The government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan secretly ordered the narcotics unit in Turkey’s National Police Department to cease halting and checking busses owned and operated by a convicted felon who ran an organized crime and racketeering scheme in Turkey.
Speaking to Nordic Monitor, a veteran police officer who had worked in narcotics for years, disclosed how he and his men were ordered not to stop and check any of the busses operated by Metro Turizm, whose owner Galip Öztürk was seen close to Erdoğan. The order came after the Turkish police obtained a search warrant for two busses parked in a rest area located in Adana province near the Syrian border on Jan. 10, 2014, when a tip was received that the busses were involved in drug trafficking.
It later turned out that the two busses were rented by Turkey’s intelligence agency in a secret operation to transport jihadist fighters across the Turkish-Syrian border in order to influence the fate of the conflict in the neighboring country. No drugs were found during the search, which took place on a highway in Incirlik, Adana province, but police found 40 boxes of ammunition for PKM heavy caliber machine guns that were forgotten in the cargo holds of the busses after jihadists got off the vehicles at 5 in the morning.
The source, whose name is being kept confidential by Nordic Monitor for reasons of safety, said the order was conveyed by İbrahim Baran, the then-chief of the narcotics unit in the Adana Police Department. “None of the Metro busses will be stopped for narcotics check from now on,” he said, personally instructing police officers in the field who were assigned to the narcotics task unit. Adana province is located on a critical route between eastern and western Turkey where illegal drug trafficking is conducted from Afghanistan through Iran, Iraq and Turkey, ending up in Europe.
Random checks on transport vehicles by the narcotics task unit was one of the major operations run by Turkish authorities in cracking down on drug trafficking in border provinces, the source said. “We had managed to seize a significant amount of drugs through these random checks designed to identify cars, trucks and busses that might have been involved in the transportation,” he said. “The carriers often use passenger busses to transport some of the drugs,” the source added.
Police chief Baran, who was specifically selected by the government to run the narcotics unit in Adana after the removal and reassignment of other police chiefs, also undertook the task of determining the timeline of random checks for the task unit in the field. “This was also quite an unusual practice for the task unit,” the source explained, adding that the timeline was usually decided by the police chiefs in the field, not from the office. “He was micromanaging everything,” the source noted.
Baran also ordered his loyal police officers to carry out surveillance on the gendarmerie units that were responsible for security in rural areas. As some parts of the highway sections cross through rural areas where the police have no jurisdiction, Baran wanted to make sure the gendarmerie would not intercept Metro busses and also perhaps inform his superiors of the timeline and spots where the gendarmerie had set up checkpoints for narcotics smuggling. Baran was rewarded for his service and later promoted to run the Smuggling and Organized Crime Unit (KOM) in Eskisehir province.
In May 2014 during an interview with the A-Haber news station, which is owned by the Erdoğan family, Öztürk publicly admitted that his firm’s vehicles were used by the National Intelligence Organization (MIT) when he was asked about trucks that were intercepted in January 2014 while carrying illegal arms shipments destined for jihadists in Syria. He said the police raided Metro’s offices and cargo hubs in southeastern Adana province and revealed that he was under investigation. In November 2016, when Erdoğan publicly issued his threat of forcing migrants to European borders to arm-twist the European Union, his henchman Öztürk announced that his fleet was ready to transport all refugees to border areas in order to flood Europe with migrants. He was paying his dues to the master who helped him survive serious legal challenges.
Öztürk and his associates control the largest nationwide bus operation in Turkey, carrying passengers as well as cargo. Öztürk’s main business, Metro Turizm Seyahat Organizasyon ve Ticaret A.Ş., had a turnover of TL 860 million in 2017 according to Fortune 500’s list of largest companies in Turkey. His investment arm, Metro Ticari ve Mali Yatırımlar Holding A.Ş., has a stake in about a dozen companies operating in the mining, oil, food, tourism and hospitality sectors, while he controls some 40 companies directly or through surrogates.
Öztürk, a 53-year-old Turkish national from the northeastern province of Samsun, was an errand boy when he came to Istanbul at the age of 13. He started working at a small teahouse and public toilet facilities in Istanbul’s then-main bus station, Topkapi. He started his career when he was taken under the wing of Hurşit Yavaş, a known drug dealer who served time in British and Italian jails. In 1988 Yavaş set up a coach firm called Star Turizm to launder money earned from drug trafficking and named Öztürk as his partner on business registration papers, although Öztürk had no money invested in the firm. When drug baron Yavaş in 1994 was arrested, convicted and sentenced to prison in Italy, Öztürk seized the opportunity and orchestrated the transfer of his assets in the bus firm to himself and consolidated his gains under the Metro tourism company, a firm he set up in 1992.
The two had a falling out and clashed over business interests. The feud between them continued when Yavaş was handed over to Turkey by Italy in 2007 after he had served his time. Both were under police surveillance, and Turkish prosecutors were looking into organized crime activities the two were involved in. Yavaş was arrested in January 2010 over drugs destined for the Netherlands and sentenced to 12 years, six months in prison after his trial concluded in March 2013.
After Öztürk was questioned by investigators concerning twin murders committed in 1996 by a hitman named Yakup Yazıcı, the Metro owner was detained by the police. During the investigation in April 2003 Yazıcı admitted to the police that he had committed the murders after he was ordered to do so by Öztürk. Although the investigation was expanded into his organized crime syndicate, Öztürk was surprisingly let go after his detention. He fled Turkey and moved to the United States on a fake passport and assumed name, married there and even set up a company. Upon his return, Öztürk continued his illegal business dealings and in April 2009 was detained for manipulation and insider trading in his meat and food business, Van Et Ticari Yatırımlar Gıda Sanayi Ticaret A.Ş., on the Istanbul Stock Exchange. He was let go again after big brother intervened. At the end of 2009, he was detained again, this time on charges of extortion for forcing a businessman to assume a debt in the amount of TL 2 million under threat. He was released again.
He was detained and formally arrested pending trial on Feb. 29, 2012 after a comprehensive investigation into his crime enterprise was completed. He was sent to Metris Prison in Istanbul. The prosecutor who indicted him on multiple counts in a long list of charges asked the court to sentence him to up to 145 years. The indictment revealed how he set up a broad network of corruption that involved judges, prosecutors, top bureaucrats, members of parliament and senior officials in the police department. In fact, when he was detained, he was trying to flee to Bulgaria by land after learning about the secret probe in advance through his contacts in the government. He was alerted to a pending police raid by Mustafa Baş, a lawmaker from Erdoğan’s party.
For example, the wiretap records that were included in the indictment revealed that Öztürk cultivated very close ties with Mehmet Ağar, Erdoğan’s close ally and former police chief who currently runs the main law enforcement agency in Turkey from behind the scenes. One of dozens of firms owned by Öztürk was listed as Metro Altın İşletmeciliği A.Ş., a gold mining company that had prospects in the Karşıyaka district of western Izmir province. He was having problems obtaining a license to extract the gold and called Ağar on Nov. 6, 2011 to ask him to solve the problem. It is quite interesting that Ağar, who was imprisoned at the time in the town of Yenipazar in western Aydın province, was freely communicating with an organized crime boss while he was supposed to be behind bars. Ağar was serving a five-year sentence for his role in another organized crime syndicate from 1996. A month after this phone conversation, the Izmir Governor’s Office approved the gold mining license for Öztürk.
He had other government officials on the take as well. The evidence showed that Abdulkerim Emek, a deputy undersecretary in the Prime Minister’s Office, helped the organized crime network when he was deputy chairman of the Capital Markets Board (SPK). He was passing insider information to Öztürk and protecting him from SPK investigators. After the evidence was revealed to the public, Emek resigned from his post in the government and took a job as CEO and deputy chairman of the board of directors of Metro Holding. Another charge against him was listed as bribing Hüseyin Koray, the general secretary of the Council of State, the top administrative court in Turkey. He had close ties to two members of Parliament, Mustafa Baş and Mehmet Mustafa Açıkalın, both from Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Although two serious legal proceedings were underway against him, Öztürk was released pending trial on April 18, 2012. He fled Turkey before the court proceedings were concluded. On Nov. 15, 2012 he was sentenced by the Beykoz 2nd Criminal Court of First Instance to serve 11 years, three months in prison on multiple charges. Moreover, the Istanbul 19th High Criminal Court sentenced him to life in prison on Oct. 18, 2012 on murder charges. Both convictions were upheld by the Supreme Court of Appeals.
With the judiciary fully subordinated to his rule in the aftermath of a false flag coup attempt that Erdoğan orchestrated in July 2016 in order to launch a mass purge of government officials including thousands of judges and prosecutors, the Turkish president lent a hand to Öztürk in whitewashing his criminal record. The Istanbul 20th High Criminal Court ruled on Oct. 11, 2016 that the execution of the life sentence in Öztürk’s conviction of premeditated murder must be halted. Likewise, the Beykoz court also suspended the conviction on Aug. 18, 2016. In the end, on Sept. 17, 2018, the Istanbul 3rd High Criminal Court ordered a retrial in Öztürk’s organized crime case. When all convictions were suspended and the outstanding arrest warrants against him were lifted, Öztürk returned to Turkey from Georgia, where he was living as a fugitive. While he was in Georgia and on the run from the law, he was in close contact with the Turkish Embassy in Tbilisi, where he invested in the gambling, casino and hotel industries.
But the evidence against him was overwhelming, and even the loyalist judiciary could not hush the case up. In the end, the General Chamber of the Supreme Court of Appeals upheld the conviction and life sentence of Öztürk on murder charges. The Istanbul 19th High Criminal Court ordered the execution of the sentence on Nov. 16, 2018 but did not issue an arrest warrant for him, which was unusual. Tipped off in advance and free to travel abroad with no restrictions imposed on him, Öztürk fled the same day, again to Georgia, to avoid prison time.