Is Turkey Turning Into a Mafia State?

The Case of Reza Zarrab and the Rise in Organized Crime

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan attends a ceremony marking Ataturk's death anniversary, Ankara, Turkey November 10, 2017. Umit Bektas / Reuters

Earlier this week, the trial for the Turkish-Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab began in lower Manhattan. Zarrab, who has close ties to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, allegedly ran an elaborate gold-for-oil scheme to circumvent international sanctions against Iran, possibly with the assistance of relatives and allies of Turkish government ministers. (U.S. officials had arrested Zarrab in March 2016 while he was vacationing in Miami, Florida.) Soon after the proceedings began, however, the charges were dropped, and on Wednesday, Zarrab took the witness stand instead, making damning claims that he had bribed an economy minister as part of his sanctions-skirting racket. The whole affair, which could implicate Erdogan, has put the Turkish leader on edge, and he has lashed out against the United States, criticizing it for falling prey to an elaborate conspiracy to bring down the Turkish regime. The real culprit driving the probe, he has insisted, is Fethullah Gulen, the spiritual leader of the prominent Hizmet (or “Gulenist”) movement who lives in exile in Pennsylvania and who Erdogan claims orchestrated the July 2016 coup against him.

Zarrab’s high-profile case is only one example, however, of a larger trend in Turkey: the resurgence of organized crime. Over the last ten years, there has been a dramatic expansion in illicit trading and smuggling across the country. Part of the uptick has to do with the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011 and the worsening state of Iraq’s internal affairs after the rise of the Islamic State (or ISIS) in 2014. The instability prompted an explosion in trafficking activity along Turkey’s southern border. For example, the country’s main counternarcotics arm, the Department of Anti-Smuggling and Organized Crime (known as KOM), executed close to 800 stings related to the illicit oil trade in 2009, but by 2014, the total number of such operations jumped to nearly 5,000. In 2014, more than 8,000 individuals were taken into custody on charges of heroin smuggling, a twofold increase since 2009 and a fivefold increase since 2001.   

The surge in Turkey’s illicit

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