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A Tragic Growth Industry: Drugs

Letter From Turkey


Harun Dede and Levent Binici have just finished a 15-hour shift with the Istanbul Police Dept.'s antinarcotics force, including a bruising fist fight with two heroin pushers. "We won that," says Binici with a laugh, giving his partner a high five across the table. The two officers, or "commissars," unwind over fried fish and raki, a potent anise-flavored liquor, at a boisterous seaside restaurant. But relaxing is not easy.

"It's upsetting. Every day, we see more and more young people shooting heroin or smoking dope," says Dede, 25, wiry and sandy-haired. He and his partner know that their small victories will barely make a dent in Istanbul's flourishing drug traffic. "Even if we had an army of officers, we might not be able to catch all the dealers and smugglers in this city," says Binici, 24.

Istanbul has long served as a crossroads for heroin and hashish smugglers. But with the huge profits to be made off today's insatiable demand for drugs, trafficking is at epidemic proportions. In just three years, the amount of heroin seized by Turkish authorities has doubled, to more than four metric tons a year. Better law enforcement accounts for some of the increase, but mostly, admits Yasar Kesin, head of the Police Dept.'s financial and narcotic crimes bureau, it's due to "an increase in drug running." Up to six metric tons of heroin--equal to 75% of Western Europe's consumption of the drug--leave Turkey every month, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) estimates.

Smugglers move opium-based drugs and hashish, produced in Afghanistan and Pakistan--the so-called Golden Crescent--through Iran and into "refineries" in mountainous southeastern Turkey. There, morphine is processed with chemicals to form pure heroin. Much of the refined heroin, now worth about $6,500 per kilogram wholesale, is shipped to distributors in Istanbul and then makes its way across Europe. Most is hauled overland through Bulgaria and Romania, often hidden in trucks carrying legitimate export products. In Germany and Holland, dealers pay about $35,000 per kilo for Turkish heroin. DEA officials say up to 20% of Istanbul's heroin winds up in North America, where a kilo can fetch $75,000 wholesale.

RENAULTS. The stepped-up drug traffic puts enormous pressure on officers like Dede and Binici, who are part of a 173-member narcotics unit in this city of 13 million. Most commissars are streetwise young men who bust small-time drug peddlers in risky undercover operations. Understaffed and underfunded, the narcotics bureau operates with outdated equipment, and officers complain that their cars--usually inexpensive Renaults--are easily identified as police vehicles by drug dealers, who drive fancy sports cars. "We're not exactly Miami Vice," laughs long-haired Binici, who earns less than $300 a month.

Turkish officials note that the country spends $30 million a year on drug enforcement, and they claim they're making inroads. In April, police stopped an 18-wheeler at the highway toll booth in Mahmutbey near Istanbul. In the back, stashed among bales of textiles going to Germany, were nearly 90 kilos of pure heroin. Seizures in Turkey accounted for roughly 40% of all drugs confiscated by European law-enforcement officers last year. Still, authorities admit, that's less than 10% of the heroin that passes through Turkey.

While attitudes are changing, many Turks remain ambivalent about drug traffic: Heroin plays an important role in the country's economy. "Some heroin proceeds remain in Turkey, while billions of dollars flow back into Turkey from European sales," says Atilla Yesilada, director of research at Global Securities Inc. in Istanbul. These cash injections have helped turn Istanbul into one of the Mideast's leading money-laundering centers. Drug money moves through casinos and private currency exchange offices--including some outside the city's historic Grand Bazaar, where money traders swap briefcases stuffed with foreign bank notes. Chatting with each other on walkie-talkies, they use code names for various currencies. Drug money has helped drive up real estate prices and boosted luxury-car sales in Istanbul.

KURDS. Drug money apparently helps fund terrorist activities of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), an outlawed separatist group whose fighters have battled government troops since 1984. Police officials say the PKK controls most heroin refineries in the mainly Kurdish southeast, working closely with Mafia networks to trade drugs and weapons.

Then there are the reputed ties between politicians and the underworld. In November, a fugitive heroin smuggler, his girlfriend, and a former Istanbul police chief were killed in an auto accident south of Istanbul. A member of Parliament from the center-right True Path Party, Sedat Bucak, was injured. True Path, headed by Deputy Prime Minister Tansu Ciller, is the junior partner in Turkey's coalition government. The accident has increased the speculation about the source of Ciller's fortune, worth tens of millions of dollars.

A tragic consequence of the increased drug smuggling here is growing drug addiction among young Turks. In 1994, less than 1% of Istanbul high school students had tried heroin and 4% had smoked hash, according to Amatem, a drug rehabilitation center. That's not bad compared with drug use in North America, but it's "a big jump in drug use among Turkish teenagers," says Umit Yazman, an Amatem doctor. Some 70% of the center's addicts are under 20. Amatem's patient load soared from 1,300 in 1991 to 4,000 last year. Yazman blames easy access to drugs, along with changing attitudes. "Until recently, drug users were regarded by most people as outcasts," he says. "Now, more and more kids think drugs are cool."

Yazman compares Istanbul to America in the early 1960s, when a generation was turning on to drugs. Chain-smoking Marlboro cigarettes in the restaurant, Dede talks above the din of Gypsies playing old Turkish songs: "If we don't do something soon [about drug abuse], then it will be too late." Binici nods. "Maybe the politicians and bureaucrats will start taking the drug problem more seriously when they realize their own kids are in danger," he says. He sighs and finishes his raki.EDITED BY SANDRA DALLAS JOHN DOXEYReturn to top

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