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Turkey’s crackdown on cocaine ring may indicate change in new gov’t approach to drug trade

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An extensive operation by Turkish law enforcement against an international cocaine smuggling ring that resulted in the detention of 23 suspects and the seizure of assets exceeding 1 billion Turkish lira has thrust Turkey’s perceived involvement in the global drug trade into the spotlight, leading to conjecture about the impact of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s recent cabinet shakeup, following his victory in the presidential runoff that extended his rule until 2028.

The alleged kingpin of this operation, Dutch drug lord Jos Leijdekkers, remains at large. Leijdekkers, also known as “Bolle Jos” or “Chubby Jos,” is believed to be the mastermind behind an expansive cocaine network stretching across Latin America, Europe, Turkey and Australia.

Reports from Dutch media claim there are strong indications that Leijdekkers is hiding in Turkey, using local alliances to elude capture. His alleged accomplices, Abdullah Alp Ü. and Naci Y., recognized figures in European and Turkish drug circles, have also managed to evade arrest.

Leijdekkers has also been implicated in several violent incidents, including the alleged torture and murder of Naima Jillal, a woman with ties to organized crime, in Amsterdam in 2019. Leijdekkers’ track record of evasion and possible safe havens in various countries led Dutch police to issue a Red Notice and offer a reward of 200,000 euros for information leading to his arrest, marking the highest reward ever offered in the Netherlands.

Data from a 2023 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report underscores Turkey’s rising prominence as a transit country for illicit drugs, particularly cocaine. The report revealed a sevenfold surge in drug seizures in Turkey since 2014, paralleling a 35 percent global increase in coca bush cultivation between 2021 and 2022. Drug seizures in Turkey reached a record high of 2.8 tons in 2021.

The influence of Turkey’s role in the global drug trade became starkly apparent when a drug bust at the Port of Rotterdam in May uncovered 1.1 tons of cocaine concealed among car tires in a container shipped from Turkey. The seized drugs, valued at 84.3 million euros, further emphasized Turkey’s pivotal role in drug trafficking.

Recent reports indicate Turkish criminal networks have also begun delving into fentanyl trafficking, incorporating it into their pre-existing cocaine trade operations. A Homeland Security Today report suggests that political instability and disbandment of anti-drug trafficking units in Turkey after graft probes that targeted government figures in 2013 have facilitated the proliferation of criminal activity.

These developments signal a shift in Turkey’s role in drug trafficking, from acting as a conduit between source and destination countries for heroin in the 1970s and 1980s to now playing a central role in the cocaine trade. This evolving role has raised international concerns over Turkish authorities’ involvement in the global drug industry.

The operation against Leijdekkers’ network has increased scrutiny of recent changes within the Turkish government, particularly the overhaul of the country’s Interior Ministry. During the tenure of former interior minister Süleyman Soylu, Turkey faced allegations of involvement in the international drug trade, primarily driven by Turkish mob boss Sedat Peker. In a series of dramatic videos in 2021, Peker accused Soylu and other high-ranking officials of safeguarding and facilitating cocaine trafficking networks.

The operation targeting Leijdekkers’ network occurred in the wake of President Erdoğan’s recent electoral victory and the subsequent cabinet reshuffle, prompting speculation among critics. They contend that the crackdown might be indicative of the new leadership at the Interior Ministry, no longer extending the alleged protection for cocaine traffickers that was present during Soylu’s term.

Observers suggest that a significant shift in policy regarding the rule of law might be underway as the country needs to reassure investors amid a challenging economic climate and dwindling foreign reserves in its central bank.

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