Afghanistan – Turkey, Balkans at the Drug-Trafficking Crossroad

1 Ton heroin to germany: Kurd drug boss: Abdulselam Turgut

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Turkey, Balkans at the Drug-Trafficking Crossroad

Given its location straddled between Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East, Turkey acts as a central transit route for drug trafficking from Iran and Afghanistan to European countries.

About 80% of Afghan-poppy derived heroin flows through Turkey and the Balkans on its way to Western Europe. The UN calls this „the Balkan Route“.

„The Balkan Route remains a main corridor of heroin trafficking to European countries,“ Hamid Ghodse, president of the UN International Narcotics Control Board, told SES Türkiye.

Ghodse says there is an „increasing diversity in the methods and routes used in the trafficking of heroin to Europe“.

Turkey is affected by three main heroin drug trafficking routes: the Southern Balkan route, the Northern Balkan route and the Eastern Mediterranean route.

In 2010, Ghodse says the quantity of heroin seized in Europe trafficked along the Northern Balkan Route through Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and Austria decreased compared to the Southern Balkan Route to Italy via Greece, Albania or Macedonia.

The vast majority of drugs crossing the Turkish border are destined for transit out of the country.

In Ankara, officials say their national, regional and international efforts against drug trafficking are effective — even more successful than EU countries.

Behsat Ekici, chief of police at the Department of Anti-Smuggling and Organised Crime of the Turkish National Police, told SES Türkiye they have launched a total of 140 large-scale international operations within the last five years, which „have played a key role in the collapse of the international drug networks“.

„Turkey’s commitment in the fight against drugs continues increasingly,“ he says, adding that in the past few years Turkey alone has seized more than twice the amount of heroin than the 27 EU countries did.

In 2010, he says, 81,200 drug operations were carried out by national law enforcement agencies throughout the country, which ended in the arrest of 125,208 individuals for involvement in drug crimes, yielding 12,960kg of confiscated heroin.

Ekici emphasises that this is „incomparably higher“ that in neighbouring countries, such as Greece and Bulgaria, which confiscated 520kg and 365kg of heroin during the same period, respectively. „The risk to smugglers that comes from Turkey’s operations has led to less use of the Balkan Route by the smugglers,“ he added.

However some regional analysts, such as Ioannis Michaletos, an Athens-based researcher at the World Security Network Foundation, say anti-narcotics co-operation among Greece-Turkey-Bulgaria is not ideal.

Drug trafficking should be prevented globally, „because it is not only Turkey or Greece’s problem, but it also encompasses other countries as well, such as Afghanistan, Iran and Western Europe“.

Ethnic-based organised crime groups and diaspora networks are believed to help move the drugs along their destination throughout the route.

The so-called „Albanian organised crime“ has steadily become a major distributor of heroin in the Balkans and EU.

„The presence of other strong criminal networks such as the Italian Dragetta, the Montenegro clans, Turkish drug kingpins, Russian and Caucasian criminal cells and Serbian narcotics groups, should not be overlooked,“ Michaletos says.

On the other hand, Kurdish populations in the tri-border area of Turkey-Iraq-Iran facilitate narcotics contraband. Iran and Turkey have a visa free regime, and border controls along the porous border are lax or easily evaded.

Back in the Balkans, widespread public sector corruption is also another major issue for drug trafficking.

„The Balkan countries have way too many strong and organised criminal groups concentrated and operating in the same region,“ Michaletos says.

„Illegal organised prostitution rings in the Balkans are directly related to narcotics, since police investigations in several countries have revealed over the years that the drug dealers first raise capital by illegal prostitution, before venturing into the narcotics trade, which is even more profitable,“ he told SES Türkiye.

Michaletos says special attention should be paid to co-operation between security and police forces in the region against money laundering. Above all, he adds, political will is needed to enforce a regional anti-narcotics policy.

Matteo Albertini, a researcher at, is concerned that some local mafia groups, such as Italian groups, are finding new allies in Balkan states, which could move the drugs from the Middle East and Turkey to the EU.

However, the analyst believes that the entrance of Bulgaria and Romania in the Schengen Zone will enforce the control of the shores of the Black Sea, a traditional access point for drug smugglers in the Balkan Peninsula.

Hajrudin Somun, former Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) ambassador to Turkey, emphasises that drug smugglers find it easier to operate in countries that are politically unstable like BiH and Kosovo, or that score poorly in fighting organised crime, such as Bulgaria and Romania.

„There are some joint regional countries‘ police actions against the drug trade and trafficking, but more ‚political will‘ is needed for linking such activities in an organised chain of co-ordination,“ he told SES Türkiye.

Somun says Russia has shown a special interest in co-operating with the Balkans countries to cut off drug routes, particularly going through Kosovo.

Meanwhile, according to the Turkish police research, drug traffickers have started using some other alternative routes to Europe, such as from Iran and Pakistan to Britain. Ekinci says Turkey has launched several joints operations with the British government against them.

For Hamid Ghodse, it is important that governments take action, „albeit [it is] never enough to combat drug traffickers, as indicated by the seizures.“

He reminds that some countries, such as Romania and Bulgaria, have recently undertaken certain positive initiatives to strengthen their drug strategies and the fight against drug abuse and trafficking.

„Although the initiatives at the national and regional level are commendable, cross-national co-operation, collaboration, shared responsibility, and sustainability of actions are essential and paramount to the success against the drug traffickers,“ Ghodse says.

He highlights that more needs to be done against corruption, and says effective law enforcement to curb supply is needed. Also, he says comprehensive drug demand reduction is the cornerstone of a good drug control policy and strategy.