‘State-criminal relations in Turkey go back to Ottoman era’

‘State-criminal relations in Turkey go back to Ottoman era’

William Armstrong - william.armstrong@hdn.com.tr
‘State-criminal relations in Turkey go back to Ottoman era’

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A new book by Naval Postgraduate School Assistant Professor Ryan Gingeras pulls back the curtain on the smugglers, politicians, policemen, thugs, spies, diplomats, and hitmen in Turkey’s murky world of organized crime and narcotics dealing.

Gingeras boldly suggests that organized crime is central to the development of the modern Turkish state, analogous to the importance of oil in states like Saudi Arabia and Azerbaijan. While that claim might be too much, “Heroin, Organized Crime, and the Making of Modern Turkey” (reviewed here) still makes for a fascinating read on an under-examined subject. The Hürriyet Daily News spoke to Gingeras about some of the most salient issues explored in the book, and the delicate question of state-criminal relations in today’s Turkey.

You say in the book that organized crime has links with the state going back to the late Ottoman period. Could you explain?

When you look at the history of any country, particularly before the modern era, you typically see elements of states and governments cooperating with or employing groups that we would otherwise call criminals. The things that you see in the late Ottoman era - employing bandits to be policemen, or employing pirates to be admirals and sailors, for example - are very common in a lot of places. It’s often easier for governments to basically subcontract security to those who are its biggest offenders. In most countries around the world, around the year 1800, many of the people who collected taxes or were constables of law and order were also the same ones as those who typically robbed people, beat them up, and whatnot.

In the specific case of the Ottoman Empire in the late 19th and early 20th century, we see that rural gangs still continue to be major political and economic forces. They wielded a lot of physical power through violence in different parts of the empire, and tended to be politically influential and wealthy. By the very end of the empire, they actually controlled large amounts of territory. So in some ways this is an important subject in the making of Turkey, since these were the individuals who were the face of government for a lot of people in a lot of places.


Ryan Gingeras  
Geographically, where were these gangs more influential and where were they more typically employed by the state?
I suppose it would be further east, further from Istanbul?

No, not at all. This is what’s quite interesting. Just outside Istanbul, as late as the 1910s and 1920s, there were significant portions of counties and provinces that were basically run by gangs. Places such as Balıkesir, Bursa, and large portions of Edirne, were very much influenced by gangs and even run by gangs. Naturally, we also see similar elements in other parts of Anatolia, but that was more an expression of the degree to which law and the state itself had really broken down in areas of what became Turkey at the end of the Ottoman Empire.

What changes took place after the Turkish Republic was declared and there was a more concerted effort to centralize authority? I assume that there was a move to wipe out alternative sources of local authority like gangs.

That’s absolutely right. There is always a contradiction that marks late Ottoman history: The government wanted to centralize and hold greater amounts of power, and worked very hard to regularize patterns of government and make the state more influential in people’s day-to-day lives, but it wasn’t able to do this - either due to the lack of money, or a lack of personnel, or other factors. So there was a kind of default reliance upon those who could deliver, at the very least, law and order. Ironically, groups that we would consider tantamount to bandits often fell into this category. In some places, they became reliable partners. This struggle continued into the republican era under Atatürk and beyond. For sure, Atatürk was more successful on this than his immediate predecessors.

But there are a couple of important things to note in the history of the influence of gangs in Turkish politics and Turkish society: One is that rural society in Turkey has been gradually transformed with the rise of cities. The countryside emptied out considerably over the course of the 20th century and into the 21st century. As cities have grown, crime overall, trade overall, commerce overall has relocated to cities; with that, the impact of gangs has transferred from the countryside to cities.

The other thing that happens is the way that criminal groups make their money begins to change. Bandits and criminal groups that were prominent politically at the end of the Ottoman Empire relied upon things like theft, kidnapping and extortion, but by the 1920s and 1930s this is beginning to change. If you look at criminal groups that become most influential in Turkey at this time, they ceased being bandits and instead became smugglers. Typically they smuggled goods that Turks desired for themselves, but by the mid-century arguably the most powerful smugglers were those who smuggled drugs out of the country. So basically there was a real transformation in the kind of organized criminal activity that most people saw and experienced.

You talk in the book about how the state-criminal relationship greatly developed in the 1970s. Why did this happen to such a degree at this particular point?

In some ways, the 1970s is an era in which we know a lot more about organized crime from the perspective of Turks, but we know less about it from the perspective of law enforcement - particularly American law enforcement - which supplied most of the sources for my study.

The 1970s was an era in which heroin trafficking out of Turkey was beginning to peak. It was also an era when, ironically, the opium market was changing in the country. In 1971, Turkey moved to ban opium production outright - a decision that it subsequently decided to reverse in 1974. During this period of time it’s very clear that traffickers had prepared for such an eventuality and began to transform themselves to assume a more lucrative position within the heroin trade. They were no longer the suppliers of wholesale opium, but rather the suppliers and retailers of heroin, which is far more lucrative.

From this, they became ever more visible allies and backers of political parties. We can see this influence going back to the 1930s, but it was never quite so prominent. Basically the new wealth that heroin traffickers were gleaming from the trade was allowing them greater influence in the Turkish political system. We see this especially with the rise of the Turkish far right, as well as the beginnings of groups like the Kurdistan Workers’ Party [PKK].

Were there more opportunities in the 1970s, or was law enforcement slacker?

For one thing, drug traffickers in the 1970s were far wealthier than before. We also see a new generation of drug traffickers beginning to ascend during this era. This young group is far more ideological than its predecessors. The major drug traffickers of the 1950s and 60s, as far as we can tell, were not really ideologically driven, although some were major supporters of the Democrat Party and later even members of Süleyman Demirel’s Justice Party. So it was a continuation of something that had been going on for a while, but now a much younger cohort of individuals who were seemingly much more ideological.

The other reason we can say they are more politically involved is that the Turkish press during this period took a greater interest in organized crime, devoting more space in newspapers to the activities of drug traffickers and the political influence they were wielding.

The PKK’s fundraising started at around this time. Was drugs trafficking the main criminal activity it used to raise money, and to what extent is this still going on?

The thing to understand about the PKK and its relationship to narcotics is that the region out of which the PKK emerged is a vital region in Turkey’s really vast smuggling industry. Smuggling along the southern and eastern borders is a principle industry for many local people and has been for some time, so it’s really no surprise that the PKK - or at least some of its members - began to use it, either smuggling narcotics or taxing them, which is now considered a more likely source of PKK revenue.

The smuggling trade and the smuggling trade in narcotics became a valuable source of revenue in the 1970s because of the transformation of the drug market. Eastern Anatolia became a vital node for the trade and shipment of opium out of Iran and Afghanistan, much of which was processed into heroin and morphine there. The ones who typically capitalized on this were locals, particularly prominent Kurdish smugglers who had established their roots in the trade before the drug boom of the 70s.

The other factor that is very important in the growth of the PKK and militancy in general is the arms trade. Going back to the mid-1960s Turkey has been a vital hub in the small arms trade throughout the Middle East. Small arms from Central and Eastern Europe were brought into the country by the thousands, often to militants in northern Iraq, Syria, and Iran. The ones who really capitalize on this trade are local smugglers in Eastern Anatolia. So this becomes the basis for a lot of the financial resources that groups like the PKK end up relying on.

But I should also note that this is an expression of the local economy as a whole. We see elements of the government gleaning money from the trade, as well as other political parties such as the Nationalist Movement Party [MHP] benefitting from the changes in smuggling in the 1970s.

The U.S. Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) became very active in Turkey in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, a process that went hand-in-hand with the Cold War. Some of the sources you studied indicate that the FBN was often a cover for clandestine CIA activity. How did that work?

We don’t know too much about it, aside from fragments of information in the classified documents and personal accounts. But if Turkey bears any resemblance to other cases from the 50s, 60s, 70s, and probably up to today, then counter narcotics built a very strong relationship between American and Turkish representatives - in law enforcement, in the intelligence community, and in elements of the military.

As a result of this relationship several things happen. One thing I talk about in the book is how counter narcotics served the principle interest of the expanding American security agenda around the world. Fighting heroin coming out of Turkey was a convenient and very effective excuse to engage Turkish law enforcement, the Turkish security establishment, and establish a stronger presence in the region to both fight narcotics and what they saw as the greater danger: Communism. So as far as we know, members of the FBN at times did both; they essentially wore two hats as narcotics officers. At one point they would be assisting elements of the Turkish national police and gendarmerie in raiding opium production facilities, while also perhaps gathering intelligence and doing other clandestine work on behalf of the CIA. This is something that several FBN agents later were quite open in talking about, and FBN agents had done similar work in places elsewhere, like Lebanon and Thailand.

Would you say FBN operations were sometimes an ‘excuse’ for Washington to extend its influence during the Cold War?

In part, but I think it’s part of a broader line of thinking regarding the part that counter narcotics play in the building of America’s security apparatus. U.S. engagement around the world relies very heavily on establishing close cooperative relationships with security personnel, on a bilateral and multilateral basis, in areas of significance. Turkey is one of those areas.

Counter narcotics is a way that has proven very effective in gaining local support and local cooperation. Most countries around the world, then and now, are supportive of what we would consider to be America’s war on drugs. It just so happens that it can also fit into Washington’s other international security concerns - whether it’s terrorism, communism, or the stability of regimes, it all gets wrapped up into a package. So one shouldn’t be surprised that agents who come to Turkey to investigate narcotics are also part of a broader effort by Washington, by the American national security establishment, to maintain a strong and stable presence in the region.

To conclude, let’s talk about the contemporary state of play with organized crime in Turkey. The book ends with the Susurluk scandal of 1996, but what changes have taken place since then?

It’s difficult to say where organized crime is at in Turkey today. On the one hand, it’s clear that the Ergenekon case appeared to close a chapter on a generation of gangsters from the 1980s and 90s who were very politically important and visible. Most of these figures, by the way, were never arrested in relation to the drug trade, and did not profess a connection to it. If you look at the press from the time of the Ergenekon trials, a lot of people were saying that political organized crime had been defeated in Turkey. But it’s not clear that this is the case. What is clear is that the trade of drugs and the business of organized crime are as big as ever, and probably even more complex. Turkey’s place within the global drug trade has grown as a transit country, as a producer of drugs, and now also as a destination for drugs. The recent bonzai epidemic is an expression of that.

What I’ve written about recently is that the corruption scandals of the last couple of years at least give some indication of the degree to which smuggling remains a political football of sorts. The idea that gold smuggling was at the center of the December 2013 corruption case should, at the very least, be interpreted as an indication of the kind of influence that smugglers still have in Turkey. But it’s very difficult to say for certain how influential organized crime is today, or how completely true the accounts of its rise and political influence are. In some ways, the truth is totally elusive, but we’ll see what happens down the road.