Turkey - With Help From US - Chokes Off Drug Trafficking
The drugs pass through Turkey in all manner of disguise, presenting an almost impossible job for narcotics agents: Raw heroin is hidden in walnut shells and music cassettes; cannabis is turned to resin and pressed into easy-to-conceal bricks; cocaine is packed into rawhide dog bones.Skip to next paragraph
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Nevertheless, Turkey seized 3.4 tons of heroin last year, more than any other nation and accounting for more than one-fifth of the global haul, according to Western and Turkish narcotics officials.
Turkey serves as the "bridge" for 70 to 80 percent of the drugs consumed in Europe, connecting users there to suppliers in the Golden Crescent of Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan - a fertile area known for its poppy production.
Now after years of trying to stamp out the trafficking - with the assistance of the United States Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA)- Turkey's efforts are bearing fruit.
"Turkey is the first line of defense in the war on drugs," says one Western narcotics source who asked not to be identified. "But Turkey's problem is that it has some very creative criminals."
Long regarded as the country that links East with West, Turkey sits astride major drug trafficking routes. The raw materials necessary for heroin production, such as morphine base made from poppies and the chemical acetic anhydride - a chemical used to make heroin - usually enter Turkey through difficult-to-police mountainous borders in the east.
The materials are mixed by "heroin doctors" in primitive laboratories that resemble kitchens. These processing labs make the heroin for export to Europe, but are so simple and easily hidden - they can be dismantled in minutes - that they are difficult to trace in the vast, sparsely populated area.
US helps out
Along with the DEA assistance to Turkey, the US State Department provides $400,000 annually to improve the ability of the Turkish police force and customs officials to cope with the problem. Major police stations now have narcotics units, and six Turkish liaison officers are based in European capitals.
American clients account for only 5 percent of the drugs that transit Turkey. One reason, Western sources say, is that eastern Turkey is so isolated that few Americans are aware that heroin worth $150,000 on the streets of New York can be bought here for as little as $5,000.
Another reason may be Turkey's harsh punishments for foreigners involved in drug trafficking, such as the fate of a foreign drugs offender that was portrayed in the American film "Midnight Express."
Still, the scale of the drugs flow has surprised even the most jaded officials. In the first quarter of this year, agents seized nearly one ton of heroin. The busts come in smaller amounts of 450 pounds or less and are due to effective police work.
Drug net has holes
Despite the successes, drugs still escape the law-enforcement net. "They think they are getting most of it," says a Western narcotics source. "But even the best police force anywhere can only get 10 percent."
A rough indication of the flow is to calculate demand in Europe, and to figure Turkey's contribution. Six tons per month are required to "sustain" Europe's heroin addicts, and five tons of that - per month - is believed to come through Turkey.