Missing Masterminds: Still No Details as to Who Organized the Largest Drug Smuggling Attempt in Armenia
Hrant Galstyan l Hetq
Salome Tsetskhlandze l Studio Monitor
Three years after Armenian customs officials seized almost a ton of heroin being smuggled in from Iran, the biggest drug bust in Armenia and the region, only the bus driver and the bus company director have been sentenced.
Armenia's law enforcement has yet to identify the masterminds behind the operation.
The story begins on January 17, 2014, when, according to a report released by Armenia’s National Security Service (NSS), 927.6 kilograms of heroin were discovered when a truck entering Armenia from Iran was inspected at the Meghri customs house.
The driver of the truck, Georgian citizen Avtandil Martiashvili, was arrested on the spot and charged with contraband transportation. Turkish citizen Osman Oğurlu, the director of the bus company was arrested a day later in Yerevan on drug smuggling charges. Both denied any wrongdoing.
More than three years of investigation have revealed precious little in terms of who organized this most daring of drug smuggling attempts. Certain names have been bandied about and a few details have surfaced regarding how Armenia and Georgia are used as transit countries for the drug trade, but no one else has been charged.
What we do know is that in April 2013, Oğurlu started a cargo transport business in Georgia called Hovo Logistics. He testified that he started the business in Georgia because the cost of cargo trucks there were cheaper than in Turkey.
The courts in Armenia concluded that the company was set-up solely to transport drugs.
Prior to 2008, Oğurlu worked as a truck driver for a Turkish company called Guvend Logistics. He mostly drove cargo to Iraq. Oğurlu testified that in 2008 he was found guilty of smuggling cigarettes and alcohol, and another time for wiretapping. He says he spent fourteen months behind bars.
In the case materials, there’s a document from the Armenian branch of Interpol linking Oğurlu with a 2008 attempt to transport 149 kilograms of heroin. Oğurlu denies any involvement.
After being released from jail, Oğurlu testified that he looked for work. Through a friend, he met Mustafa Nergiz, a Turkish citizen. Oğurlu had heard that Nergiz was a man of influence engaged in the drug trade.
“Mustafa met with me and proposed that I start a company in Georgia and that I buy a truck. He would pay me and tell me what to do. At first, he didn’t say what for, Oğurlu testified.
Oğurlu started a business with the money and purchased a truck at the Tbilisi car market for around US$40,000. He shipped the truck to Turkey to repair and paint it. Mustafa told Oğurlu that a secret hiding spot would be fitted in the truck. “I didn’t imagine it would be that large,” Oğurlu said.
Oğurlu had also been to the Ukraine and Russia, but wasn’t familiar with Europe. Mustafa had told him that the truck would be going to Europe and that he needed a driver. Oğurlu found Avtandil Martiashvili through the same man who sold him the truck.
60-year-old Martiashvili, a driver with almost forty years’ experience, had worked for a Georgian company called Sakavtotrans since 2009. He drove cargo from Georgia, Armenia and Turkey to Ukraine, Belarus, Poland and the Czech Republic.
“He always carried out his duties in a professional and honest manner,” wrote Sakavtotrans director Levan Tomaratze in a letter to Armenian law enforcement.
The leasing company cancelled its contract with Martiashvili in 2013. He and other drivers were jobless. Two months later, his friend Suleiman (who helped Oğurlu buy the truck), called him and suggested that he work for the company Oğurlu had recently formed.
Oğurlu testified that Mustafa wanted to see the truck be driven to Europe and back at least once. Thus, in November 2013, Oğurlu loaded the truck with pomegranates and left for Munich from the Turkish seacoast town of Antalya.
Armenia’s Interpol confirmed that the truck reached Germany and that no drugs were discovered.
On the trip back, the truck transported medicines from Poland to Armenia for Natali Pharm, a company owned by the family of Armenian MP Samvel Aleksanyan. The truck wasn’t x-ray scanned when it entered Armenia as per usual. The court in Armenia never ascertained why.
After unloading the medicine, Martiashvili then telephoned Oğurlu, telling him that he found some wood to ship to Poland. Oğurlu told him to forget it and drive the empty truck to Georgia. The two had trouble conversing in Turkish and Russian.
Oğurlu testified that Mustafa met him in December 2013, telling him that he wanted to ship hashish from Iran to Europe. “He explained that hashish wasn’t heroin or another strong drug, and that he would pay me 100,000 Euros for the job”. To get the truck to Iran, without any suspicion, they loaded it up with timber.
The truck left Tbilisi’s Elyava Market loaded with sawed timber in late December, on the way to Iran via Armenia. For the record, the job had been ordered by the Iranian Vesrt Teraber company.
Upon reaching Iran, Martiashvili and Oğurlu unloaded the timber at the Tehran customs depot and spent the next few nights, until the paperwork was completed, either in the truck’s cab or a hotel on the outskirts of town.
Martiashvili assumes the drugs were stashed in the truck during the two days they stayed at the hotel. The Georgian driver said that Oğurlu would periodically leave the hotel ostensibly to check on the paperwork or to meet the Vesrt Teraber company representative.
In Iran, Oğurlu met with Nasri, an Afghani in his early 50’s who was Mustafa’s man on the ground. Oğurlu testified that Nasri took the truck to load it with drugs. He later testified that Nasri told him they would be transporting sand in the secret compartment as a trial run. If the sand wasn’t found, they’d fill it with hashish the next time.
“When he handed me the key, they said it was sand, and there was nothing to worry about. If I knew it was drugs, it meant the two of us were going to our deaths. In Iran, you get the death penalty for this,” Oğurlu testified in court.
How were the drugs to be smuggled?
According to the plan devised by Oğurlu, the truck would drive through Armenia to either of the Georgian ports of Poti or Batumi. Martiashvili would continue by ship to the Ukrainian port of Illichivsk in the Odessa region. Oğurlu, given his fear of the water, would fly there.
As agreed, starting on January 19, Nasri would be waiting in Illichivsk for Oğurlu. They never spoke by phone. If they failed to meet in Odessa, Nasri would wait for them at a Kiev parking garage.
Oğurlu asked Martiashvili to draw the above map of the Tisa garage in Kiev. The phone number belongs to Martiashvili.
Oğurlu said that he would hand the map to a taxi driver to get to the garage. He gave another copy to Nasri who would give it to his intermediary to find the garage and the waiting truck. Nasri was to sell the truck's new trailer, taking the old one, loaded with drugs, from Oğurlu.
Oğurlu was to be paid when the exchange was made. The truck, or the trailer, was to be shipped to Holland.
“In case something unforeseen happened, Nasri was supposed to wait until we arrived,” Oğurlu said. If they didn’t meet in Kiev, Oğurlu said he’d either hand the drugs over to the police or burn it.
Oğurlu had told the driver they were transporting concentrates from Iran to Ukraine. In court, Martiashvili claimed he knew nothing about the drug transactions. He said he believed that the truck had been purchased to ship fruits and vegetables from Turkey to Europe. Martiashvili would be paid $1,000 in Georgia to drive the wood to Iran.
Martiashvili also told the court that, getting back into the truck in Iran, he noticed that the speedometer’s mileage had been turned down and didn’t show the 1,596 kilometers from Tbilisi to Tehran. Seeing that the driver had noticed this, Oğurlu said that his hand had accidentally hit the speedometer. The driver says that was the only time he gave the key to Oğurlu; so that he could grab some clothes. On the day of his arrest, police found a second key in Oğurlu’s bag.
“I gave the spare key to Nasri. Martiashvili didn’t know about it, and it was in my bag. Nasri took the truck and returned it to the garage the following day at around midnight. Me and Martiashvili spent those two days at a hotel.”
Heading to Armenia
The truck started the return trip to Armenia on January 15, 2014. It passed without incident through the Iranian border crossing the following day.
On its way through the Meghri crossing, Armenian customs officials asked Oğurlu to exit the cab. They examined the truck and spotted a suspicious section under the trailer by x-ray. Martiashvili told them the truck was empty. The driver opened the back doors to show the inspectors the truck was empty.
Customs officials began to rip up the floor of the trailer. They said that Martiashvili didn’t appear concerned and even wished to assist them.
In the meantime, Oğurlu, realizing that the drugs had been found, flagged down a cab and left for Yerevan. He had an entry visa.
Seeing a number packages in the hidden compartment, the truck was sealed and escorted to Yerevan. 47 large packages were removed at the customs depot.
Months later, Armenia’s Ministry of Finance revealed that the truck was being monitored as suspicious when it first entered Armenia at Bagratashen with timber destined for Iran.
Finding almost a ton of heroin
Armenia – An alternate drug smuggling route to Europe
Two months after the drugs were found, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) issued a report showing the traditional and new routes used to smuggle heroin into Europe.
Afghan heroin was historically smuggled into western and central Europe exclusively via Balkan route. The product was transported from Pakistan or Afghanistan to Iran and then to the Turkish border. In 2012, the Turkish government busted an attempt to smuggle 850 kilos of heroin to Germany and Holland. In July 2013, 718 kilos of heroin were seized at the Turkish-Bulgarian border.
In the past few years, due to intensified inspections and the installation of x-ray scanners at eastern Turkish border crossings, drug smugglers have sought alternative routes into Europe. The U.N. report suggests that these new routes can be via Iran’s border with the Caucasus or Iraq, thus bypassing the border with Turkey. Other routes see heroin being transported from Afghanistan, through Pakistan or Iran, to the Persian Gulf states and Africa, and then on to Europe.
It wasn’t only the 2014 bust in Meghri that led analysts at the U.N. to view the Caucasus as a new smuggling route, but also a July 2013 seizure by Georgian authorities of 116 kilos of heroin in a car with a Moldovan license plate being driven by a Turkish citizen.
Weight of seized drugs mysteriously decreased during the preliminary investigation
At first, Armenian law enforcement announced that the seized drugs weighed 927.6 kilograms. Stone fragments weighing 6.5 kilograms were later found within two of the packages. At the conclusion of the three-month examination of the case, the weight was officially reduced to 850.1 kilograms. Armenia’s National Security Service (NSS) has never gotten back to Hetq as to the reason for the discrepancy.*
The heroin packages and stone fragments found inside.
On the day of his arrest at Meghri, Martiashvili denied knowing anything about the heroin or that a secret compartment had been fashioned in the truck he was driving. He also told Armenian law enforcement that he had no clue as to Oğurlu’s whereabouts.
The taxi driver who took Oğurlu to Yerevan said that his passenger seemed ill at ease. When the driver received a phone call during the ride, Oğurlu always asked, “problem?” The cabbie said Oğurlu muttered a few words in Russian, and that they conversed by gesturing. Only when they reached Yerevan did Oğurlu ask if the Georgian border crossing was faraway. In Yerevan, Oğurlu conveyed that he wanted to find a hotel. The driver took him to the Congress Hotel, where he was arrested the following day.
Later, Armenian law enforcement asked Oğurlu if he hadn’t noticed that vehicles were being scanned, both after entering Armenia from Georgia and then when leaving for Iran. Oğurlu denied that he was promised assistance at the border. “I thought that if I was caught, no problem, let them arrest me,” said Oğurlu, adding that if such a thing happened he wouldn’t tell anyone. The cabbie testified that Oğurlu never made or received any phone calls during the ride from Meghri to Yerevan.
The truck used to smuggle the heroin
Armenia’s National Security Service estimated the value of the heroin to be $100-200 million. Each gram was valued between $100 and $200. Teymouraz Maysuratze, Martiashvili’s lawyer, said the stash was valued at around $1 billion.
“It’s assumed that Martiashvili would leave from Georgia to Ukraine by himself. If he knew about the drugs, no one would have trusted him with cargo worth $1 billion, right?” Maysuratze said in a conversation with Studio Monitor.
In January 2015, after a trial that lasted almost a year, Avtandil Martiashvili was sentenced to 17 years on smuggling charges and Osman Oğurlu, who ran the company that had leased the truck in question, got 19 years.
The trial. Martiashvili, seated to the left and Oğurlu to the right, with the court translators.
The day after the sentence was handed down, Martiashvili went on hunger strike demanding that international observers visit him in jail.
Leyla Martiashvili, Avtandil Martiashvili’s wife, has told us that her husband’s health has suffered greatly while in prison. “He has serious health issues. The stress and anxiety have led to diabetes. He’s not receiving proper medical treatment or nutrition. He requested a transfer to a civilian hospital but was denied.”
Avtandil Martiashvili’s relatives have petitioned the Armenian and Georgian governments to have him extradited to Georgia. Armenia has rejected the request, arguing that he hasn’t paid 1.4 million AMD in court fees. In a letter to the family, Armenian officials point out that the extradition to Georgia isn’t “regarded as expedient”. Here, the authorities are probably considering the fact that another criminal case pertaining to the organizers of the smuggling attempt is ongoing. Martiashvili’s relatives are now trying to ascertain if the extradition can proceed once the court fees are paid.
The case files
One portion of the criminal case continues
Martiashvili recounts that Oğurlu avoided public spaces when they talked by telephone. Oğurlu preferred to stay at out-of-the-way hotels. While Oğurlu said that he had no acquaintances in Georgia, he would meet with individuals at a Turkish restaurant in Tbilisi.
Oğurlu said he met with Mustafa three or four times in Istanbul. He maintained his link to Mustafa through the latter’s brother, Ismail Nergiz. Ismail used another name when talking to the driver Martiashvili. The last time Oğurlu met Mustafa was at a Turkish restaurant in Tbilisi the evening before leaving for Iran.
The Ankara restaurant in Tbilisi
The plan to smuggle the heroin through Armenia and onto Europe was well conceived. The major players remained in the shadows.
During the preliminary investigation of the smuggling attempt, and before the case involving Oğurlu and Martiashvili was sent to the courts, the NSS decided to separate that portion dealing with Mustafa Nergiz, Ismail Nergiz and the man calling himself Nasri.
In February 2017, NSS Department of Investigations Deputy Director Aghajanyan told Hetq that in August 2014 a decision was taken to postpone the case until more information was obtained regarding the identity and whereabouts of Mustafa, Ismail Nergiz and Nasir. The NSS refused to provide additional details on the matter.
The seized heroin was burnt on June 6, 2015 in a boiler at the Ararat Cement Factory.
If we believe the names revealed by Oğurlu to be real, then they correspond to the names of members of a criminal group arrested in Turkey in 2000.
During Operation Matador, 15 people were arrested by Turkish police during an attempt to transport 21 tons of marijuana and 600 kilograms of opium by truck. One of those arrested was a man called Mustafa Nergiz. While no one called Ismail was arrested, there was another man charged, Mehmet Bakir, with the last name Nergiz.
Another man arrested in 2000 was called Orhan. Oğurlu testified that it was a man called Orhan that suggested he work with Mustafa, when he got out of jail in 2009. The three – Mustafa, Mehmet Bakir and Orhan – were sentenced to ten years each.
Turkish police discovered a truck garage containing ten trucks on the Mersin-Tarsus highway. Oğurlu, in his testimony, recounts the names of Tarsus and Mersin. After the truck involved in the 2014 smuggling attempt was repaired and installed with a secret compartment, in the town of Konya, Oğurlu drove it to Tarsus.
According to local press reports, that gang was one of the largest international drug smuggling networks. Seven police officers were charged with aiding the gang and feeding them information. The ringleader, Urfi Çetinkaya, in the drug trade since the 1980s, was accused of transporting drugs from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran to Europe; mainly Holland and Spain.
He was later released due to health reasons and then arrested again in the Last Tango Operation.
Çetinkaya, paralyzed from the waist down, is wheeled into court (hurriyetdaily news.com)
During the case involving the smuggling attempt in Armenia, several names were given to the Iranian company (Vesrt Teraber, Vers Tarabar) that ordered the timber from Georgia. It can’t be ruled out that the company has ties to the gang since Oğurlu, in his testimony, noted that Ismail, in addition to other expenses, gave him money to buy the lumber and that, for shipping it, he received $5,000 from Nasir in Iran. It was Mustafa who came up with the idea of shipping lumber to Iran.
There are no details about this company in the court files. Iran’s corporate registry includes just one company with a similar name – Veresk Tarabar.
Oğurlu established another company in Georgia
During the tenure of Saakashvili as president of Georgia, several reforms were introduced to lessen bureaucracy and thus improve the business environment. As a result, it took only one day to register a company in Georgia.
In 2013, Oğurlu established OSM Trans in Georgia in addition to Hovo Logistics. This was twenty days before he left for Iran. It also sipped cargo, as well as importing and exporting cars.
The official address for the two corporations is the same – 78 Ketevan Tzamebuli Avenue, Apt. 11.
The owner of the apartment, Marineh Machavariani, told us that she has no recollection of Oğurlu, adding that she owns a company that facilitates corporate registrations. “He probably had no address and I allowed him to use mine. Sometimes, this happens,” she said.
Any other address, according to the public register, is registered as the company’s “other address”. Hovo Logistics’ “other address” is noted as 20 Iosebidze Street, where three apartments are registered. The owners rent them out and do not remember the name Osman Oğurlu.
20 Iosebidze Street, Tbilisi
The address of Oğurlu’s second company is registered at 12a Aleksandr Kazbegi Avenue. There are two office buildings there. Here too, no one’s heard of Oğurlu or his companies.
In the registration documents, one comes across the name of Mamuka Melatze as the applicant.
Studio Monitor contacted Melatze to ask about his link to Oğurlu and his companies. It turns out Melatze was merely the proxy for the registration process at the public register. Those who either don’t have the time or inclination to engage in the process, hire such proxies to do the job in their stead. There are some 350 such proxies operating in Georgia.
The public affairs division of Georgia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs told us that law enforcement bodies of the two countries collaborated on the case to ensure a fruitful investigation.
Furthermore, the ministry said that Georgia didn’t launch a separate investigation, given that the crime occurred in Armenia.
Oğurlu and Martiashvili are now serving their lengthy sentences in an Armenia penitentiary.
Armenia’s Department of Corrections refused Hetq’s request to interview the two convicts, arguing that due to a current work overload it would be inconvenient to do so.
* On April 27, after the publication of the article, the National Security Service responded that the 850.1 kilograms were the 'clean' weight of the heroin based on a chemical analysis, and that "the remaining portion was comprised of the drug packaging and the four stone fragments inside."
P.S. This investigation was implemented with support by n-vestigate.