ISTANBUL // Calm and sure-footed, a caravan of horses and mules, guided by men on horseback, moved through the bare mountains of eastern Anatolia. More than a hundred animals, some wearing decorations made of colourful pieces of cloth on their bridles, trotted along a winding path leading up the side of a narrow valley.
The scene that seemed like a sequence from a romantic movie about adventurers and explorers was captured on video and broadcast by Turkish media last week. But the pictures did not tell a story of some heroic expedition - they showed a large-scale smuggling operation. Each animal was carrying two large plastic canisters on its back, bringing smuggled fuel from Iran into Turkey. "A pipeline made of mules," as the newspaper Star called it in a headline.
Van, a poor province on Turkey's border with Iran, has become a centre for smugglers, officials say. The smuggling of gasoline and diesel oil, which is conducted by horse and mule in Van, and by fishing boats and other vessels in several Turkish ports, cost the Turkish state up to US$8bn (Dh 29.3bn) per year in lost tax revenues, according to news reports.
At the same time, the 450 kilometre-long Turkish-Iranian border forms an important part of a smuggling route for heroin from Afghanistan to Europe. Migrants trying to make their way from Pakistan or Afghanistan to Europe and beyond are also led through the mountains by traffickers.
"You can find all kinds of smuggling in Van," the province's police chief, Salih Kesmez, told Turkish reporters. In one operation last month, the Jandarma, a paramilitary force charged with police tasks in rural areas of Turkey, in Van seized more than 15 tonnes of gasoline and diesel and more than 70 horses that had been used to carry the fuel from Iran into Turkey.
According to Mr Kesmez, the reasons why people smuggle such huge amounts of fuel are simple. "In Iran, the neighbour of our province, gasoline prices are extremely low, and over here, they are high," the police chief said. "In order to balance supply and demand, diesel and gasoline are being brought from there into our country illegally."
Last year, a total of 1,932 suspected smugglers were arrested in Van, according to figures provided by the Jandarma. Authorities found close to 5,500 migrants who had entered Turkey illegally. They seized almost a million tonnes of diesel oil, roughly 1.3 tonnes of heroin, more than 750,000 packets of smuggled cigarettes, 440 kilogrammes of tea and 700 kilogrammes of sugar.
Although security forces have stepped up their efforts to control the border and catch the smugglers, the problem is unlikely to go away anytime soon. For many people in the impoverished region, smuggling is a necessity if they want to make a living.
"Unfortunately, there is no economic development" in the border region, Yilmaz Akinci, an economist and board member of the South Eastern Development Centre, a non-profit group conducting research in poor areas of south-eastern Anatolia, said in a telephone interview this week. "In those villages, there are only two possible sources of income: animal husbandry and smuggling."
When last week's reports about the "mule pipeline" triggered a lively debate among internet users about the smuggling problem, Mustafa Ormanci, a reader of the internet edition of the Hurriyet newspaper, warned his fellow Turks they should not blame people in the border region in comments posted on the Hurriyet website. "As somebody who did his military service down there, I have seen how people live there," Mr Ormanci wrote. "This is their only way to get by," he added, referring to smuggling. "It is easy to pass judgment from an armchair."
With a per capita income of about $4,000 (Dh14,700) per year in 2007, less than half the national average, Van is among the poorest provinces in Turkey. Without a significant economic upturn in the region, large-scale smuggling will continue to be a problem in Turkey's south-east, Mr Akinci said. "In the short term, I don't think there will be a solution," he said.
While smuggled fuel, cigarettes, tea and sugar are destined for the Turkish market, drugs and migrants move on towards the West. Turkey is part of the so-called "Balkan route" for heroin, experts say. "A route linking Afghanistan to Iran then through Turkey represents the shortest distance to European consumer markets," the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, the European Union's drug watchdog, said in a report last year. There are an estimated 1.3 to 1.7 million users of heroin in Western Europe.
In Van, the smuggling problem is complicated by the suspected involvement of Kurdish rebels, who are active in south-eastern Anatolia, and even government officials have been implicated in the drugs traffic.
This week, the Milliyet newspaper reported that prosecutors in Van opened an investigation against a former colonel of the Turkish military for suspected participation in the illegal drugs trade of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Mr Akinci said smuggling was hard to eradicate, because "a lot of people are getting rich". Mr Kesmez, Van's police chief, said the PKK rebels did not get involved in the smuggling of drugs but taxed those using the mountain routes.
Mr Kesmez saidthe PKK "uses the way of collecting protection money from those who come from the border".
The money the PKK makes from the drugs trade is believed to be one of the main sources of income for the rebels, who have been fighting for Kurdish autonomy since 1984.