He was wanted for a long time on an international arrest warrant, but on November 4 the suspected Serbian drug lord Zeljko Bojanic was arrested in Istanbul. He had been there with a forged passport. His arrest caused a stir and among others Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu was on the scene.

“All the mafia scum in the world has come to our cities,” the Turkish opposition leader tweeted shortly after Bojanic’s arrest. And then continued – addressed directly to the cartels: “Leave our cities. We will destroy you. Take your dirty funds and go.”

In fact, there have been indications for years that many leaders and members of international criminal organizations are increasingly using Turkey as a base. Many murders that point to mafia-related affairs have been committed in Turkey in recent years. For example, on September 7 of this year, Serbian criminal Jovan Vukotic was killed in Istanbul. He was the head of one of the most notorious drug gangs in the Balkans. In 2018, Georgian mafia boss Gayoz Zviadadze was assassinated in Antalya.

In the same year, Iranian drug trafficker Naji Sharifi Zindashti was arrested for murder in Istanbul. He has since been released and has been on the run ever since. Azerbaijani criminal Ali Gamidov was killed in Istanbul in 2013 in a luxurious villa. The suspect was an Azerbaijani leader of another criminal organization named Rövshen Caniyev. He was also murdered in Istanbul in 2016. His compatriot Nadir Salifov, who in turn was murdered in 2020, was suspected of his murder.

Only: Why has Turkey become such a playground for criminal organizations? Hanefi Avcı is a former police chief of the cities of Edirne and Eskisehir. In an interview with DW, he pointed out the size of Istanbul: Officially, more than 16 million people live in the city. “People’s mobility is high,” says Avcı. “All kinds of people come here – including those who belong to organized crime,” says Avcı. In recent years, the presence of foreign mafia cartels, “mainly from the post-Soviet region, the Balkans or the Arab region,” has increased.

“The most active criminal organizations in Turkey are those from the Balkans and the Caucasus,” confirmed journalist Timur Soykan in an interview with DW. Soykan writes for the union-affiliated daily BirGün. According to him, Turkey has become the backyard of the Balkan mafia. The geographical location of the country plays a central role here, as various drug trafficking routes overlap here. The British historian Mark Galeotti wrote ten years ago that Turkey’s situation “makes the country an ideal bridge to and from the European Union” for organized crime.

Not only the geographical, but also the political circumstances play a role. “In what environment do criminal organizations like to operate?” Cevat Öneş, former deputy chief of the Turkish secret service MIT, asked DW in an interview – and immediately gave the answer himself: “Where there is no rule of law, no functioning legal system. Where they can instead make connections to the state institutions themselves.”

Among other things, Öneş points to the lack of rule of law and the weakened democracy in Turkey. “Some unfavorable circumstances have developed in Turkey. We are faced with structures that cannot simply be regulated or brought to court,” says Öneş. “When the unjust state and impunity intensify in Turkey, Mafia-like groups increasingly see the country as a space for their activities. These criminal organizations see Turkey not just as a bridge, but as a location.”

Soykan also emphasizes that foreign criminal organizations are aware that impunity prevails in Turkey. “You can see that legal action against mafia-like structures is virtually non-existent,” says Soykan.

Öneş refers to speculation that the mafia and the Turkish state have secret ties to each other. This facilitates the activities of the mafia in Turkey. Mafia boss Sedat Peker recently revealed this network between the state and organized crime in a very effective way via social media. A former ally of the AKP government, he until recently published videos and tweets incriminating senior government officials.

Observers therefore also criticize the lack of monitoring of foreign criminal organizations by the government apparatus. “Actually, the state should monitor these people with great care and take preventive measures,” says Avcı. He also sees the secret service as having a duty, which, however, is neglecting this task due to other current political developments. The international mafia is also not seen as the greatest threat due to its numerous links with the state, which is why fewer funds are allocated to combating it: “The secret service works in agreement with the government,” says Avci. But that’s why he prefers to concentrate on the country’s security threatened by terrorism – not only since the recent bomb attack on a popular Istanbul shopping street.

Collaboration: Alican Uludag

Autor: Burak Unveren

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The original of this article “Turkey: playground of the international mafia” comes from Deutsche Welle.