Thousands held in Turkey as new Interior Minister launches organised crime crackdown

Ankara seeks to tackle ‘mafia groups’ in bid to address international concerns over money laundering and terrorism financing activities

About 2,900 suspected gang members have been arrested so far. EPA
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Turkey’s Interior Minister Ali Yerlikaya has launched an unprecedented campaign against organised crime five months into his tenure, with large-scale police operations focused on taking down both local and foreign members of criminal gangs.

Thirty-eight “mafia-type” gangs have been dismantled over the course of four months in about 400 separate operations across the country, said Mr Yerlikaya, who served as Istanbul’s governor prior to assuming office.

About 2,900 suspected gang members have been arrested, he confirmed.

“As the Ministry of Internal Affairs, one of our primary goals is to cleanse the country of organised crime,” he added.

Mr Yerlikaya recently announced the arrest of Hakan Ayik, who is wanted in both Australia and the US on charges including international drug trafficking, murder and money laundering. He went on the run more than a decade ago and surfaced in Istanbul, where he ran the Kings Cross hotel for several years.

The arrest was the latest indication of a rise in crime in Turkey in recent years, with headlines often including news of shoot-outs between foreign criminal gangs.

Jovan Vukotic, the alleged head of a crime syndicate from Montenegro, was killed in his car in central Istanbul in September last year by two gunmen.

In January, Georgian crime boss Revaz Lordkipanidze was also shot dead in his car on the outskirts of the Black Sea city of Trabzon. Later, two alleged Russian hitmen were arrested over the killing.

Mafia swamp

Former police chief Mustafa Bogurcu said Turkey had become a “mafia swamp” and that the recent arrests under Mr Yerlikaya were “proof that drug traffickers, international arms and human traffickers move freely in Turkey and are involved in money laundering activities”.

The new Interior Minister has been focusing on taking down dozens of local mobsters involved in crimes ranging from drugs and arms trafficking to fraud and illegal gambling.

On Thursday, 15 members of the gang Germiciler, allegedly led by brothers Hakan and Erdem Germici, were arrested in the Bodrum area on Turkey’s west coast on charges of arms dealing and the fraudulent sale of land and cars.

One of the most high-profile arrests in recent months was that of alleged Ankara crime boss Ayhan Bora Kaplan in early September. Mr Kaplan, who was among 37 alleged gang members detained, is accused of leading a crime group involved in offences such as dealing drugs and weapons, robbery, assault and supplying counterfeit money.

His arrest has brought accusations of possible collusion between criminals and law enforcement, given he had been under investigation for several years but never arrested.

Mr Yerlikaya on October 12 announced that nine police officers involved in the case, including four senior commanders, had been suspended from duty.

Veteran journalist Cengiz Erdinc described Mr Kaplan’s arrest as " a message to the mafia, which was actively visible during the period of Suleyman Soylu’s Ministry of Internal Affairs, that everything will not be the same”, referring to Mr Yerlikaya’s predecessor.

The 2023 Global Organised Crime Index, released in September, noted “strong and complex links, dating back many decades” between high-level criminals and “state-embedded individuals” in Turkey.

Among regime elites, you encounter significant rivalries and these factions end up creating their own networks competing against one another
Berk Esen, professor of political science at Istanbul’s Sabanci University

It added that “mafia-style groups … have developed close connections with the government and other politicians, making them immune to law enforcement or the judicial system”/

Berk Esen, professor of political science at Istanbul’s Sabanci University, claims that previous interior ministers had been able to assume “a lot of autonomy” within the government by appointing police chiefs close to them.

“Within authoritarian regimes this is usually what happens,” he said. “Among regime elites, you encounter significant rivalries and these factions end up creating their own networks competing against one another.”

The Interior Ministry declined to respond to The National’s questions about the recent clampdown.

But there is a more tangible explanation for the drive against organised crime: Turkey’s efforts to get its beleaguered economy back on track.

Finance Minister Mehmet Simsek earlier this month told parliament that Turkey was working to be removed from the Financial Action Task Force’s “Grey List” of countries that need to tighten their approach to money laundering and terrorism financing.

Turkey was placed on the list in October 2021 and critics say the country has become a laundering centre for criminal assets – making it unappealing to much-needed legitimate foreign investment.

Mr Simsek said he hoped Turkey would soon be removed from the list after fresh legislation is proposed to parliament.

“We are doing whatever is necessary … If there are no other political considerations, there will be no reason for our country to remain on the Grey List within this framework,” he told MPs.

Updated: November 17, 2023, 10:47 AM