The handover of criminal gang leader Jovan Vukotic to Serbia by the Turkish government in 2018 turned out to be part of a secretive campaign to eliminate rival organized crime networks operating in drug trafficking and other criminal enterprises in the country.
Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu, who was the subject of a series of allegations that he had been running a state-sanctioned organized crime syndicate, did not want a new player like Vukotic to enter the market. Acting with the approval of his boss, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Soylu had partnered for years with notorious mob boss Sedat Peker in running their criminal syndicates. But he has recently come under fire after the two had a falling out and Peker’s bombshell revelations from the United Arab Emirates, where he remains a fugitive, sent shockwaves across the Turkish political spectrum.
“People who tried to enter Turkey’s [organized crime business] were detained and extradited because they [Soylu and his associates] did not want to share a piece of the pie,” said Said Sefa, a Turkish investigative journalist who lives in Canada. “They themselves became a mafia. the drug [cocaine] trade and arms smuggling are all under their control. Those who don’t give them a cut have no right to survive in Turkey,” he remarked in a YouTube commentary aired on May 20, 2021.
The hawkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu, at one time sanctioned by the United States for his role in the arrest and detention of a US national, reveals how he handed over Jovan Vukotic to Serbia:
Vukotic’s handover to Serbia, apparently hastily done with no legal procedure, had remained a mystery until now. It has become clear that this was not a law enforcement operation to help Serbia and Montenegro, the two Balkan states in which Vukotic has citizenship. But rather it was part of a plot by Soylu and his associates to get rid of possible competition to their criminal enterprise.
Appearing on the state-run TRT network on May 19, 2021, Soylu tried to spin Vukotic’s deportation as part of a government campaign to crack down on organized crime and claimed Vukotic’s attempt to install himself in Turkey’s mafia business against the government was a sinister plot by foreign powers. For weeks Soylu has been trying to weather damming revelations made by his former partner, mafia boss Peker, who said the Turkish minister and his associates are running racketeering, arms and drug smuggling and extortion schemes.
Soylu admitted that the government did not hold the usual extradition proceedings and instead handed Vukotic over to a Serbian deputy minister who came to pick him up. “Normally, there should be a court hearing, extradition procedure and so on. I said there was no need, we will pack him up and hand him over. They couldn’t believe it,” he said during the interview on TRT.
He claimed that the unnamed Serbian deputy minister was terrified when he came to collect Vukotic and asked that a bag be put over his head so he would not meet him face to face. “Skaljari [a feared mafia clan led by Vukotic] is the number one [mafia] in the Balkans. Everyone is afraid of this criminal organization. States are terrified of it,” Soylu said.
Serbia extradited Vukotic in February 2020 to Montenegro to face murder charges.
When Vukotic was detained in Turkey, Greek authorities were investigating him for smuggling 135 kilograms of cocaine into the country. Peker’s revelations that Soylu and his associates’ involvement in the cocaine trade from Colombia appear to have played perfectly into journalist Sefa’s claims that the Turkish mafia, supported by Erdoğan government, did not want Vukotic as a player in the cocaine deal.
Nordic Monitor published a story in February 2021 describing Turkey as an emerging cocaine route with the support of senior government officials. In July 202 Colombia’s narcotics police seized almost five tons of cocaine in two containers that were to travel by sea from the port of Buenaventura to Turkey and had a street value of $265 million in the illegal market.
Carlos Holmes Trujillo, the late Colombian minister of defense, announced on Twitter that 4.9 tons of cocaine had been seized by narcotics units. Preliminary investigations indicated that the drug was intended to be transported along the Colombian Pacific coast to Central America and later to Turkey.
In a January 2021 article, Nordic Montior named Soylu as a suspected drug kingpin for his alleged involvement in the drug trade along with his partners in crime such as Gen. Arif Çetin, head of the gendarmerie, which controls borders and rural areas where drug trafficking routes are found.
In this web of drug trafficking, smuggling and organized crime, Mehmet Kemal Ağar, a notorious nationalist politician and former minister, is believed to have been another key figure. Ağar helped facilitate a massive purge in the police department starting in 2014 to clear the way for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s clandestine business activities that were hampered at times when the police intercepted, investigated and exposed secret, illegal operations.
According to Peker, the owner of the cocaine shipment from Colombia was Ağar and his cronies. Ağar uses yacht marina in Turkey’s resort town of Bodrum that he snatched from Azeri billionaire Mubariz Mansimov Gurbanoğlu, with whom he worked in the past. The marina can accommodate large yachts, and the drugs are shipped through this marina, Peker claimed.
In a video posted on YoutTube on May 23, 2021 Peker claimed that after the Colombian cocaine bust last year, Ağar and his associates worked on a new route to bring in the cocaine. He said Erkam Yıldırım, son of former Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım, went to Venezuela to make the arrangements to transport Colombian cocaine to Venezuela and from there to Turkey. The Syrian port of Latakia was also used to distribute the cocaine to wealthy clients in the Middle East.
Pictures were posted on Twitter by the Turkish Embassy in Caracas showing that Erkam was part of a Turkish delegation composed of a lawmaker and election officials on a trip that took place in December 2020.
President Erdoğan is aware of all these deals, and his family is getting rich from commissions on such organized crime activities, according to Sefa.