Did Turkey's murky relations with Venezuela result in drug trafficking?

Almost three years ago, a booming gold trade between Turkey and Venezuela captured international headlines amid the mounting sanctions against the Maduro administration. Similarly,Turkish mobster Sedat Peker’s allegations about a new drug trafficking route from Venezuela have recently captured the headlines in Turkey. 

In a recent video uploaded to YouTube, Peker claimed Erkam Yıldırım, son of former Turkish prime minister Binali Yıldırım, had been involved in a scheme to send cocaine from Venezuela to Turkey. Following a seizure of 4.9 tons of cocaine shipment in Colombia last year, he claimed, Yıldırım traveled to Venezuela in December and February to set up a new route and leased a place in Venezuela’s northern port of La Guaira.

According to Peker, they chose Venezuela since the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has no control over the country, and it’s easy to transfer cocaine from Colombia. He also added that the planned shipments would be transferred to yachts in smaller packages and some of those yachts headed to the Yalıkavak Marina, a luxury yacht marina in Turkey’s western town of Bodrum.

The photos posted on Twitter by the Turkish Embassy in Caracas last December confirmed Yıldırım’s trip to Venezuela. The former prime minister publicly denied the serious allegations against his son and claimed that he had traveled to Venezuela only in December 2020 to deliver COVID-19 supplies. Yet, Turkish official refuted his claim, showing that Yıldırım did not take supplies with him. 

Turkey was previously involved in the gold, oil, and scrap metal business in Venezuela, which led the country to face U.S. sanctions. However, cocaine trafficking has never come to public attention as part of the growing relations between Ankara and Caracas. That said, Peker’s allegations could be plausible considering two existing dynamics: Increasing cocaine trafficking from Latin America to Turkey and Turkey’s non-transparent relations with Venezuela.

Turkey has previously served as a principal transit point for gangs smuggling heroin to Europe from Afghanistan. The latest seized cocaine shipments bound for Turkey indicate that Turkey has also increasingly become a stopover for a new cocaine trafficking route from Latin America to Europe and Asia.

For example, Colombia announced that it seized five tons of cocaine bound for Turkey in shipping containers in the coastal area. Peker also shared some shocking details about this seizure in one of his videos which brought attention to the complicated state-mafia relations. He claimed that the cocaine seized by Colombian narcotics units last year belonged to the former interior minister and police chief Mehmet Ağar, a loyal ally to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. 

While Turkish people were discussing the involvement of the former minister in narco-trafficking business, the narcotics unit of Panama, a few days later, announced that they seized 616 packages of cocaine shipped from Ecuador en route to Turkey. Last year, another cocaine shipment coming from Brazil was seized in Turkey. In short, around seven tons of cocaine bound for Turkey have been seized by the narcotic units in the last few years from Latin America.

As Peker hinted, it could be plausible that the increasing numbers of seizures of cocaine destined for Turkey convinced drug dealers to move the operations to a much safer place. At this point, Venezuela, a major transit route for Colombian cocaine, appears as one of the most appropriate locations to start a new trafficking route in South America.

A recent U.S. indictment already shows that the Maduro administration evolved into a drug cartel called "Cartel de Los Soles" that facilitates the shipment of tons of cocaine to Europe and the United States through seaports and airports. In addition, Colombian President Ivan Duque, in his public address delivered last February, claimed that "Cartel de Los Soles" has worked with some narco-trafficking networks in Turkey. Based on these facts, it could be argued that some key figures in the Venezuelan government establishment might have been implicated in another drug trafficking bound for Turkey.

Second, the history of opaque relations between Turkey and Venezuela could give a better idea about the credibility of Peker’s allegations. It is useful to take a closer look at the relations between the two countries to understand what is indeed happening.

The diplomatic ties between Turkey and Venezuela go back almost 60 years, but until recently amounted to little more than the routine exchange of diplomats. But the failed coup attempt in Turkey in 2016 was a turning point in the bilateral relations between Ankara and Caracas. In the last few years, the two countries have created a cozy financial, political and military partnership at a time when the Maduro government faced several accusations, including rampant corruption, drug trafficking, and money laundering. 

The lack of transparency about the growing commercial ties between the two countries has been the issue since the beginning. The opaque gold trade between Turkey and Venezuela was a good example of that. Venezuelan gold has been shipped to Turkey for refinement since 2018, with some $900 million worth of gold shipped that year. In return, Turkey became a major supplier of consumer staples for Venezuela such as pasta, sunflower oil, wheat flour, red lentils, and powdered milk for Venezuela. Although the scope and content of the opaque financial dealings were not sufficiently documented, the information revealed by the U.S. Treasury Department explains well how the gold-for-food mechanism established between the two countries helped the Maduro administration make huge profits from the government-funded contracts and implicated in wide-scale corruption schemes and networks.

Moreover, the frequent visits of some high-level Venezuelan politicians whose names have been implicated in the international drug trafficking scandals beg questions about drug trafficking. One of them is Tareck El Aissami, the highest-ranking Venezuelan official sanctioned by the United States for his major role in drug trafficking. He paid a visit to Turkey in 2019 to finalize a gold trading deal between Ankara and Caracas. He was also received by President Erdogan. 

In light of these facts, a politically connected and strong mafia establishment in Turkey may have planned to move large quantities of the drug from Venezuela, which has become a major player in cocaine trafficking in Latin America under the Maduro government.The cocaine trafficking allegations could be yet another possible angle of the shady business, enabling the personal enrichment of senior officials in both Turkey and Venezuela.

It is also worth noting that the Turkish government rejected the motion to investigate the allegations leveled by Peker. The government has not launched any investigation yet about the cocaine seizures in Latin America. The government’s apparent reluctance to take any action against these serious allegations further raised the question about the involvement of the government members in illicit business. 

If the United States’ DEA could affirm Peker's claims about Erkam Yıldırım’s involvement in setting up a new route for drug trafficking in Venezuela, Turkey’s rising presence in America's backyard may become another point of dispute between Ankara and Washington.