Cartel cocaine route to Turkey likely source of record Malta drugs bust

Record-breaking interception of 800kg of cocaine in Malta from a Turkish-bound container, continues to confirm the country’s role as a cocaine distribution hub from Colombia to Europe

Turkey has long been a major route of heroin smuggling from Afghanistan to Europe. 

But a record-breaking interception of 800kg of cocaine in Malta from a Turkish-bound container, continues to confirm the country’s role as a cocaine distribution hub from Colombia to Europe and the Middle East.

Malta Customs and police drugs squads officers found the cocaine earlier this week, valued at €108 million, inside a 40-foot reefer container en route from the port of Turbo, in Colombia, to Mersin, in Turkey, with a refrigerated payload of 1,200 boxes of bananas. 

Over 800 packets of high-purity cocaine were found hidden in 26 boxes, each carrying a net weight of 1kg each and concealed within the boxes of fruit. Customs scanning officials flagged the discrepancy between density and consistency of the banana cargo.

The bust is also considerable one in the context of similar high-value interceptions in Turkey itself: for the Colombian-Turkey route’s notoriety particularly stems from claims by a convicted Turkish crime boss living in exile in Dubai, who accused former Turkish ministers of being implicated in the traffic of drugs.

In late 2021, anti-narcotics teams in Ankara said they unveiled cocaine traffic between the Cali drug cartel in Colombia, and seven Turkish drug barons during a nine-month surveillance. “Cali cartel sent the drugs in boxes of flowers, bananas, coffee or strawberries, using air and sea routes,” the Hurriyet newspaper said, quoting a 2021 report from Turkish investigators. Cargo planes carrying the cocaine were arriving in Turkey after stopping by in the U.S. and the Netherlands. Ships carrying the cocaine would have stopovers in Italy before arriving at the port in the southern province of Mersin. 

The Turkish investigators said the seven drug lords in Turkey had different roles in dealing with the cocaine: one was the “messenger” with the Cali cartel, two manage the financial leg of the operations, two others handle the ports and airports, while the rest roll out the product. 

But many of the high-profile investigations came months after exiled mob boss Sedat Peker’s YouTube videos shook Turkey in May 2021, when he claimed that government officials were involved in cocaine smuggling between Colombia, Venezuela and Turkey. 

In a series of viral videos from Dubai, Peker flung accusations of corruption at members and cronies of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). And one of the ‘accused’ – former Turkish PM Binali Yildirim – has a Malta connection that brings this story just that bit closer to home: his children have operated various Malta companies for their shipping businesses.

In one video watched by 10 million people in 24 hours, Peker claimed that Yildirim’s son Erkam travelled to Venezuela in January and February 2021 to organise logistics, and readjust a busted Colombian route.

Turkey’s former prime minister defended his son by claiming that he had travelled to Caracas to deliver COVID-19 test kits and masks, a claim refuted by both Turkish customs records and testimonies of Turkish citizens residing in Venezuela.

Erkam and his brother Bulent Yildirim opened companies Hawke Bay Marine and Black Eagle Marine in Malta, both of them struck off since the Malta Files leak of 2017, involved in the buying and selling of ships, yachts and other marine vessels. 

Colombia-Turkey connection 

The spotlight turned on Turkey in June 2020 when Colombia’s narcotics police seized almost five tons of cocaine in two containers that were to travel by sea from the port of Buenaventura to Turkey, at a street value of $265 million. 

The Colombian defence ministry officially announced that the seized cocaine was bound for Turkey. This information by itself had important implications since Turkey had never been a transit or destination country for cocaine. 

Five tonnes of cocaine was deemed an unbelievably large quantity for Turkey as a destination and a transit country. Turkey had also never been mentioned in the UNODC’s global cocaine trafficking routes until recently. Even then, the route involving Turkey has remained small with negligible amounts of cocaine seized compared to other main routes. 

In February 2022, the assassination of the Turkish-Cypriot casino tycoon Halil Falyali became the latest episode in Turkey’s underground wars over narco-trafficking and illicit finance.