October 12, 2020


The Vampire Ship: How the seizure of Europe's largest heroin shipment created bloody fallout throughout the world--and sparked still-raging political corruption scandals in Turkey, Greece, and the Middle East (Alexander Clapp, September 28, 2020, New Republic)

On April 28, 2014, a fishing trawler intercepted an oil tanker in the Gulf of Oman, a day after the tanker had left Dubai for Greece. Three men climbed aboard the tanker and spent the night packing hundreds of small sacks of heroin, weighing at least two metric tons in total, into its ballast boxes. After they finished, two of the men sailed back to the coast. One stayed behind. He carried a handgun and ordered the tanker's crew to keep sailing.

By late May, the tanker, which was called the Noor One, had passed through the Suez Canal. Early on the morning of June 6, it nosed into Elefsina, a grimy port just west of Athens. The next afternoon, four Kurdish men in a black Mercedes SUV pulled up in front of the ship, hauled the sacks of heroin out of the Noor One's ballasts, and began transporting them toward Athens.

The Kurds had spent years preparing for the heroin's arrival. They had negotiated to pay more than $20 million for the Plaza Resort on the Attic Riviera, planning to use the tourist destination as a money-laundering site for proceeds from its sale. They had leased a warehouse and an industrial chicken coop in the olive groves near Athens International Airport; here, the Noor One's heroin would be diluted with more than five tons of marble dust from a quarry on nearby Mount Pentelikon. To transport the shipment, they had purchased a forklift and several hundred canvas bags stamped "Pakistan White Sugar." In early May, an associate from Belgium had arrived in a cargo truck outfitted with secret compartments. The truck was supposed to move most of the heroin to a port in northwest Greece, then across the Adriatic by ferry to Italy. From there, it would be distributed to the street corners of Belgium and the Netherlands, kicking back hundreds of millions of euros to its owners.

All the pieces were in place, in other words, for a latter-day Mediterranean sequel to The French Connection. But as was the fate of that famed heroin transaction, the Noor One deal quickly unraveled. Four days after the oil tanker reached the port at Elefsina, a figure on the fringe of the operation, unnerved by the idea of trafficking heroin, entered a police station. He explained that somewhere outside Athens a huge haul of drugs was being prepared for export. The next day, Georgios Katsoulis, the head of the Piraeus branch of Greece's coast guard, was informed--on the basis of this insider's testimony--that "half a ton" was to be found in a small town east of the capital. On June 11, Katsoulis sent five of his men to observe the squat cinderblock warehouse where the heroin was supposed to be held. The next evening, at around 9 p.m., Katsoulis dispatched 30 armed agents to surround the building.

"We got some sense of what we were dealing with when the dogs went berserk," Katsoulis told me. "Normally they sniff the heroin and move right toward it. But in this case, there was so much heroin, the dogs didn't know where to go. They just started convulsing and barking violently."

Inside the warehouse were six Kurds and Greeks, 500 kilograms of uncut heroin, and a handgun. Katsoulis's team arrested the men without struggle and took them to Piraeus. At approximately the same time, another coast guard squad raided a mansion in the lush Athenian suburb of Filothei and found another half-ton of heroin stacked in its garage.

Over the next several days, the plotline shifted from The French Connection to The Wire: Greek intelligence services picked up one member of the operation after another and flipped them. To hide the identity of the original informant, the police also arrested him or her; at the same time, they allowed others with known ties to the operation to escape. "It was important to make it unclear who'd talked and who hadn't," an officer told me.

On June 22, acting on information from one of these sources, Katsoulis's officers stormed the chicken coop near Athens airport and discovered another ton of heroin. In Elefsina, thanks to a tip from a different source, they swarmed the Noor One and arrested its crew members. Another source eventually led them to Dubai. By August, 33 people were in custody. Greek authorities had disrupted the largest known movement of heroin in European history.

But that was just the beginning of the story. The seizure of the drugs shipped on the Noor One has triggered a long series of seismic aftershocks in Greece and around the world. The planners of the smuggling operation have turned on one another in a war of retribution that has left at least 17 people dead on three continents. Phone records are exposing scores of police whom the smugglers bought off, from Turkey to the United Arab Emirates. In Greece, an investigation into the Noor One captivated the national press--and then spurred a new wave of public interest in the case via a preliminary criminal trial and the rise of a new media magnate. The country's current prime minister and one of his predecessors have accused each other of having connections to the heroin. And an ongoing investigation into who funded the Noor One threatens to ensnare Greek oligarch Evangelos Marinakis, one of the most powerful figures in global shipping and soccer.

Posted by at October 12, 2020 5:35 PM