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Why are foreign mobsters, drug gangs attracted to Turkey? 

A wave of foreign mobster violence in Turkey has raised alarm that the country has become a safe haven for criminal kingpins from the region and beyond.
Turkish anti riot police officers patrol around the Sultan Ahmet Mosque during snowfall, Istanbul, Turkey, Jan. 8, 2017.

Bloody score-settlings and shootouts between foreign thugs have been on the rise in Turkey, stoking criticism that lax legislation and inadequate action on the ground have made the country a safe haven for crime bosses from the region and beyond.

Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu maintains the Turkish police have been highly successful against mafia rings, including in thwarting attempts by Balkan and Caucasian gangs to base themselves in Turkey. From 2016 to 2022, the security forces broke up 550 mafia-style criminal groups, among them 16 regional ones, Soylu said this week. Skeptics, however, believe that those groups are mostly “small fish,” given that the presence of big-time foreign criminals in the country often comes to light as a result of gang wars rather than police pursuits.

In one of the highest-profile murders, Jovan Vukotic, the leader of Montenegro’s notorious Skaljari drug gang, was gunned down in his car in central Istanbul in September by two hitmen on a motorbike. Members of a rival clan, Kavac, and their Turkish collaborators stand accused of the murder. 

The feud between the Skaljari and Kavac clans is believed to have claimed at least 50 lives across the Balkans since 2015, prompting Vukotic to move from Montenegro to Turkey. Vukotic had been arrested in Turkey’s Mediterranean city of Antalya in 2018 before being deported to Serbia and then to Montenegro, where he spent a stint behind bars. Soylu had bragged about the nabbing of Vukotic but, as it turns out, he was able to return to Turkey in October 2021 and obtain a residence permit, using a forged passport.

The investigation into his murder resulted in the arrest of four alleged members of the Kavac clan in Istanbul, among them two high-ranking figures. One of them, Radoje Zivkovic, had been deported to Serbia in 2018, but used a forged passport to reenter Turkey. His cellphone reportedly turned up pictures of a Skaljari member who was allegedly tortured to death after being abducted in Istanbul in 2020. The body is believed to have been buried in the garden of a posh villa in Istanbul but removed before the Turkish police launched the probe. The resident of the villa turned out to be wanted Serbian drug trafficker Zeljko Bojanic, who was arrested in November after entering Turkey in 2019 with a forged Macedonian passport. Bojanic is reportedly an associate of Darko Saric, dubbed the Balkan cocaine king, and had moved to Istanbul to escape gang wars.

For Timur Soykan, an investigative Turkish journalist who has authored a book on underworld vendettas, the events show that “Kavac leaders felt safe” in Istanbul. “The fact that they did not leave Turkey before the murder [of Vukotic] indicates that they were confident they would not be caught,” he wrote in a recent article.

In mid-January, an alleged Georgian crime boss, Revaz Lordkipanidze, was gunned down in the Black Sea province of Trabzon in what the media described as score-settling between Georgian and Bulgarian mobsters. Two Russians using a car with a Bulgarian license plate were arrested over the murder.  

Cengiz Erdinc, a Turkish journalist who closely follows the issue, told Al-Monitor that upscale restaurants in Istanbul and Antalya have become meeting points of the Russian-speaking mafia, involving Russian, Georgian, Azerbaijani and other gangs, not only to discuss important decisions but also for rituals to “coronate” senior mobsters as “vor v zakone” or “thief-in-law” — a status of authority over lower-ranking members. Lordkipanidze had held such rituals in Trabzon for six years.

According to Erdinc, an ongoing vendetta between once allied Caucasian gangs is traced back to a dispute about leadership positions at a 2003 meeting in Istanbul. He lists at least four Azerbaijani mobsters slain in tit-for-tat killings in Turkey since then, including high-ranking figures such as Rovshan Janiyev, who was gunned down in Istanbul in 2016, and Nadir Salifov, who was shot dead by his own bodyguard while dining in an Antalya hotel in 2020. An associate of Janiyev was killed in Istanbul in late October. 

Foreign gangsters pulled guns on each other in two separate incidents in crowded shopping malls in Istanbul in September and October. Earlier this month, New Zealand-born bike gang boss Duax Hohepa Ngakuru, wanted for drug trafficking and money laundering, was arrested in Turkey, where he had been reportedly living for some time. 

Ahmet Sik, a lawmaker for the Workers Party of Turkey, submitted written parliamentary questions to the interior and justice ministers last week, urging them to explain how so many foreign mobsters are able to harbor in Turkey. “Do the Interior Ministry and prosecutors investigate [them] only when score-settling murders occur and only within the scope of those murders?” he asked.

According to economy writer Bahadir Ozgur, Turkey has become attractive to crime bosses because it is relatively easy for them to enter the country and obtain residence permits, foster ties with people in the bureaucracy, the police and politics at low costs and set up companies with local partners to launder money. He recalled that Turkey offers citizenship to foreigners who would invest just $400,000 in real estate, pointing also to a law introduced several years ago that facilitated the entry of money of unknown origin to Turkey. 

“The character of the government makes things easier,” Ozgur told Al-Monitor, adding that Turkey lacks agreements on the extradition of criminals with many countries and often implements arbitrarily existing ones. 

“The Russian-speaking mafia, in particular, sees Turkey as a safe haven,” Ozgur said, noting that an intensified crackdown on drug traffickers in Europe and toughened penalties in Russia were driving crime bosses to Turkey. “They take a base here but do not carry out their activities here, which is why they [generally] remain untouched. And their score-settlings are not with the Turkish mafia,” he explained. 

Criminals from the Balkans have been able to enter Turkey with forged Macedonian passports even after North Macedonia busted a passport-forging ring involving policemen in 2021, Ozgur said.

For Erdinc, the mobsters are not “migrating” but rather “fleeing” to Turkey, mainly because of Russia’s introduction of heavier penalties against organized crime in 2019 and the gang wars that erupted in the Balkans in 2015 in the wake of Balkan Warrior, an international police operation that dealt a heavy blow on Balkan networks smuggling cocaine to Western Europe. They usually lay low in Turkey to escape the radar of the police, he said.

Turkey’s “lax” regulations on illicit money is a factor that draws foreign criminals to the country, but it is not the sole one, Erdinc argued. He noted that pressure on mobsters in Europe turned up in recent years after the authorities cracked or dismantled encrypted communication platforms such as Encrochat and Sky ECC, which were widely used by the underworld. “As a result, some fled to Turkey. They have a relatively relaxed environment here because the findings are not shared with Turkey,” he said. “They are in exile here, but this is not a migration — they are here only for a while. So, they run their operations from Turkey and, naturally, clash here.”

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