The nature of the relationship between the economic base and the political superstructure has been the subject of rigorous research and theoretical debate in the social sciences. A rich and extensive literature on the ‘determination’, ‘overdetermination’ or ‘determination in the last instance’ etc, of cultural, ideological, legal and political life by the economic base has provided key arguments for understanding the structures and dynamics of societies in which we live.
These analytic models, however, tend to overlook the existence of a third level below the economic ground, a ‘basement’, an underground world of illegitimate transactions. In addition to the economic base, the political economy of this ‘dark cellar’ also determines to a certain extent the structure and dynamics of society.
Recently, a series of YouTube videos by the outcast chief of the pro-Erdoğan mafia, Sedat Peker, has revealed an ongoing turmoil in this underground world. The mayhem in the basement is so severely shaking the social and political foundations that Peker videos have dominated the agenda of Turkish politics for over a month. The resulting earthquake is suitable to be read as a revolt of this underworld against its exclusion from political and sociological analysis.
From the outset, the current situation is compared to the aftermath of the 1996 Susurluk car crash, when the interconnections of the underworld and Turkey’s economic and political structures were similarly revealed. The Susurluk scandal illuminated the state-mafia relations to such an undeniable point that the then Interior Minister Mehmet Ağar, who is often referred to as the head of the ‘deep state’, had to resign.
Although Ağar was later tried for this affair and served a short prison sentence, the Susurluk scandal did not lead to a thorough cleansing of the mafia from the state, nor did the heroin trade end. On the contrary, reports in 1996 show that the Turkish heroin trade, worth $50 billion, had exceeded the then state budget of $48 billion. Investigative reports on the Susurluk scandal state that Turkish security bureaucracy, politicians and other authorities seized and reorganized the heroin trade in the 1990s, under the pretext of preventing the mafia and PKK from taking advantage of this huge illicit business. The emergent ‘narcotic state apparatuses’ liquidated the conventional mafia with serial murders and established a more efficient network for the shipment, delivery and distribution of heroin to Europe via the ‘Balkan route’.
Transition from heroin to cocaine
The post-Susurluk state-mafia architecture apparently worked well until recently, when the cocaine trade entered the equation. Last year, Colombian authorities seized 4.9 tons of cocaine in a shipment bound for Izmir harbour. Peker claims that the ports of Izmir and Mersin have become new hubs of cocaine distribution to buyers both in Europe and the Middle East. He also claims that certain yacht marinas in Cyprus and on the Aegean coast are operating as distribution centres of this new and expensive business. The key figure of the Susurluk scandal, Mehmet Ağar, was enjoying his retirement as the manager of one of such marinas in Bodrum on the Aegean coast. After Peker’s revelations, he once again had to resign from his post.
The Peker videos show that not only the usual suspects of the ‘deep state’ but also government related business circles may have invested heavily in cocaine trafficking. Erkam Yıldırım, the son of former prime minister Binali Yıldırım, who owns a freighter fleet, recently visited Venezuela to allegedly organize a transatlantic maritime network for this business. The close relations between Erdoğan and the Venezuelan president Maduro are well known by the international community. Among the alleged connections of this network, the tanker fleet of the giant Azeri oil cartel SOCAR is also pronounced.
The conventional transatlantic cocaine trade is known to include ports in Latin America, West Africa and Portugal. There have been some problems at both ends of this route, one of which is the increasing pressure from the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in Colombia. Under this pressure, Caracas, which is out of the control of the USA, emerged as an option, hence the visit by Erkam Yıldırım.
The situation to be addressed at this end is the expansion of business as a result of the inclusion of the wealthy Middle Eastern buyers as an emerging market. Turkey, a country highly experienced in the heroin trade, stands out as the favourite candidate to conduct the shipment, delivery and distribution along this new route. Cocaine is light in weight and very heavy in price compared to heroin, and by this nature, it necessitates the establishment of appropriate networks in addition to the existing narcotic state apparatuses.
The ‘nationalisation’ of the heroin trade required the formation of state-mafia structures exposed by the Susurluk scandal of the 1990s. The current transition from the ‘heroin mode of distribution’ to the ‘cocaine mode of distribution’ appears to require a similar structural adjustment move, both in the underworld and on the surface of economic, social and political life. In this context, Peker’s revelations are comparable to the Susurluk car crash, as symptomatic of this laborious transition.
Dirty war, dirty business
Peker, who portrays himself as a whistleblower, has been viewed by millions and caused considerable damage in the power circles. The career prospects of the ambitious Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu are in critical condition. Peker has been close to Erdoğan for much of the past decade and has been involved in many of his dirty business, including threatening and terrorizing dissidents, confiscating businesses and property, and shipping weapons to the jihadists in Syria. Because of this ‘insider’ nature, he has the potential to do what the parliamentary opposition is incapable of doing, namely to weaken and illegitimize (if not topple) the Erdoğan regime.
Even so, the basement of society is doomed to remain dirty as the existence of the ‘deep and dirty state’ is mainly nourished by the ‘dirty war’ waged against Kurdish demands. The 1990s, the era of the Susurluk scandal, has the horrific legacy of human rights violations, during which, the narcotic state apparatuses, such as the nationalist mafia, special forces, JİTEM, village guards and the security bureaucracy, were restructured according to the ‘heroin mode of distribution’. None of these apparatuses were liquidated as a result of the Susurluk investigations. The later Ergenekon trials also failed to shed light on the narco-state reality and to bring the elements of the dirty war to justice.
Similarly, the reconstruction of the Turkish narco-state according to the ‘cocaine mode of distribution’ seems to have gained momentum after the failure of the peace process in 2015. Since then, the escalation of military warfare in Kurdish provinces along with cross-border operations in Syria and Iraq have claimed thousands of lives.
In this new phase of the conflict, in addition to the nationalist mafia, new irregulars have been articulated into Turkish security structures, such as jihadist mercenaries and Sadat, an Islamist paramilitary organisation acting as Erdogan’s private army. Ideal fauna to maintain and upgrade the existing state-mafia architecture.