While Turkey was locked down in quarantine and the political arena was relatively quiet, the underworld has been rather vocal. The pandemic has been the pretext for an extensive de facto amnesty covering some 90,000 inmates of Turkish prisons. The draft law passed through parliament in April was tailored skillfully to exclude ‘crimes of thought’, i.e. thousands of journalists, political activists and opposition figures who are accused or convicted essentially under anti-terrorism legislation. As a result, the release was mostly applied to the convicts and detainees of non-political crimes, including the mass release of organized gangs.

A mafioso and a nationalist hero 

The leader of the far right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), Devlet Bahçeli, had been lobbying the presidential circles for this parole since 2018, which he described as the release of the ‘prisoners of fate’. It is well known that this description refers primarily to Alaattin Çakıcı, the notorious mafia chief of the 1990s, and his accomplices. Çakıcı’s connections with the MHP date back to the late 1970s when he was involved in nationalist hit squads. After the 1980 military coup, he was charged with killing 41 leftwing activists but released in 1982 for lack of evidence. After his release, Çakıcı, as some others like him, was involved in both organized crime activities and violent secret service assignments in Turkey and abroad. This portfolio forms the profile of Çakıcı as a mafia chief and a nationalist hero at the same time.

However, while in prison on charges including forming an armed group and involvement in the murder of his wife, his nationalist mafioso mantle was claimed by another gang leader, Sedat Peker, who is known for his brutal methods and alleged illegal business. Observers suggest that in Çakıcı’s absence and with support of official circles, Peker consolidated his power over the underworld of Istanbul and across the country. Peker associates himself with nationalist values and makes public statements threatening President Erdoğan’s political critics such as saying “I will shower with their blood”, of the 1128 academics who signed a peace petition in 2016. 

Video wars

Probably because he sensed the forthcoming release of Çakıcı, with whom he had engaged in a verbal duel in recent past, Peker fled Turkey in January. He initially said his reasons for staying abroad were to allow him to complete his higher education. Following Çakıcı’s release however an unprecedented duel of videos started on YouTube. Some underworld figures of Çakıcı’s circle began to challenge Peker with insulting and threatening speeches asking him to return to Turkey. Some of Peker’s former associates have begun to publicise confession videos revealing information about a range of crimes, including murders, which Peker allegedly committed or ordered. Peker responded to this battle cry with equally obscene language in videos shot at his Montenegro residence.

In order to grasp the importance of this duel, it is necessary to look at what is at stake. The exact volume of illegal business dealings in Turkey is impossible to estimate but a report from 2003 on national economy states that “the summary balance of payments for the net error and omission category – basically unexplained income – is $4 billion.”  This is only the tip of the iceberg because another report dated 2013 states that drug generated money, the most important illegal business item, is estimated around $15 billion per year. According to Interpol, “Turkey is a major staging area and transportation route for heroin destined for European markets”, and is the “anchor point” for the Balkan Route. Underworld business dealings are not limited to drug trafficking. Arms and human smuggling, money laundering, racketeering and extortion, land speculation, manipulation of business tenders are among the long list of organized criminal activity seen as rife in Turkey.

Mafia Chiefs and Ministers

Taking all these dimensions into account, earning `the nationalist hero chief of underworld` title would look like a cause worth dying for. For the underworld experts, the exchange of video insults is only the prologue of a bloody confrontation between the two crime organizations. Çakıcı’s release seems to have moved some foundation blocks in the underworld and this mobility in the fault lines will inevitably rattle the earth.

The early signs of the imminent earthquake were felt in another recent video by Peker, where he claimed that he had to flee Turkey upon hearing that the Minister of Finance Berat Albayrak was preparing a criminal lawsuit against him. “Mr. Berat surely wants to destroy me” Peker claimed. 

The nature of the personal hostility between the president’s son in law and a mafioso can only be speculated on. Some point out that when Albayrak and his brother were allegedly involved in the unregistered oil trade from Syria and Iraq during Albayrak’s term as the energy minister in the 2010s, Peker was organising ‘humanitarian aid’ convoys to Syria. Others suggest Peker’s organization thrives on tributes from Istanbul region’s business transactions, which Albayrak wants to take over. Some commentators go as far as to associate Peker’s challenge with the ongoing dispute between Albayrak and the Minister of Interior Süleyman Soylu and even relate the latter’s resignation saga in mid April with the controversies in the underworld. In fact, Çakıcı, in one of his open letters to President Erdoğan, had targeted Soylu calling him “bald and ugly”. 

Peker would later amend his statement claiming that Gülenists had set him up against Albayrak. A truce between Çakıcı and Peker following a phone conversation between two chiefs has also been the talk of the town recently. In fact, the appearance of abusive videos on YouTube, which entertained the nation during the pandemic lock down, has ceased in parallel to these news. In the meantime, Çakıcı visited Bahçeli to thank for the latter’s efforts for his release where he also expressed gratitude for President Erdoğan for the amnesty. This is real development on his stance from 2018 when Çakıcı wrote to Erdoğan: “You are not the owner of the state. Don’t forget. The real owners of the state are nationalists. You are only temporary.”   

The virtual storm has thus been replaced with calm. The disputes between the two mafia chiefs, between Çakıcı and Erdoğan, between Çakıcı and Soylu, between Peker and Albayrak all seem to have cooled down. But the accounts are yet to be settled. The consequences of the video duel are expected soon to be seen. Current silence could well be the calm before the real storm, when barrels are cooled and weapons are reloaded. And the underworld mobility is likely to shake the political landscape even further.

Criminalization of politics and the politicization of the mafia

If the question of why should political power elites be concerned with the settling of accounts between gangsters is raised, clues to its answer can be traced to this 1998 statement by the drug baron Hüseyin Baybaşin to the Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise: “After every single transaction, certainly half the money would go to the Turkish state. To us it was like tax in exchange for the all round protection we were getting.” Baybaşin had a Turkish diplomatic passport on him when captured by the British authorities; so did Çakıcı when arrested in France in 1998.

There may have been changes in the relations between the underworld and politics in Turkey but nevertheless the relations between criminal chiefs and the politicians and bureaucrats can still overwhelm the political agenda. This may be due to the increasing criminalization of opposition in the discourse of the authoritarian order under which the meaning of politics is reduced to force and violence: an environment suitable for criminal activity to be perceived as politics. As politics is criminalized, mafia is further politicized.