In one of the biggest hauls in recent times, security forces discovered and destroyed 5,430,704 cannabis plants Wednesday in a counter-narcotics operation in the southeastern province of Diyarbakır and confiscated 63 kilograms of cannabis.
Local officials said raids on the fields in Diyarbakır's Lice district were part of a larger operation targeting the PKK terrorist group suspected of having hideouts in the region. A statement by the Diyarbakır Governorate says the operations were a crackdown on places used by the PKK militants both as hideouts and weapons depots and also aimed to "find evidence on links between suspects involved in illegal drug production and the terrorists."
Along with cannabis plants, 15 caves in the region used as hideouts were destroyed, while there was no word if any suspects in connection with the cannabis were detained.
Gendarmerie forces conducting the raids found plants in 72 different locations, mostly small fields in a mountainous area and discovered an irrigation system made of 25 kilometers of pipes. The governorate said the amount of seized drugs "surpassed those seized on June 26," when more than 1.2 million cannabis plants were discovered.
In recent years, Turkey stepped up efforts to cut off drug supplies to the PKK. The terrorist group is accused of trafficking narcotics to fund its violent campaign. Active in the country since the 1980s, the group targeted civilians, soldiers and police officers for decades, killing thousands of people in three decades. Its attacks are mainly focused in southeastern Turkey where it recruits militants as well.
Lice, where Wednesday's operations were carried out, was the scene of anti-drug raids in the past as well. A small district with a population of about 26,000 people, Lice has a slow economy apart from agriculture and livestock breeding and had the unfortunate fame of becoming a hub of PKK-controlled drug production. The district is also known as the place where the PKK was founded in 1978.
Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu says the terrorist group "controls almost the entire drug market in Europe." Speaking at an international event in Istanbul on Wednesday, Soylu said it was estimated that the PKK earned $1.5 billion from drugs yearly. "Turkey and its wider region are in the middle of a snowballing threat. Our country is located on a route where synthetic and 'organic' drugs change hands and are smuggled. The drug trade is the most important source of revenue for global terrorism," Soylu warned. The minister said they launched more than 62,000 counter-narcotics operations across Turkey this year.
A report by the Interior Ministry says drugs are the main income for the PKK, a small group whose leaders are believed to be hiding out in mountainous regions of northern Iraq but still manages to orchestrate attacks inside Turkey. The Interior Ministry report shows that the terrorist group is heavily involved in the drug trade, from the production of narcotics to their delivery, distribution and sales. In July 2013, security forces destroyed around 2 million cannabis plants in Lice in a major counter-narcotics operation. Counter-narcotics operations and tightened security measures have led to a decline in profits from the drug trade. Experts say Lice and the southeastern region are favored for the cultivation of cannabis because its climate is favorable and because the mountainous terrain hinders easy access by security forces. Although no concrete numbers are available, authorities believe about two-thirds of the illegal cannabis cultivated in Turkey is grown around Diyarbakır.