A haven for international criminals

The Bosporus Bridge is illuminated in red and white at night; the lights of Istanbul can be seen in the background as a ship passes beneath the bridge
Jovan Vukotic, an alleged drug lord from the Skaljari gang in the Balkans, was murdered in Istanbul in September 2022. Pictured here: the Bosporus Bridge in Istanbul (image: Bild: YASIN AKGUL/AFP)

Lax laws on money laundering, easy access to citizenship, insufficient prosecution – Turkey has grown more attractive for international criminal networks in recent years. In response, the new interior minister has declared a crackdown

By Elmas Topcu

"My dear nation, today we caught three internationally sought-after gang bosses in Alanya and Istanbul," Interior Minister Ali Yerlikaya announced to the Turkish people on social media in December, declaring himself ready for the fight. "No matter how strong these gangs are or whatever arrest warrant they face, we will choke them out."

Ever since Yerlikaya took office in June, barely a day has gone by without the arrest of serious criminals. Drug dealers, loan sharks, human traffickers, fraudsters and thieves, but also the bosses of major international gangs who have sunk their teeth into Turkey in recent years.

A little over a month ago, Yerlikaya announced that Turkish police had succeeded in paralysing the entire leadership level of the globally active Comanchero armed motorcycle gang. Among those arrested were several alleged members from Australia and New Zealand, for whom Interpol had issued international arrest warrants. Yerlikaya even posted videos of the arrests.

Interior Minister Ali Yerlikaya, who is surrounded by people, gestures with his left hand as he speaks into an array of microphones being held up to his face, Ankara, Turkey, 1 October 2023
Turkey's Interior Minister Ali Yerlikaya is determined to fight organised crime in his country: 'No matter how strong these gangs are or whatever arrest warrant they face, we will choke them out,' he said recently (image: Ali Unal/AP Photo/picture alliance)

Why Turkey?

For years, there have been signs that international networks have made inroads in Turkey: shootings, assassinations and a handful of journalistic investigations. But before Yerlikaya took office, there were hardly any major probes or charges.

Yerlikaya's predecessor, Süleyman Soylu, has been accused of having close ties with gang members. While Soylu was in office, leading gang figures from the Turkish underworld were released from prison, allowing Turkey to develop into a haven for international criminals, particularly from Serbia, Albania, Azerbaijan, Russia and Montenegro.

These gang leaders also brought their conflicts with them, as shown by the murder of Jovan Vukotic, an alleged drug lord from the Skaljari gang in the Balkans, on 8 September 2022. Investigators concluded that a local gang in Istanbul killed Vukotic to collect a bounty of €1.5 million. According to the police, the order came from the rival Kavac gang.

Kavac and Skaljari, two drug gangs from the Montenegrin coastal town of Kotor, have been waging war with each another around Europe for close to ten years. Bloody showdowns in several countries have killed 50 people so far. Already in 2022, the German Federal Criminal Police Office told DW that Turkey had for some time served as a haven for criminal networks from the western Balkans.

Turkey's best known criminal boss, Alaattin Çakici, is surrounded by soldiers in hi-vis jackets
Turkey's most notorious criminal boss, Alaattin Çakici, was released from prison during the tenure of the country's previous interior minister, Süleyman Soylu (Foto: ANKA)

Lax laws and golden passports

According to experts, there are crucial reasons why Turkey has become a home away from home for many criminals. Firstly, the country has weak laws on money laundering. Secondly, the government issues almost annual amnesties for economic criminals. Thirdly, it's possible for nationals of many states to enter Turkey without a visa. And fourthly, the rich can easily get Turkish passports.

Anyone who invests $500,000 in Turkey or deposits it in a bank account, or anyone who buys property worth $400,000, can apply for Turkish citizenship. Kristin Surak, an expert from the London School of Economics who has written a book about so-called "golden passports", said more than 50,000 people get their hands on citizenship in this way every year worldwide. Around half of those are given out by the Turkish state.

Furkan Sezer, former head of the Istanbul police economic crime department, has been observing this world for years. According to him, many criminals first apply for naturalisation and then bring their assets into the country.

Thanks to annual amnesties, this too is very easy. The system allows people or legal entities to report their unregistered assets from abroad or domestically to the tax authorities, sometimes without having to pay tax on them. In this way, money of unknown origin ends up circulating in the legal economy. "Criminals usually pay 15 to 20% of the value for money laundering," said Ozan Bingol, an expert in tax law.

The Turkish government offers them this opportunity tax-free, according to Bingol. In his opinion, this opens the door to criminals. He also criticised the authorities' lack of powers in the fight against money laundering.

"If someone suddenly turns up today with a million dollars, the authorities are not allowed to ask where the money came from," he said. The current AKP government, led by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, implemented this law as one of its first initiatives after coming to power in 2002, said Bingol.

There are also holes in the law for crypto investments, which the tax expert said attracts international criminal networks to Turkey. Such investments are in urgent need of regulation, he added.

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Turkey on the 'grey list' for money laundering

The international institute against money laundering and terrorist financing, the Financial Action Task Force, has also taken Ankara to task for its lacklustre policing of money laundering.

It placed the country on its so-called "grey list" two years ago. Since then, Turkey has been under closer scrutiny. Ankara is aiming to be removed from this list at the next review date in June, especially since the economy is already ailing. Erdoğan's interference in monetary policy and the judiciary has also scared off foreign investors.

And that is exactly what the country needs. Finance Minister Mehmet Simsek, who took the helm after the May election, is trying to lure international investors back into the country and trying to drum up fresh interest and build trust on the international stage.

To make this happen, however, everyone has to deliver. The pressure is not just on Simsek – a lot is also riding on Interior Minister Yerlikaya and his fight against organised crime.

Elmas Topcu & Alican Uludag 

© Deutsche Welle 2024