“Heroin, Organized Crime and the Making of Modern Turkey”

Ryan Gingeras’ book Heroin, Organized Crime and the Making of Modern Turkey provides an original contribution to the history of modern Turkey, particularly regarding the question of continuity and rupture from the late Ottoman period to the Republic, by taking the country’s opium production, security service and criminal underworld as its focus. Moreover, Gingeras tries to reveal the relationship between the country’s interconnected underground criminal network of transnational heroin traders and the politicians and security officers.

He argues that there has been a binary relationship between the Turkish intelligence apparatus and these criminal networks: the country’s intelligence apparatus used these networks and gang members for several covert operations, which ultimately formed the country’s deep state that committed arbitrary violence and extra-judiciary killings, while claiming to guard the Turkish state against ‘internal and external’ enemies.

Gingeras argues that the Turkish Intelligence apparatus inherited its approach of exploiting the criminal networks for the sake of the raison d’état, from the Ottoman Empire’s secret intelligence agency, Teşkilat-ı Mahsusa (The Special Organization) (p. 39). Thus, Gingeras, by focusing on the illegal opium trade and the criminal networks dwelling around this, surveys the complex web of relations within the Turkish domestic and foreign policy.

This book has five chapters. Each is dedicated to a phase in the historical development of the opium trade originating from Turkey and shows how it was shaped according to the increasing American and Turkish underworld connection, and the respective American and Turkish anti-narcotic policies. Moreover, at the end of each chapter Gingeras devotes a special section to conceptualizing the Turkish role in the global drug trade in the respective time period.

His conceptualization of Turkish policies in the respective time periods, not only provides a framework for analysing Turkey’s prominence for the American antinarcotic policies, but also reveals the difficulties in the intelligence liaison between Turkish and American officers. Gingeras also evaluates the origins of the Turkish criminal underworld.

He traces back origins of the Turkish criminal underworld to the Ottoman campaign for centralization starting in the 19th century. He reveals that these gangs (Çete) initially emerged as a reaction both to Ottoman efforts to establish a tight centralized control over the Empire’s vast territories ranging over three continents, and also as an ethnic reaction to the formation of nationalist paramilitary forces (mainly in the Balkans) and the drastic changes in the economic and social landscape due to internal immigration that occurred within the Empire.

Gingeras thus accurately points out that the ethnic bonds and kinship affiliations which originated in the late Ottoman era also flavoured the Turkish Republic’s underworld in the 20th century.

He particularly points out that although non-Muslim groups, such as the Greeks and Armenians, and to a limited extent Jewish groups, dominated the global drug trade originating from Turkey as late as the 1950s, subsequently the Laz syndicates (originating in the Black Sea region) as well as Kurdish gangs, took over the control of the various smuggling networks passing through the country (p. 123; p.86–7). These smuggling activities were not limited to narcotics but ranged in a wide spectrum from arms to tobacco, and even to tea and coffee.

Both the theme and scope of the book appealed to me as being intriguing for two distinct reasons. First, as a student of secret intelligence studies, as the book reveals extensive details about the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)’s predecessor, The Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN)’s operations in Turkey.

Moreover, the study offers insightful information on how the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) station in Turkey established close ties with the FBN and how both agencies closely cooperated in numerous covert operations. Indeed, the intelligence cooperation between the two agencies seemed to triumph.

The CIA did not hesitate to use the FBN’s ring of informants and FBN officers for its covert operations in the region. Moreover, the book reveals that the liaison between the FBN and the Turkish police, under the Directorate of Public Security (DPS), suffered much of the time from distrust and hesitancy over sharing information.

Also, Gingeras reveals that although the FBN trained several Turkish officers in criminal intelligence and anti-narcotic law enforcement, the agency was also aware that the trainee Turkish officers was mostly conducting political espionage for the Turkish state even during their course of training.

Second, Gingeras exposes the rise of Black Sea Laz Syndicates in the Turkish criminal underworld starting as early as 1920. For instance, one of the powerful figures in the drug trafficking Laz İhsan (İhsan Sekban) rose in the ranks of the global drug trade and his name appeared in several CIA reports.

Since my ancestors came from the Black Sea region, emigrating from Trabzon to settle in the outskirts of Istanbul around 100 years ago, I could relate many of the biographic details on the figures of the Black Sea underworld to the oral history that ran through my own family.

It is particularly interesting to see how Black Sea seamen engaged in criminal activities, particularly smuggling, as a consequence of the destruction of their economic and social structures during the Russian-Ottoman wars and the First World War. Thus, Gingeras’ book is particularly intriguing in the way it relates the oral history tradition with a more theoretical historical approach.

Gingeras’ book is clearly the product of a serious investigation of the relevant primary archives in the United States, the United Kingdom and Turkey. The book is also enriched with memoirs and newspaper reports. Yet several problematic issues emerge pertaining to the available material.

The intelligence documents from both CIA and DEA archives, depict the Turkish police and politicians engaging in corruption. But such a depiction of Turkish politics may reflect how much the American intelligence community and Foreign Service employed an orientalist lens in their assessment of Middle East countries. Such an approach results in missing certain pieces in the puzzle. CONTINUE READING HERE