Other forms of human trafficking in Turkey have forced marriage and forced begging, as well as human trafficking to harvest organs. Human trafficking is the lifeblood of entire quarters in Istanbul and other urban areas and is key to the border economy along the Caucasian and Iranian borders.



In 2015, Turkey emerged as a key transit state for migration and smuggling to Europe from countries such as Syria. At the height of the refugee crisis, Turkey was home to some of the most active and far-reaching smuggling networks, which facilitated migrant smuggling using false documents and transporting the individuals. The smuggling industry was, and continues to be in some cases, at the center of the local economy in several towns in Turkey’s border regions. After the EU–Turkey deal on irregular migration was reached in 2016, the human smuggling industry experienced an initial dramatic drop. However, significant numbers of Turkish nationals continued to seek the services of smuggling networks following the regime’s persecution campaign against the members of the Gülen Movement. Moreover, in February 2020, Turkey lifted its strict controls on its land and sea borders, prompting thousands of migrants to head to the borders to try to reach Europe. It is clear, therefore, that the Turkish state is not averse to using migrant smuggling into Europe as a political tool.

TRADE

The illegal arms trade is pervasive in Turkey, with firearm use and arms trafficking on the rise in recent years. Overall, Turkey plays a role as simultaneously a source, transit, and destination country to greater or lesser degrees. The players involved in the illegal arms market can be classified broadly under three main types. First, there are criminal networks that supply handguns and shotguns to neighboring Iraq, Syria, Iran – and across the world. Second, there is a much more sophisticated arms trafficking coalition that works illicitly to supply more advanced and profitable weapons. Finally, state-embedded individuals are thought to be involved in illegally transferring weapons to Salafi-Jihadist groups fighting in Syria and Libya, as well as providing weapons to paramilitary groups in Turkey. In sum, the arms trafficking market, therefore, is used instrumentally by the Turkish state for external political objectives.

ENVIRONMENT

The illicit trading of non-renewable resources is a critical component of Turkey’s illicit marketplace. Oil- and gold-related crimes are the two most significant. Oil smuggling is one of the more profitable sources of income for organized crime groups in Turkey, which exploit a demand for cheaper oil and the opportunity to earn tax revenue from the sale of smuggled oil, sourced primarily from Syria, Iraq and Iran. Illicit oil, which is considerably cheaper than the legal alternatives, is easily accessible in the country. There are a number of factors that contribute to the pervasiveness of oil smuggling in Turkey, including the country’s high taxes, its proximity to countries with far-lower oil prices, its difficulties in controlling its long borders, and its pervasive corruption. Indeed, there is ample evidence linking high-level politicians to the purchase and subsequent illicit sale of millions of dollars’ worth of Islamic State oil disguised as Turkish and Iraqi Kurdish oil. With regard to gold-related criminal activity, most comes in the form of sanctions violations and associated money laundering, with recent cases illustrating the connections made by the Turkish state with Iran and Venezuela, among others. Given the country’s currency crisis, coupled with its growing relationship with Venezuela and efforts to circumvent the Iranian sanctions regime, it is likely that the illicit market for non-renewable resources will continue to grow in scope and value.

Other environmental criminal markets are less pervasive in Turkey, although they remain important features of the country’s illicit economy. The intentional burning of forests, one of the most severe forms of environmental degradation in Turkey, to open the path for commercial developments, is a regular occurrence in coastal areas, a phenomenon in which government corruption and political interests are key factors. With regard to fauna crimes, seizures of traditionally trafficked illegal wildlife products, such as pangolins and rhino horn, suggest that, largely as a result of the country’s location and status as a global transport hub, Turkey plays an important role in the transnational illegal wildlife trade. Domestically, however, fauna crimes are not particularly pervasive.



DRUGS

Although most drug markets are important in Turkey, the heroin trade is by far the most pervasive drug market in the country. Turkey’s proximity to major heroin-producing Afghanistan and to considerable consumer markets in Europe and the Middle East has made it an important link in the heroin trade chain. Turkish organized criminal gangs control the wholesale importation of heroin into Europe. An increase in acetic anhydride seizures, a key precursor for processing morphine into heroin, suggests that heroin production is on the rise in Turkey, with laboratories scattered across Istanbul and in eastern provinces at the border. There is thought to be a two-way trafficking route between the Netherlands and Turkey, whereby heroin and morphine are trafficked from Turkey to the Netherlands, while acetic anhydride, MDMA (commonly known as Ecstasy), and other drugs are moved in the opposite direction. Indeed, the prevalence of synthetic drug use, primarily methamphetamine and synthetic cannabinoids – known as ‘bonsai’ – has been on the rise in recent years, largely because of the easy access to the drugs and their relatively low price. Turkey also acts as a transit country for Captagon (the drug compound fenethylline hydrochloride), with tablets produced in south-eastern Europe smuggled through the country en route to the Middle East.

Cannabis use is fairly common in Turkey, and it has been increasing in recent years, particularly among young males. Cannabis cultivation, both licit and illicit, is widespread, with the latter concentrated predominantly in the south-eastern region of Turkey and controlled largely by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party and its associated groups and individuals. The cocaine market is fairly limited. Turkey is not on the major transnational cocaine trafficking routes and does not play an important role as a transit route for cocaine, although the prevalence of cocaine trafficking does appear to have increased recently.

CRIMINAL ACTORS

Turkey has become known as a mafia state and the evidence suggests that this is the case, now more than ever. The Turkish government often leverages certain criminal markets, such as the gold and oil trade, human smuggling and arms trafficking, for its own benefit and political purpose. Depending on political circumstances and geopolitical relations with other countries, the Turkish government chooses to either tighten or ease its control over organized criminal activity. State-embedded individuals are thought to be involved in illegally transferring weapons to Salafi-Jihadist groups fighting in Syria and Libya, as well as providing weapons to paramilitary groups in Turkey. Organized crime and state-embedded individuals have extremely strong and complex links, dating back many decades and continuing to today. There are a significant number of mafia-style groups operating in Turkey, modelled on the traditional mafia typology, with a strong hierarchy centered on the head of family, known as a baba. But these have gradually declined in Turkey, increasingly replaced by looser, compartmentalized networks of semi-autonomous cells.

There are a huge number of loose criminal networks predominantly in areas close to Turkey’s sea and land borders, such as Adana, Izmir, Diyarbakir, Reyhanli, Gaziantep and Istanbul. These networks engage in a litany of cross-border smuggling activities, ranging from trafficking narcotics to smuggling migrants. The capacity and influence of these criminal networks has increased in recent years, as have their links with criminal networks in neighboring countries and beyond. With the growth and increasing diversity of illicit economies in Turkey, ad hoc networks are far more influential and more reflective of the nature of both licit and illicit trade than mafia-style groups.

Although organized crime in Turkey is dominated by domestic criminal individuals, foreign criminals operate in the country as well, primarily in cross-border smuggling, including migrants, drugs and weapons, but also in transnational human trafficking operations. As such, their areas of operation are concentrated at the country’s land borders and there is strong collaboration between these foreign and domestic-organized criminals. Foreign mafia groups and illegally armed groups, including terrorist groups that engage in organized criminal activity, are becoming increasingly visible in Turkey, exacerbated to a large extent by the spillover effects from conflict in neighboring countries.

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