Sevda, a 22-year-old waitress in a brown apron, recounts how she made a small fortune running smuggled diesel from a village on Turkey’s wild and dangerous border with Syria. But the days when she could earn 20 times her salary waiting tables came to an abrupt end several months ago when police arrested her and slapped her employers with a massive fine.
The smuggled fuel came from oil wells in Iraq or Syria controlled by militants, including the Islamic State group, and was sold to middlemen who smuggled it across the Turkish-Syrian border. Western intelligence officials have alleged that Turkey is turning a blind eye to a flourishing trade that strengthens the Islamic State group, and Secretary of State John Kerry has called on Turkey to do more to stem the trade. Analysts estimate that the Islamic State group gets up to $3 million a day in revenue from oil fields seized in Iraq and Syria.
But in about two dozen interviews, Turkish authorities, smugglers and vendors along Turkey’s 900-kilometer border with Syria paint a remarkably similar picture: Oil smuggling was a booming business until about six months ago, when Turkish authorities ramped up a multi-layered crackdown that has significantly disrupted the illicit trade. Many of those interviewed, including Sevda, gave only their first name or asked for anonymity out of fear of reprisals by authorities or smugglers, who believe that reports in the Turkish news media led to the crackdown.
Turkish authorities say they have beefed up border controls, arrested dozens of smugglers and have gone after consumers with an extensive stop-and-search operation on Turkish highways where fuel tanks are tested for smuggled oil. The AP accompanied police on a tour of anti-smuggling measures in Hatay province, which has been the main smuggling conduit, observing new checkpoints and border patrols.
Turkey says it seized nearly 20 million liters of oil at the border in the first eight months of this year, about four times as much as in the same period the year before, while illicit fuel discovered on consumers has dropped considerably.
At the peak of Turkey’s oil smuggling boom, the main transit point was a dusty hamlet called Hacipasa on the Orontes River that marks the border with Syria. Hacipasa has been a smuggling haven for decades, authorities and residents say. As in other border towns, many families straddle the frontier and trade commodities like sugar and cigarettes back and forth without customs controls.
But Syria’s civil war and the capture of oil wells by Islamic State militants opened a giant market that made moguls out of some locals.
“Some people multiplied their wealth a thousand fold in a few months,” says a local gas station owner who declined to be named.
Over tea in his immaculate office, the chain-smoking man who has spent his life along the border says he witnessed the boom and the bust of the smuggling business. As smuggling took off last year and cheap has from across the border became readily available, 80 percent of his legal diesel business disappeared, he said. Since Turkey launched its crackdown, most of it has come back and business is now only 20 percent off what it used to be.