DEA Istanbul Office Chief Mark Snyder: Bulgaria, US Outstanding Partners in Fight against Narcotics
Interview with Mark Snyder, Chief of the Office of the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in Istanbul, Turkey, which also covers Bulgaria.
DEA is a law enforcement agency under the US Department of Justice combating drug smuggling and use in the USA and helping coordinate relevant efforts with other nations around the world.
What do you responsibilities entail? What does the DEA office in Istanbul do?
The way the DEA is organized is that we cover regions. Right now one of my responsibilities in Istanbul is to cover Bulgaria. By that we mean to work with our counterparts in the Embassy and also to work with the Bulgarian government against narcotics and money laundering.
Inside the USA the DEA is a police agency and we do federal policy investigations. Outside the United States we partner with the people in the host countries in areas all over the world, and we help them identify and target the organizations that are trafficking drugs, laundering money, and dealing with other types of criminal activity.
The Bulgarian government of Prime Minister Borisov has received a lot of praise by senior US officials. What is your view of the cooperation between American services and the Bulgarian government?
Our cooperation with Bulgaria is outstanding. What we do is work with Ambassador Warlick and with other officials in the Embassy in Sofia, and our job is to assist the Bulgarian government and also to look after United States' interests.
In all of these areas the Bulgarians have been outstanding partners. We actually have an officer based in Sofia to work with GDBOP (the Bulgarian unit for fighting organized crime – editor's note), and what they do is exchange information, identify targets together, and then we attack the organizations that commit the crimes.
We've never made a suggestion, or asked for help that we didn't receive – the Bulgarians have been very good partners.
I think that some of the successes we've seen in Bulgaria recently with the seizures, the arrests show the extent of the partnership. That is not the USA telling the Bulgarian what to do or vice versa. It is the two countries working together as partners.
Sometimes we ask the Bulgarian government about what to do, we ask for their advice and they are very open with that, from the Prime Minister down. Interior Minister Tsvetanov has been a very good partner, obviously Interior Secretary Georgiev, and the entire chain in command in the Bulgarian Interior Ministry all the way through the Prime Minister's office have been very helpful and I think the results of that have been the arrests and the seizures that we've seen so far.
How would you describe the drug trafficking problem through Bulgarian territory? There are announcements all the time that the Bulgarian police and customs capture large drug shipments. But there is also the impression that some of the shipments are caught while others are allowed through.
Obviously, we are very happy when we see the seizures because they show that the men and women in the police and the customs service are doing their job. It is quite probable that there are narcotic shipments that are not being seized and caught but we don't know about those, obviously.
I cannot say what percentage gets through just because we don't know. If we know about a shipment, we help the Bulgarian government to try to seize it and make arrests.
I would say that the narcotics situation in Bulgaria is very similar to the drug problem in other countries in the region – Greece, Romania, Turkey.
Obviously, Bulgaria's position in the European Union is very important, because, as you know, there is a tremendous amount of commercial shipping that goes through Bulgaria en route to the EU – Germany, Holland, the UK, etc. The overwhelming majority of that is legitimate shipping.
However, there is a small percentage that is illegal shipping, narcotics, and the criminal organizations know that if they are able to get narcotics in the EU, it is more difficult to seize them because of the way the EU works on customs rules and laws, and searching containers.
No matter whether it is heroin coming out of Afghanistan, or whether it is cocaine that's from South America through Africa, or amphetamines, illegal money, money from drug sales. All that is a problem in Bulgaria but it is the same kind of problem as in the rest of the region. I don't think Bulgaria's problem is dramatically different from the other countries in the region.
Can you elaborate on each of the more specific drug trafficking schemes – the heroin from Afghanistan, the cocaine from South America – in terms of trends? There have been reports that trafficking from both of these destinations has been increasing.
The proximity of the Balkans to Afghanistan and Pakistan makes the Balkan region very susceptible to having heroin shipped through its territory en route to the larger consumers markets.
Most of the evidence shows that the biggest consumer market for the heroin out of Afghanistan is in Western Europe. So you have heroin that's being shipped in many different ways – trucks, shipping containers, sea vessels, etc. The heroin is being shipped from the source country to the consumer markets.
A certain percentage of the heroin might stay in Bulgaria for use but most would agree that the overwhelming majority continues on to the larger consumer markets in Western Europe or elsewhere.
That is a very big problem that we are concentrating on with our Bulgarian partners and with the Embassy not only we want to help protect Western Europe but also because a lot of information shows that the money from heroin trade is being used to support different kinds of extremist movements around the world – the Taliban, Al Qaeda, the PKK in Turkey, the Islamist movement in Uzbekistan – those organizations traditionally have used narcotics money to help fund their activities.
Those types of organizations are of great concert to all of us in the region – to the Turks, Greeks, Bulgarians, the US. So one of the things we are trying to do is stop the heroin trade and prevent the drug money from making its way back to any criminal organization but especially these extremist groups.
A large percentage of the world's cocaine still comes out of Central and South America. But what we have seen – there is a lot of information about this on the Internet, open source information – that these criminal organizations are now using West Africa as a stop-over point of the cocaine, and as the cocaine is making its way from South America through Africa, and then into Europe.
Again, much for the same reasons as with the heroin – the goals is to get it to the consumer markets in Europe and other places around the world. DEA and the US Embassy in Bulgaria partner with the Bulgarian government to go after these groups that are moving the cocaine.
I would like to stress that in all of these cases partnership is crucial. And while having two people partner is good, having more partners would be better. So another thing we want to show is that the US is very happy the Bulgarians in what's known as the SECI – the Southeast European Cooperative Initiative, which is a regional center for combating trans-border organized crime headquartered in Bucharest.
It is police from all over the Balkan region, and the USA, coming together to identify targets. So in this one center you've got American, Bulgarian, Romanian, Turkish policemen, etc – targeting criminal organizations. That center provides a really great opportunity to exchange information, etc.
So what will happen is that the Bulgarian representative in that center will with work with the offices in Sofia or other parts of Bulgaria. Most of the investigations that we have now are in several countries simultaneously. Using tools such as the SECI center we can get rid of national boundaries for the police. We can attack the same organization together.
The Bulgarians have been very strong supporters of the SECI center, and we have all benefited a lot from having all those countries work together in Bucharest at the center.
In addition to heroin and cocaine trafficking, we also have synthetic drugs which are a huge problem in the USA, in the Balkans. We've been working with Bulgaria not only to go after amphetamines and labs but also to go after the chemicals that they are made of.
One of the things about amphetamines is that the chemicals they are made of can be bought legitimately or they can be bought on the Black market.
Our best successes to date are seizing large quantities of chemicals that can be used for synthetic drugs such as the seizure of silicon hydrate – this is a substance used primarily for processing heroin, although it can be used to make synthetic drugs. With the help of the Bulgarians, the SECI center, we have seized 21 tonnes in the last year of this silicon hydrate. So it is a good opportunity for us to attack the drug problems by going after these chemicals.
Bulgaria has actually been an exporter of amphetamines since the 1960s. How does the situation look today in terms of Bulgaria being a source country in this type of drug trade?
I can tell you that right now the Bulgarians are leading the chart regionally in trying to go after synthetic drugs.
I know that we have a lot of other trends coming in – such as Iran-sourced amphetamines, for example. It is quite possible that there might be synthetic drug labs in Bulgaria, we partner with the Bulgarian police to try to find them.
I have been told by my Bulgarian counterparts that there has been a dramatic decrease in the amount of labs that have been seized, and that would show us that they are doing a better on trying to reduce that problem.
You are also dealing with money laundering. Where do Bulgarian organized crime groups stand in that and drug trafficking activities?
These are global problems, and we have a global approach to them. As part of the work that we are doing with the Bulgarian counterparts we have seen both foreign based criminal organizations, and we've been attacking those very hard, and we've seen Bulgarian organizations, and have also tackled them strongly.
Obviously, the Bulgarian groups have better access to resources in the country. We realize that and we know that the Prime Minister and the Interior Minister have made combating organized crime one of their priorities, and we, the DEA and the US Embassy are ready to help them every step of the way because we know that these illegal activities provide funding for a lot of illegal activities. By seizing the drugs, we protect the people from them, and we also deny those organizations that source of funding.
You have seen with your reporting that Bulgarian criminal organizations also have the ability to commit crimes in part of the world as well.
With respect to Bulgarian mafia groups going international – how strong really are any Bulgarian organized crime outside Bulgaria?
They are strong enough. We are aware of their operations outside of Bulgaria, and we work to try to stop that activity. Whether it is operating in Europe, the US, or South America, any time we get information of a Bulgarian criminal organization we are going to go after it. If we find out, we are going to attack such an organized crime group equally strongly elsewhere – from the top to the bottom – whether it is in the streets of Sofia or in the streets of Miami.
There are Bulgarian organized crime groups working outside of Bulgaria. Again, that's where partnerships such as the SECI center are very important.
Do any drugs trafficked through Bulgaria go to the United States?
The criminal organizations are doing many different types of crime. If I am investigating a group that is dealing with drug trafficking but then I also find out that they are using ATM skimming devices in the US, I can go to our friends from the Secret Service at the Embassy in Sofia and help them target that organization.
So for us, although fighting narcotics trafficking and money laundering are our main responsibilities, we have many different people we can work with. I don't know to what level Bulgarian groups are directly in the USA, but we investigate every single case we learn about.
We've got really great partners there at the Embassy – the Secret Service, the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, all types of different organizations, lawenforcementwise, from the United States.
One of the nicest things for the relationship between the Bulgarian and the US governments is that we are all leading the same fight. Our goal is to help the Bulgarian government attack the organizations they have identified, and to protect the United States. We do it all as one team, as one effort. We get together regularly. There is no difference on the level of help that the Bulgarian government and people will get from the US Embassy.
It has been mentioned that the DEA plans to open an office in Sofia. Is that expected to happen any time soon?
We hope it will happen as soon as possible. It's a very high priority for DEA, for Ambassador Warlick, we know it is a high priority for Prime Minister Borisov and Interior Minister Tsvetanov.
What I promise to the Embassy and the Bulgarians is that DEA is going to support them 110%. Even though I don't have a full-time office in Sofia, I have an officer working and living there. Although he is assigned official to the DEA office in Istanbul, his main responsibility is to support the US Embassy in Sofia and the Bulgarian government on all the things that they are trying to do.
The relationship between DEA and the Bulgarian government is outstanding. We get a tremendous amount of support from the US Embassy, the Interior Ministry, the Prime Minister's office, the Finance Ministry which oversees the customs service.
The partnership that DEA has with our Bulgarian friends is what we would wish to have in many other parts of the world because it has been so successful. And it is a partnership. It is built on trust, on working together as a team for a common goal.
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