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There is no longer a need to prove the way in which, from North America to the Philippines, drug trafficking is used as a counter-insurrectional tool by governments seeking to put down challenges. In the Kurdish regions of Turkey (Bakur), colonial power is also using this lever in the repression it has long been conducting against the Kurdish autonomist, social and environmental Kurdish movement. Following the civil war of the 1990s and the scorched earth policy that emptied thousands of villages, repression has taken on other, more underhanded forms: they aim at destroying all political commitment in youth. Reportage in Northern Kurdistan’s “capital”.

By Loez published in french on Ballast

Sur, Amed, 2021 / Loez

In the chill of winter, night falls on the town of Amed (Diyarbakır, in Turkish). Inhabited by over one million people, it is considered the political and cultural center of the Kurdish regions inside Turkish borders. In the alleyways of the working-class neighborhood of Bağlar, sodium street lights cast an orange tinge. “In half an hour, special forces will set up checkpoints at the entry points into the neighborhood and this street will be full of dealers,” laments Mehmet1, a youth activist from the HDP, the main progressive opposition force in the country2. He points out a pipe of waste water at the foot of an electrical pole; it is filled with a murky liquid in a soda bottle. “Look, there and there… Consumers dope themselves in the street and the police doesn’t budge. The dealers act with full impunity.” With a group of young militants, we go to meet an influential personality from the neighborhood. He invites us to sit down in a neighbouring restaurant. Glasses of hot tea are served. But he has barely realized that this is a foreign journalist putting questions to him concerning the increase of drug trafficking that his face becomes distorted. He jumps out of his seat and runs out of the restaurant, after mumbling he doesn’t want to risk answering.

“In the fall of 2021, the HDP’s youth movement launched a wide campaign against the use of narcotics in several large towns in Kurdistan.”

Faced with the increase in the use of narcotics, and notably of hard drugs such as crystal – methamphetamine – the HDP’s youth movement launched a wide campaign against the use of narcotics in several large towns in Kurdistan. This is in keeping with the political paradigm of democratic confederalism, adopted by the Kurdish movement since 2005. In order to tackle a number of political and social problems, it promotes autonomy and self-government at a daily level, of populations faced with the repressive State. By organizing activities for young people, through door-to-door calls and mediation, these militants attempt to block a phenomenon that has become endemic. “We began this campaign in September”, explains Serdar*, a member of HDP youth who has participated in organizing some actions. “We have defined the stages: the first is raising awareness, the second is mobilization with the NGOs and the third consists of offering alternative lifestyle environments for young people. At the end of the campaign, we are considering creating an association providing cultural and sports activities, as a proposal for young people lacking sociocultural activities”. Hüseyin* grew up in the Bağlar neighborhood. He was a drug user before the youth movement helped him free himself from his addiction. Despite his young age, his body is frail, his face is marked by deep wrinkles and scars. He says: “I was also dependent, previously. But I have stopped. My family was poor, and that was an advantage for the enemy. At first, you become accustomed and once you are hooked, they attempt to turn you into an agent. Once your body has become addicted, it’s as if your brain became paralyzed and you have to do everything they tell you. Plus, you just don’t realize: you find yourself in a swamp, ready to disappear at any moment. I’m currently in a reconstruction phase, I’m attempting to get over it. But it’s a hard period.”

amed drugs

March 2016, Amed, Şehitlik neighborhood. Prior to 2015, the YDG-H the clandestine Kurdish youth movement fought against the dealers / Loez

According to Serdar, a sharp break occurred in 2015. “Between 2015 and 2016 in Kurdistan, during the autonomy period3there were intense clashes; But before that, the Kurdish youth movement was fighting against the use of narcotics, and drug use had diminished quite a bit. Following the war phase where the State saw how youth had been able to organize and confront the army, it deployed counter-insurrectional tactics. The policy of drug dependency is part of it.” Expansion of drug trafficking has also occurred in the winding back alleys of Sur – the old historical town of Amed, surrounded by high black basalt walls. – in the working-class neighborhoods of Bağlar and Şehitlik, in the high-toned cafés favoured by the middle classes and wealthier ones in the neighborhoods of Yetmişbeş and Dicle Kent. “The trafficking doesn’t hide anymore. The places where you can find drugs are known by everyone. When you look at the streets of Amed, there are thousands of surveillance cameras and at night, there are hundreds of police vehicles covering the town. Hundreds of checkpoints. For us, the authorities never interfering offers proof  this traffic is carried out under State control” continues Serdar. An observation reinforced by knowledge of how the regime deploys police forces at the slightest sign of political activity: hundreds of police agents can be mobilized, sometimes only in order to surround a group of a few people reading a public declaration. Moreover, in the Kurdish regions of Turkey, incidents involving State repression forces in drug matters are not lacking. On July 8 2012, the independent newspaper Taraf published as top news the photo of a commissariat in the region of Lice, Northeast of Amed, with a view directly on cultivations of cannabis. In the same town, at the end of 2021, seven gendarme officers were accused of conveying drugs. Three were sentenced to prison; the others, including the commander of the post, were acquitted. “There are families attempting to mobilize in the face of this, and who call on us, identifying persons handling the selling. They tell us: We went to the commissariat, nothing was done, we are afraid, we are not safe. Following this, we launched this campaign,” adds Serdar.

“Apart from the will to de-politicize, State forces are using drug use for massive recruitment of informers among the users.”

Drug use has destructive social effects. “People using these products lose their ability to reflect and to exercise control over themselves. Some throw themselves off buildings. Many have lost their balance, have fallen or have jumped off the walls of Sur. After consuming, some harm their kin or themselves or sometimes commit suicide. Beyond overdoses, several people have died because of gang conflicts”, continues our interlocutor. In a society in the grips of a full economic crisis – these past months, it has been subjected to record inflation as the Turkish lira’s value fell – consumers often resort to theft or prostitution in order to obtain what their addiction requires. Serdar takes out his phone to show us a video. In a bare environment, a man is crouched on a mattress on the floor. In tears, he delivers what appears to be a confession and admits selling drugs to young people. The activist details the context in which this video was recorded: “A family came to see us, saying they had been robbed. Following some research on our part, we learned that the stolen objects had been resold to a shop selling second-hand objects. The owner told us this person heading these actions was a partisan of Hizbullah 4in the neighborhood, that he had the youth commit the robberies and that he then provided them with drugs.” And Hüseyin adds: “When we look at Kurdistan regions, prostitution and drugs are very common. This was implemented voluntarily by the enemy in order to isolate youths, detach them from their people, and keep them removed from politics. It’s a strategy because, when a community no longer has any youths, it is sentenced to die. The enemy knows this very well.”

Apart from the will to de-politicize, State forces are using drug use for massive recruitment of informers among the users: by threatening to imprison them if they don’t provide information, and by rewarding them with money or drugs. Serdar details a well-rehearsed process, one found in a number of cases: “A week ago we were informed that a young man was selling drugs – he is from a patriotic family, one of his brothers is one of Sur’s martyrs. We talked with him. At first, he was subjected to incarceration on political grounds. Following his liberation, he was kidnapped a number of times by the police. They told him: ‘We will be like older brothers for you, we will will support you, but don’t get involved in political activities’.” Following this, this young man contacted drug suppliers. He negotiated with the police telling them: “‘I want to be a transporter between Amed and Antalya’ [Note: a bit over 1 000 kilometers separate the two towns] And they accepted. Many young people who had some political commitment are tamed this way. Once they have made them dependent, either financially or with drugs, authorities can have they do all their filthy jobs. These networks work with State officers, and when not directly through such a one, via people recruited for this purposes, such as partisans of Hizbullah or members of nationalist homes.” Young women are targeted through specific policies, trapped and pushed into prostitution and collaboration through blackmail: a formidable weapon in a society with customs that are still very conservative.

Drugs Sur Amed

March 2021, graffiti on alleyways in Sur / Loez

In some neighborhoods known for their support of the Kurdish movement, notably in Sur, the development of drug trafficking has intensified in parallel to policies of “urban renewal”. In fact, these consist of chasing inhabitants and moving them to large buildings located in the surburban zones where they are mired in debt to pay for the purchase of an apartment. Solidarity links are broken; this is one way of slowing down political mobilization. The arrival of drugs in the streets is an additional reason pushing inhabitants to leave, despite their initial refusal. If, in the past, families – and sometimes, even the police – would turn toward the HDP to resolve problems in the neighborhood, following the repression that has struck this Party 5 the population has lost faith in his ability to intervene. “We must make the population understand that when you adopt the right approach, you can get results. Because when we talk with the families, we realize they are convinced no one can do anything anymore. They tell themselves: ’ Let it stay far from me, from my children, let it stay out of my house. The rest is not important’. But if drugs are in the neighborhood, it is almost inevitable that they will enter your home. That is what is happening now: in many homes, there is at least one young person using drugs! There then follows the damage caused by this youth, the suffering inflicted on the family. Drug dependence has caused a trauma at the heart of society”, states Serdar.

“That is what is happening now: in many homes, there is at least one young person using drugs!”

Faced with this phenomenon, the families feel helpless. Many fathers aged between 45 and 60 years say the same thing to us. They say they fear for their children and that they will not be heard by them, that they pretend to listen before getting back to their lucrative activities. Most of the time, the population is averse to turning toward the police – its collaboration with the dealers is well known. And even should they do so, the police does not follow up on complaints. The targeted dealers regularly place themselves under protection from the police and, sometimes, the family that pointed them out finds itself accused of selling drugs. On the other hand, those close to young people arrested for drug use are often offered their liberation in exchange for hefty pay-offs – a practice that has become commonplace in Turkey in order to avoid a sentence. One of these fathers thus told us: “Parents pay out a lot of money, of gold. My neighbor, two of his children were arrested: he paid out 150 000 TL [Note: representing over 10 000 €] to the prosecutor in order for their children to be liberated.”

The campaign by the youths from the HDP is not without its difficulties. Because the State does everything it can to raise obstacles. “The strongest pressure comes directly from him. He told us openly that we were not authorized to conduct these activities. At the beginning of the campaign, we had to hold a public meeting: a common practice for associations and political parties; But when the day came, dozens of armored vehicles and anti-riot ones were mobilized in the neighborhood! An enormous pressure. We were surrounded. Afterwards, when we tried to discuss matters with the authorities, we were told that they were doing all that was necessary and that no one else would be authorized to conduct activities in this matter. In several neighborhoods such as Bağlar, Fiskaya they have attempted to sabotage our activities. There have been controls on identity, students were threatened to have their bursaries suspended, they have intimidated our members. Some of them have been subjected to surveillance.”

drugs in the Kurdish regions of Turkey

March 2021, surveillance cameras in the Şehitlik neighborhood, heavily hit by drug trafficking / Loez

Since the launching of the autonomous campaign, the police has announced its own anti-drug operation. But, for Serdar, this is nothing but media posturing. In fact, the traffics keep on prospering, or, at least, some of them inasmuch as some political benefits can be obtained from them. “The Security in Amed is conducting a so-called anti-drug action. But the families have told us that in the café right beside the commissariat, the trafficking is ongoing and nothing is being done about it. Quite the contrary: they are offered tea, cigarettes. Many of the dealers with whom we have spoken say that, if the State is fighting against the use of marijuana, nothing is being done against methamphetamines, on the other hand, as well as crystal and similar narcotics circulating massively. There is a strategy of persuasion consisting of pretending the State is facing up to it, whereas they are at the source of the problem.”

“The walls of Amed bear witness: over a few years, graffiti praising various mafia groups have blossomed all over town.”

Despite all these obstacles, the youth of the HDP have organized with the progressist SES public health union, in offering aid to persons wishing to break their dependency. Although there are one or two rehab centers in Amed, they are insufficient. Even more so since reports point to patients being exposed there to nationalist propaganda. “This is why, instead of working with these centers and transmitting information to them, we contacted SES,” Serdar says. “They provide medical treatment for those who want to stop. Form a psychological and social perspective, we take care of them personally, we set up activities for them.”

Moreoever, Turkish media contribute, in a form of soft power, in normalizing the use of drugs and glorifying figures of banditry through televised series, much viewed by the population.

“The walls of Amed bear witness: over a few years, graffiti praising various mafia groups have blossomed all over town.” At the highest levels of the State, drug use is flaunted in full impunity. Such as with the young wolf, member of Erdoğan’s party who, when he isn’t shown at the side of the Minister of the Interior Süleyman Soylu, is filmed sniffing cocaine. After the video was shared on social networks, he claimed it had been powdered sugar… A topic for jokes all over the country now. As a matter of fact, on several occasions links were revealed between the Erdoğan regime and drug trafficking. In 2021, the co-pilot of a private jet in Brazil aboard which 1,3 tons of cocaine were seized, declared the plane belonged to Ethem Sancak, a businessman close to the president. That same year, mafioso Sedat Peker made a series of long video confessions as revenge for having been shoved aside from power centers: in the videos, he revealed the deep links he had with the government and detailed certain criminal actions he had conducted personally. There is nothing new in these practices: the mafias and power often have close ties in Turkey. In 2020, under pressure of the ultra-nationalists of the MHP (Parti d’action nationaliste), Erdoğan had Peker’s rival liberated, the famous mafia chief Alaattin Çakıcı, known for his work with the Turkish secret services during the sinister years of the 1990s.

A bitter father concludes: “In Bakur, they force consumption of chemical products and in Bashur (Kurdish autonomous region in Irak), they use chemical weapons. And the world remains silent.”

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Translation from French by Renée Lucie Bourges
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Photo-journaliste indépendant
Loez s'intéresse depuis plusieurs années aux conséquences des États-nations sur le peuple kurde, et aux luttes de celui-ci.