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.
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.
Another method used to determine the scale of heroin production is to look at seizures of smuggled acetic anhydride. Some three pounds of this chemical are required to produce two pounds of heroin. Seizures of the chemical here doubled last year to 53 tons, a statistic that worries narcotics officials. This amount, probably a fraction of the chemical making its way to Turkey, could alone produce 35 tons of heroin.
"These figures are incredible and make us ask: 'How much could there be?' " says a Western narcotics source. "There is a whole lot of heroin being made here."
Western and Turkish officials agree that the bulk of the trafficking is controlled by several families in eastern Turkey, many of them ethnic Kurds with "business" alliances in Iran and Afghanistan, who use family connections among refugees in Germany, Holland, and elsewhere to smuggle the drugs to Europe.
The identities of the largest drug-smuggling families are no secret. A recent issue of Turkey's Tempo magazine published a story listing the top 40 families in the trade. Western sources confirm that of those involved in drug trafficking, "the majority are extended Kurdish families."
Halil Havar, who heads the family at the top of the Tempo list, is so influential that his "boys" rescued him from a jail in Holland a few years ago in a daring helicopter escape. He was smuggled back into Turkey using a standard trafficker's trick - behind a false wall in a truck.
But arresting the big bosses has proved difficult, and often prison sentences are short. "The wild card here is corruption," says a Western source. "Everyone on that list has a friend in the government. The Turkish system is like a revolving door."
Turkish agents are adamant that the outlawed Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK), which has waged a violent insurgency in southeast Turkey for more than a decade, controls most of the trade through extortion and funds their "terrorist" activities with the profits. Western sources confirm PKK involvement in many cases, but cannot establish a direct link in every case.
In line with Turkey's war against the PKK, Ismail Caliskan, the chief of Turkey's drugs team, says that the PKK insurgents are deeply into drugs trafficking.
"They either have records with the terror division before we arrest them, or in their statements they admit to moving drugs for the PKK," he says. "Illicit drugs and terrorism are both illegal things and go hand in hand."
Kurd insurgents involved
Western narcotics sources confirm that the PKK is involved, but say that the extent is impossible to quantify. "All the police in Europe say the PKK is involved in the drugs trade," says one official. "But European governments are not going to point it out. They say, 'If we point the finger at the PKK, we will have these guys bombing and shooting in the streets.' "
Still, Mr. Caliskan says that the political influence of Turkey's drug smugglers does not matter, and that they will be arrested if the police can find evidence against them.
Hanging from his office wall are 15 citations of good work from narcotics agencies. In a glass cabinet he keeps samples of heroin, bricks of hashish, morphine base, and cocaine that were seized en route from the Golden Crescent to Europe.
"Most important to Turkey is that this smuggling is a crime and inhuman," Caliskan says. "It kills people, it poisons people - it's why in Turkey we are committed to stopping it."