|The war on drugs — from İstanbul to the mountains of southeastern Turkey|
Arguably, the worst evil in the world today is drugs. Tens of thousands are kept in dependency, their lives torn apart by an addiction they cannot shake.
|It drives many to petty crime to feed their habit. Others in their own country cynically become rich as they exploit their clients’ habits, pushing drugs to the vulnerable, even offering free first tries to get people hooked. Pan half-way around the world to South America, or in the other direction to Pakistan and Afghanistan, to find robber barons becoming rich from their harvests that are destined to destroy the lives of many. And in between are the organized crime rings that smuggle raw materials across borders, refine and process them into drugs, and distribute these pills and powders to the dealers and pushers. It is suspected that the proceeds of this whole sordid industry do not just line the pockets of the super rich at the top of this ugly food chain but that used to finance wars, civil wars and terrorism. The war on drugs is closely linked, through issues such as arms-smuggling, to the war on terror.
Because of its geographical position at the crossroads of two of the most important trade routes in the world — east-west from Europe to Asia and down south through the Middle East into North Africa, Turkey cannot escape from being used as a conduit for drugs en route to the streets of Amsterdam, Paris and London. Ancient roads that used to transport china, silk, tea, spices and emeralds now see some convoys of a far more lethal nature.
Keeping friendly relations with Turkey is important for European governments for very many reasons. One that is not often mentioned during ministerial visits is that Turkey is often the first line of defense for Europe against the drug trade. Cooperation between European governments and police forces with Turkish ones is effective in tracking the path of these potentially destructive powders, and with the intelligence gained from their partners in Turkey, European customs officers and law enforcement agents can make seizures and arrests as soon as the goods reach their borders.
George Ellington explores this murky world of the drug trade and its link to terrorism in Turkey in his fast-paced thriller, “The Beast in the Blood.” We first meet his hero, Alex Soysal, a half-Turkish half-American member of the İstanbul Narcotics Team in a stake-out outside the Bebek mansion of drug lord Bekir Halas. Alex and his fellow cops are “fighting a seemingly endless war against a growing number of dealers, druggies, mules and several exceedingly wealthy families.” But this raid has surprising results. The guard dogs have been shot dead, and on entering the building Alex and the team find the drug lord’s daughter, Ebru, shot dead. Her assailant is still in the house, and the dark shadowy figure turns their gun on the police, Alex included. However, in the last few seconds before he is hit, Alex sees the assailant with an envelope in his hand, seemingly stolen from the safe in the mansion.
The drug lord is dead too, in an incident that has all the hallmarks of a Russian hit. After Alex asks his colleagues about the envelope and is met with a stone wall of silence, he overhears a shadowy conversation of his chief inspector’s:
“You just deal with Alex Soysal.”
“You think he knows?”
“Why else would he be here now?”
“Don’t take any chances. Find him. And kill him.”
When the chief inspector himself disappears shortly afterwards, Alex is wrongly implicated. His one chance of survival is to run, and to try to locate the envelope and solve the mystery behind it.
His adventures take him throughout İstanbul, to a number of other drug lords’ mansions, seeing more hits and being viciously attacked himself a number of times en route. On the run, and pursued by the police at every turn, he finally discovers the envelope contains a narcotics seizure list, all initialed by an officer from the anti-terrorist squad — the mysterious “OS.” Sadly, things have gotten worse for Alex, and he doesn’t know whom he can trust, as he travels to Ankara, to the offices of the Anti-smuggling and Organized Crime Bureau (KOM), to the source of the vital piece of paper.
There, he discovers the link to terrorists and to five villages in Elazığ province. Suspecting that an army major is the next on the hit list, and getting himself entangled in live operations against a breakaway Kurdish terrorist group from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Alex discovers the link — that some villagers are employed by İstanbul drug barons to ship heroin to the big city in return for weapons. These weapons come south to them from the Black Sea, and it is to Amasya that Alex must go to discover who is the shadowy figure behind the whole operation, and to face the final showdown with an assassin who has been tailing him all the way.
Alex Soysal is a man with a mission because his own life had been destroyed by drugs some years before, and he has only just recovered. He also seems to be some form of super hero: I lost count of the number of times he single-handedly fought off more than one professional thug at a time, or how he managed to be severely beaten but then back on his feet within a few hours, running across the country as if very little had happened. Towards the end of the story he does have to hobble on a stick due to a shattered knee, and people are beginning to notice he has a few blood-stains on his clothes, but you or I would have been confined to bed with severe internal bruising many days before. But this is all part of the genre! A few weeks ago I had to suspend similar disbelief while watching Angelina Jolie in the film “Salt.” All of the other elements of a good thriller are here, too.
We have the good cop represented by Alex’s partner Barış — “they share a dislike for crooks and their chief inspector Kemal” — and Kemal is a bad cop. We have bad guys who have all fallen out with each other — the drugs emperors of the Halas family, the Erdoğan family and Şişko Hilmi — all with their own hired thugs.
We have the beautiful but lethal female assailant, who could have stepped straight off the set of a James Bond film. Alex is helped by a savvy intelligence officer from the US embassy, who is an expert on Öktem’s group that split from the PKK when Abdullah Öcalan was arrested. We meet brave army officers, and one or two sinister characters amongst them, the villagers who have become rich quickly, and other villagers scared to talk. Suspects disappear, or are killed before Alex can speak to them. Oh, and don’t forget, he himself is dodging arrest or murder at every turn.
On the surface this tale is escapist fun, but it deals with reality in a thought-provoking way. Turkey is portrayed not as the source of the problem, but the victim trying to deal with it. The major expresses the agony of all those involved in Turkey’s fight against drugs as he snarls, “Maybe if you people did a better job of putting away the dealers and dopers then we wouldn’t have to worry so much about our end of things. There wouldn’t be this goddamn problem with drug runners if there weren’t no demand.”
About two-thirds of the way through the pace falters in a few places, and perhaps the book could have been shortened by a few chapters, but this is in general an adrenalin-racing chase around the darker realities behind the balance of power in parts of the country. The morphine base entering Turkey through Iran and then being processed and smuggled on causes damage not just on the streets of Europe, but also scars those who live on its deadly route.
“The Beast in the Blood,” by George Ellington, A Yellowback Mystery, published by James A Rock & Co. (2010) $19.95 in paperback ISBN: 978-159663425-1
|MARION JAMES İSTANBUL|