By Alexander Clapp/September 28, 2020, in The 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, 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.
The killings represent the most straightforward part of the saga—even if sleuthing them hasn’t been. They began three months after the Noor One was seized. Early on in the criminal investigation, authorities in Greece had allowed the most crucial figure in the operation to escape: the driver of the black SUV that had picked up the heroin when it arrived in Elefsina in June 2014. An Iranian Kurd, he sometimes went by the name Mohammed Diesel. Fearing arrest, Diesel had flown to Istanbul and pleaded with a childhood friend named Naji Sharifi Zindashti to smuggle him to safety into Dubai. Thirty years earlier, Zindashti and Diesel had been sentenced to execution in Tehran on heroin trafficking charges. Together they broke out of Evin Prison by killing a guard. Diesel fled for Pakistan, Zindashti for Istanbul.
Over time, Zindashti came to occupy a remarkable place in the maelstrom of Turkish politics. It is widely believed that in the mid-2000s he brokered ties with a political cell called Ergenekon. Members of the group—including many police and army officers—plotted to overthrow then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government and restore a hard-line nationalist regime to power. Zindashti was imprisoned again for heroin trafficking in 2007, but was released early for allegedly informing against the most prominent members of Ergenekon. His Turkish police file claims that as soon as Zindashti was released from prison, he slipped back into the underworld, this time channeling cash into the Gülen movement—the transnational Islamic organization that fueled dissident activity against Erdoğan—possibly in exchange for immunity offered by judiciary and security services aligned with that movement.
Sources with underground connections from Amsterdam to Istanbul told me that Zindashti owned hundreds of kilos of the Noor One’s heroin. Other figures who owned stakes were Diesel and at least four other Kurdish gangsters—men based in Dubai, Amsterdam, and Brussels. The timing of the Noor One’s departure for Greece, in April 2014, meant that their heroin had almost certainly been synthesized and purchased the prior autumn. At least 20 million euros cash was paid to Iranian or Afghan producers. They entrusted their product to a Greek oil broker whose incentive for the job—perhaps a large fee, perhaps a cut of the cargo—remains a mystery.
At the time of the Noor One’s seizure, all that the far-flung network of gangsters aligned behind the deal knew was that someone had ratted on them. They also knew that someone with a history of informing existed in their ranks: Zindashti. “You spoiled our plans, you spoke against us, you stole from us, you made fools of us,” one of these gangsters wrote to Zindashti in September 2014, in an email retrieved years later by Turkish police. The barely concealed threat in this message was anything but idle. Two weeks after Zindashti received that email, his white Porsche was rolling down an Istanbul boulevard when rounds of bullets ripped through its doors, killing the driver and passenger. Zindashti himself was not in the car.
The driver was his nephew, the passenger his daughter; both were on their way to classes at Istanbul University. “You couldn’t manage a simple cleanup job,” one of the Noor One’s funders in Belgium texted the gunmen, after the bungled assassination attempt. “I was expecting something like this,” Zindashti uttered coldly at his daughter’s funeral. “And I know exactly who did it.” But if the other funders of the Noor One weren’t absolutely certain that Zindashti had been the rat, Zindashti couldn’t tell for sure which of those funders had attempted to murder him. One grim fact is indisputable, though: Over the next four years, more and more people who were potentially connected to the failed assassination attempt and the death of Zindashti’s daughter started turning up dead.
In late December 2014, on the European coast of Istanbul, the men alleged by Turkish police to have killed Zindashti’s daughter and nephew were shot by an unknown assassin. Three days later, an Amsterdam-based cocaine lord who owned a chunk of the Noor One’s heroin was shot in the head as his black Bentley sat at an Istanbul traffic light. Before the year had ended, the mangled corpse of Mohammed Diesel—Zindashti’s partner in crime, who had initially helped set all this carnage in motion—was reportedly fished out of the Sea of Marmara, peppered with gunshots and chained to an anchor. “I punished ... him,” Zindashti informed a partner, in a text message later reprinted in a Turkish newspaper, apparently convinced Diesel had played some role in his daughter’s murder. “I killed him.”
The body count continued to rise. The following spring, Cetin Koç, a gangster involved in the Noor One deal—and another former inmate at Evin Prison with Diesel and Zindashti three decades earlier—was gunned down by three men as he was sitting in his sports car on a street in Dubai. Days after the killing, United Arab Emirates authorities informed their Canadian counterparts that the assassins had flown to British Columbia. A week after that, a farmer was strolling through his blueberry patch an hour east of Vancouver when he stumbled upon the body of one of those alleged assassins, chewed through with bullets. Days later, the body of the other was found in a burnt-out car several miles away.
In January 2015, Dutch newspapers reported the shooting of a cocaine trafficker with ties to a Noor One funder in Panama City. Two years later, the brother of the gangster killed in Dubai was kidnapped from his house in Tehran and executed in a dog pen in southeastern Turkey. Nine months after that, the prominent attorney of another funder was gunned down with an Uzi while out to breakfast with his family in Istanbul. Just 17 days earlier, he had warned a courtroom, “I might not make it to another hearing.” By April 2018, 13 people connected to the Noor One had been assassinated. Four others had died in suspicious circumstances. “Zindashti is a person who kills his enemies without hesitation,” Zehra Özdilek, a journalist who has covered the turf war for the Turkish newspaper Cumhuriyet, told me.
Despite these claims, Zindashti has never been successfully convicted for a single murder. Police were regular visitors to his Istanbul villa as the killings were being carried out. Greece, where the Noor One remained docked all this time, was to be the most consequential source of conflict over the deal once the bloodletting started to abate. The criminal case that gradually took shape around Europe’s largest-ever drug bust became a national obsession in a Greek social order already roiled by other forces of globalization—the European Union’s bailout of the flailing, debt-ridden Greek economy on the one hand, and the political crisis over refugees on the other. Amid such convulsions, the case of the Noor One offered a gruesomely cathartic distraction from the country’s other troubles. In Greek newspapers, the Noor One is known as the “vampire ship”; the fallout from its bust gets reported in conspiratorial and, indeed, almost supernatural terms.
Whenever the Noor One appears about to fade from national headlines, the story seems to will its way back into the fore. News flutters in of another strange murder, another inexplicable resignation of a prosecutor, another bomb in the mail. “THE NOOR ONE KILLS AGAIN,” read an Efimerida ton Syntakton headline in November 2019, after the death of the sixteenth person tied to the ship. Against the backdrop of the extraordinary sacrifices the EU has exacted on Greece’s economy and political system for continued membership in the union, the Noor One saga also invites no small amount of introspection about exactly what kind of country a decade of financial austerity and technocratic tinkering has produced. Greece still—barely—claims membership in the all-business EU trading bloc, but it’s also a place where police get stalked and threatened, witnesses die in jail, and powerful interests can marionette the legal system with impunity.
Such, at any rate, was the dominant impression left by the official Greek investigation into the Noor One deal. From the outset of the inquiry in the fall of 2014, police efforts in Greece were dogged by a bizarre series of disruptions. Three weeks after the seizure, a 24-year-old Dutch national, Ebru Tok, arrived in Piraeus and visited the Kurds in prison, claiming to be their legal counsel. It wasn’t until the following year, after her phone was tapped by Dutch authorities, that Greek intelligence was informed that this woman was a money carrier for the Kurdish mafia—and discovered that she had left behind as much as €200,000 in cash in Greece during her stay. Perhaps she’d given money to the imprisoned Kurdish men to keep them quiet, or she may have left them with instructions about how best to keep mum on the details of the deal when they were interrogated about it. But Greek investigators know one thing for sure: After this visit, anything the accused Kurds told police—about the critical question of who owned the heroin, for instance—could no longer be trusted.
Within a year, some of the accused could no longer tell the police anything: They, too, began to die off, albeit in less overtly violent fashion. In July 2015, one of the Kurds who had unloaded the heroin from the Noor One was transferred from the prison where he was held to an Athens hospital, where he died of heart failure; the autopsy attributed his death to a stroke resulting from a pulmonary edema. Prison authorities did not open any investigation. It became harder to explain how, nine months later, the Noor One’s mechanic complained to his prison guards about an upset stomach, was rushed to a Piraeus hospital, then pronounced dead on arrival. That autopsy also indicated heart failure.
What was happening? In October 2015, the trial began against the 33 defendants arrested in connection to the Noor One, with charges ranging from drug trafficking to evidence tampering. Before the proceedings could start, a witness escaped to Kiev with a laptop, said to contain crucial correspondences regarding the ship’s funding, that was never seen again. Weeks into the trial, the presiding judge was forced to step down. In the coming years, three prosecutors would also abruptly step down from the state’s legal team. Soon enough, the maelstrom stretched beyond procedural matters into the realm of physical threats.
In May 2017, a prosecutor on the case was granted round-the-clock security after a couple of men were spotted on security cameras breaking into her apartment building and secretly observing her comings and goings. Several members of the judiciary and coast guard received letter bombs or bullets in the mail. In June 2018, the police informant who had pointed Greek authorities to Dubai was killed in a suspicious car crash. It also seemed that Greek journalists reporting on the story had been targeted. In June 2016, the charred remains of Panagiotis Mavrikos, a reporter investigating the ship, were found in his burnt-out Porsche on a highway north of Athens. In March 2018, an unidentified assailant pulled a handgun on another journalist in the Hilton Athens as he arrived for an interview about the Noor One.
Gradually, one key figure came to occupy a central role in all the intrigue. For two years following the bust, Greek investigators and prosecutors dug into the backstory of an Athenian named Efthymios Yiannousakis, who had begun leasing the Noor One in 2012. A swaggering oil broker who owned a fleet of convertibles, Yiannousakis had inherited a handful of nightclubs from his father, who had been beaten to death outside his own bar in 2009. Two years later, Yiannousakis relocated to Dubai. Weeks after acquiring the Noor One, he outfitted it with a Togolese flag—thereby granting the ship and anything that happened aboard it immunity from most international jurisdictions—and had it sailed from Piraeus to the Persian Gulf. In 2014, six days after the Noor One reached Elefsina, Katsoulis’s agents found half a ton of its heroin in a mansion in Filothei that belonged to Yiannousakis’s ex-wife.
In August 2016, Yiannousakis received a life sentence on drug trafficking charges. When I met him at Korydallos Prison last July, he told me that one of the first contacts he made in Dubai was with the Iranian Kurd who called himself Mohammed Diesel. They started doing jobs together. Yiannousakis would dispatch the Noor One to Iran, where it would pick up contraband fuel from fishermen; he sold this fuel to Diesel, who found additional buyers at higher prices. In early 2013, after a year devoted to the fuel scheme, they decided to move into heroin trafficking. “Diesel had many contacts in Pakistan in the heroin business,” Yiannousakis told me. “And he had this friend called Zindashti who had clients in Europe.”
Diesel made several trips that summer to Istanbul to pool some €20 million from those Kurdish funders who, apart from Zindashti, are all now dead. “I had no idea who these guys were,” Yiannousakis told me. “If you showed me a photo of them, maybe I’d recognize them. But I don’t know anything—I couldn’t tell you right now how much a kilogram of heroin costs.” According to Greek prosecutors, in 2013 Yiannousakis’s business partner in Piraeus had licensed an offshore company with the eventual aim of using it to launder profits from the Noor One. That same year, the relatives of a funder in Belgium set up additional front companies to buy the marble dust and Pakistan White Sugar bags. The next spring, Yiannousakis hired a crew of Indian men whom he arranged to pay through a network of shipping agencies.
From January to March 2014, Yiannousakis told me, a series of sit-downs between key figures—including Diesel, Zindashti, and Yiannousakis himself—took place “in hotel lobbies around Palm Jumeirah” in Dubai. At these confabs, Yiannousakis said, the partners arranged to divide the profits and to distribute the heroin across Western Europe from its Greek landing point. Despite claims to the contrary, Yiannousakis was no stranger to the heroin business, as investigators into the Noor One case soon learned. “They procure big quantities of hard drugs from Albania, which they then send to other countries,” reads a 2010 Cypriot police file on Yiannousakis and his brother. Four years later, months before the fateful departure of the Noor One, Yiannousakis’s tugboat was passing through the Red Sea when Egyptian authorities attempted to inspect it; Yiannousakis ordered that craft, the Calisto, to be burned before it could be boarded.
Based on Yiannousakis’s equivocal track record in the narcotics trade, it’s likely he did some fast talking at these Dubai planning sessions to arrange for the resource commitments necessary to pull off a deal on such a staggering scale. Consider the logistics alone: The Noor One’s passage through the Suez Canal required a $40,000 toll. Investigators are not convinced Yiannousakis paid it, speculating that his limited cash reserves at the time couldn’t absorb the fee. It stood to reason, in other words, that another player was likely making the bigger connections and arrangements necessary to pull off the Noor One deal—someone covertly overseeing the ship’s provisions, holding collateral for its cargo, and perhaps profiting off it behind the scenes, with Yiannousakis acting as a stand-in for the silent partner. “The true owners of the Noor One are being hidden,” Katsoulis repeated three times in courtroom testimony delivered in May 2019. Indeed, by that time, Greek investigators could demonstrate that at least one other person—apart from Zindashti and the members of the operation who were subsequently jailed or assassinated—had known about the Noor One before it departed Dubai for Greece. This figure was one of the richest and most influential men in Greece.
Evangelos Marinakis is a huge man, encircled almost everywhere he goes by bodyguards clad in black. He’s also someone very much used to having his way. A gallery owner in downtown Athens once told reporters the story of a valuable painting Marinakis wished to purchase from her. She claimed not to have it for sale. Two days later, a group of men stormed the gallery with cups of yogurt, which they tossed on her. By 2012, 13 years after inheriting a fleet of tankers from his father—Miltiadis Marinakis, a shipowner born into a clan of Cretan bell makers—he had taken full ownership of one of Greece’s most famous soccer teams, Olympiacos. He began converting Piraeus, the Mediterranean’s second-largest container port, into a virtual feudal holding. He bought up blocks of its real estate. He sponsored food drives for refugees disembarking at its quays. He adorned its streets with statues of Greek heroes. He put himself forward as the patron of its working class.
In May 2014, as the Noor One was steering into the Suez Canal loaded with heroin, Marinakis was pivoting to politics. That month, he won a seat on Piraeus’s city council. He pushed the investor-friendly agenda of the center-right New Democracy party, which became Greece’s ruling party after elections in 2019. A collection of newspapers he purchased in 2017 lauded its leadership. Marinakis is close to the party’s president, Greece’s Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, and Mitsotakis’s sister, Dora Bakoyannis, the former mayor of Athens and mother of its current mayor. At Bakoyannis’s wedding in July 1998, Marinakis was best man. As his clout continued to grow, Marinakis has emerged as a global financier to be reckoned with. In 2017, he bought the historic English soccer club Nottingham Forest for £50 million, even as he was under investigation for a match-fixing scandal back in Greece, which involved an alleged bombing of a local bakery. Marinakis denies any wrongdoing, and the trial surrounding the scandal is still ongoing.
Marinakis also made allies in Beijing, which in 2016 acquired the port of Piraeus for a pittance as part of its Belt and Road Initiative, designed to further loop global trade flows through China. In Washington, he mounted another front of the international charm offensive, which culminated in a $1.7 billion merger in 2018 between his tanker fleet and Diamond S Shipping—a concern in which Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross’s private equity firm holds a large stake. Overnight, Marinakis presided over one of the largest tanker contingents on Earth. Still, the main new hub of Marinakis’s sprawling commercial empire is the Persian Gulf. Over the last three years, his fleets have clinched successive tenders to handle transportation for Iraq’s new state oil company, Aissot—tenders in which Baghdad pays $23,000 per day for every ship it rents from Marinakis to transport its oil around the world.
But at just the time all this had been happening—the acquisition of soccer teams and the amassing of armadas and the clinching of lucrative oil contracts—authorities back in Piraeus were investigating Marinakis and three of his associates on claims they set up a criminal organization that financed the trafficking and sale of narcotics. Marinakis also denies these charges. His potential connection to the Noor One, if it is proved out in court, would mean that one of Greece’s most powerful men may have climbed to global prominence on the back of a titanic heroin deal. And if he had been in on the ground-floor planning for the Noor One deal, he managed to profit off the Noor One where so many others lost their fortunes or lives.
Marinakis’s alleged connection also invited the question of what he may have done over the years to quash evidence of his involvement. “Are any of the witnesses to Marinakis and the Noor One still alive?” asked the leader of a surging populist party in Greece’s Parliament in November 2019. The same month, a satirical news site ran the headline: “WITNESSES ARE GETTING THEMSELVES KILLED TO FRAME INNOCENT SHIPOWNER.” In a Piraeus courtroom, over the course of three years and hundreds of hours of testimony and cross-examination, hardly a witness or prosecutor or judge had ever spoken Marinakis’s name aloud. But outside the slow-moving legal inquiry into the Noor One deal, a new, even more damning story was told about Greece. A decade of austerity had just gutted the nation’s gross domestic product by a third and wreaked financial havoc on its working class. But its shipping magnates—Marinakis foremost among them—had just reaped greater profits than ever. This windfall came their way thanks to legislation passed under Greece’s 1967–74 military dictatorship that rewarded the country’s shipowners with minimal tax rates, and thanks to a political class that failed to punish them when, even at the height of the financial crisis, they continued to whisk those earnings offshore.
At no point during the last six years of open speculation into Marinakis’s connections to the Noor One has he suffered any sort of significant financial hit. On the contrary, his power and influence have only continued to grow—and in such a way as to make any lasting legal reckoning improbable. Inside Greece, Marinakis’s capital has proved too vast, and his connections to its political scions too entrenched, to hinder the cornering off of his empire. Outside Greece, it became difficult to believe that a man with enough credibility to buy soccer teams and oil tankers seemingly at will could ever be connected to the world of men like Zindashti. At the center of Marinakis’s alleged connection to the Noor One operation is Aimilios Kotsonis, who had been employed as an executive at Marinakis’s soccer club, Olympiacos, within months of the tanker leaving Dubai. In August 2016, Kotsonis received a suspended 10-year prison sentence for having set up a Sharjah, UAE, front company in 2013 to absorb potential drug profits. From the witness stand, Kotsonis identified himself as “Marinakis’s man in Dubai” and testified that Marinakis had been bankrolling his various ventures in the UAE.
The next link was Yiannousakis. Marinakis has never confirmed or denied knowing the man who now sits in prison for life on drug trafficking charges. But according to Yiannousakis, they were business partners. Yiannousakis claims that Marinakis came to visit him in Dubai the summer before the Noor One left for Greece; they convened at the Burj al Arab hotel in Dubai, together with the oil sheiks to whom Yiannousakis and Mohammed Diesel were selling contraband fuel. (Marinakis has never commented on whether this meeting happened—and hasn’t been compelled to offer testimony, in the absence of an official court case against him.) Around the time of that alleged meeting, Greek investigators learned, Marinakis began wiring large sums of cash to Yiannousakis.
In 2017, in a rare gesture of transparency, authorities in Dubai handed over the financial accounts of Yiannousakis’s Sharjah-registered oil agency to Greek prosecutors. They showed that in 2013 two transactions shifted nearly $1 million from Marinakis’s shipping firm to Yiannousakis’s brokerage. That same summer, a bunkering corporation in the same building as Marinakis’s shipping company, and whose legal representative was his cousin, dropped another $400,000 into Yiannousakis’s Dubai account. Months later, Marinakis’s personal lawyer—the general secretary of his shipping company, and the legal representative of two firms that had injected an additional $200,000 into Yiannousakis’s Dubai accounts—helped arrange the latter’s acquisition of the Noor One. As evidence of these meetings and major cash infusions came in, an obvious question presented itself. If Marinakis knew Kotsonis and Yiannousakis, the two Greeks who seemed poised to profit most from the Noor One operation, did he also know about the operation itself?
A potential answer came from an entirely separate investigation. In May 2012, Greek intelligence services oversaw a three-month wiretapping of Greece’s soccer club owners and managers to collect evidence for the state’s investigation into alleged match-fixing. Marinakis was swept up in the surveillance net—as was a phone registered to Fataul Haque, the Pakistani identity Marinakis uses for some of his communications. (Spoken aloud, Fataul sounds like “he eats everything” in Greek.) In 2016, a police officer tasked with transcribing hundreds of hours of these conversations and text messages caught something remarkable: In a random three-month window two years before the Noor One’s departure from Dubai, Marinakis repeatedly discussed the tanker and a big project then in the works.
In May 2012, the month Yiannousakis acquired the Noor One, Marinakis received a text from Kotsonis, his man in Dubai, explaining that a boat was ready, and that all Kotsonis needed was a “green light” to “get this thing started.” Get what thing started? Over the ensuing months, Marinakis’s surveilled conversations were littered with cryptic references to “Iranian fishermen,” “a little job,” “a big company over there.” “Me with all this stuff.… Careful. I don’t want to be caught up in such things at all,” he told Kotsonis at one point. “This guy hasn’t passed his test up ’til now,” he informed an unidentified speaker at a later point. “We need guys who deliver when the weather’s bad.” In July 2016, 17 of the 33 defendants in the Noor One trial were acquitted on grounds that they had no idea the tanker was trafficking heroin. But the evidence collected over the past two years—the cash infusions, the meetings in Dubai, and the phone calls referencing big future plans—was enough to put a new question front and center. Why had Evangelos Marinakis taken such interest in Yiannousakis and his contraband ship?
In March 2018, the Piraeus prosecutor’s office launched an investigation against Marinakis and three of his associates, for allegedly running a criminal organization that bought, trafficked, and sold narcotics. Throughout the inquiry, Marinakis has denied any links to drug trafficking and claimed in a statement posted on his personal website that the allegations against him were politically motivated. “Members of the governing coalition have persistently targeted me,” he said. That investigation remains ongoing. Meanwhile, five of the men imprisoned in the 2016 trial are appealing their verdicts. Among them is Yiannousakis. To many observers in Greece, Yiannousakis’s appeal is what the country has been waiting six years for. If he was a front man, if he was working for someone more powerful, now is his time to start talking.
For security purposes, these new trials are held in the women’s quarters of Greece’s largest prison, which occupies a craggy mountainside overlooking Piraeus’s cemented coastlines. Over the last three years, as the Noor One’s murder toll ran into double digits and rumors of a more powerful financier churned, the gaggle of journalists who once covered the case has dwindled to a handful. It’s not unusual for Greek oligarchs to mitigate bad press coverage by purchasing a well-placed media outlet; in 2017, Marinakis bought two newspapers and a TV station. That year, as opinion polls concerning the upcoming parliamentary elections swung evermore in Mitsotakis’s favor, most Athenian dailies and TV stations relaxed their previously obsessive coverage of all things Noor One.
While the investigation against Marinakis, and the public furor surrounding it, have lapsed into something of a state of suspended animation, the machinery of Yiannousakis’s appeal grinds slowly on. Twice a month, the former oil broker struts down a Korydallos Prison hallway that is spattered with dog shit, into a bare courtroom mounted with an icon of Jesus on the cross. He wears a pair of aviator sunglasses and moves in a cloud of cologne. His double-breasted blazer rests over a banker’s collar. From his left hand, below a fat gold watch, purple worry beads protrude through his knuckles. Patches of his hair have fallen out.
Yiannousakis is in solitary confinement at Korydallos after stints in prisons across Greece. At all his prior stops in the system, he claims, other inmates have made attempts on his life. One such assailant “told me he’d slit my throat for giving up names,” Yiannousakis told me, referring to a knife wound he took a year earlier to the hip. In October 2017, Yiannousakis was temporarily admitted to Dafni psychiatric hospital, where he attempted to kill himself by smashing a bed plank into his forehead. At a September 16 hearing for his appeal, he entered the courtroom and sat alone in the back, as he has over the five-year course of the case. In 2018, after he’d begun serving his life sentence, Yiannousakis didn’t just start offering up new details about the Noor One; he told an entirely new story. Contacts in jail had put him in possession of two cell phones and a direct line to Defense Minister Panos Kammenos, leader of the Syriza party’s right-wing Independent Greeks coalition partner, and a man who has never made any secret of his enmity toward Marinakis. Unaware that he was being recorded, during an interview with a Greek journalist, Yiannousakis swiftly upended everything that prosecutors believed they knew about the Noor One. He had never trafficked two tons of heroin into Europe, he said; there had been three.
If true, the revelation did a lot more than make the biggest known shipment of heroin in Europe’s history even bigger. It raised the prospect that €70 million worth of drugs had been successfully delivered somewhere. Far from being a bust, the Noor One had profited someone. And according to Yiannousakis, that person was Marinakis. The place to look, he maintained, was Crete. As the Noor One was approaching the island on its way to Elefsina, he said, a smaller vessel had swung past it, picked up a ton of its heroin, then went up the Adriatic toward ports near Serbia. This ton belonged to Marinakis personally, Yiannousakis claimed. As with so much of what Yiannousakis has said over the last six years, there were plenty of reasons to doubt this latest sensational allegation. Why hadn’t any of the Noor One’s crew ever mentioned handing heroin off to another ship? Yiannousakis pointed to two defendants who had died in prison: Of course their surviving colleagues hadn’t come forward with information to invite further retribution.
There were additional reasons to take his claims seriously. Witnesses interrogated in Istanbul years earlier had baffled authorities by also insisting that three—not two—tons of heroin had been trafficked into Europe, according to Turkish police documents unearthed by a journalist who asked not to be named. And inside the Noor One itself, a month after authorities claimed it had been searched, a handwritten note had been found referencing a curiously similar transaction to the one revealed by Yiannousakis. A white sheet of a paper dated May 26, 2014—a day when the Noor One was in the Suez Canal—reads: “Mister Giannousakis, I am waiting 450kg of powder. Please give us a date and a meeting point in South Crete. Please contact us. Master Jack.” Below the text, which is loopy but precise, there is the stamp of a ship called the Seychelles Prelude.
Through his newspapers, Marinakis has countered that the Seychelles Prelude note is a forgery, citing the fact that the vessel was sailing near Liverpool at the time of the supposed transaction. But if the note is indeed a forgery, another fraught conundrum presents itself: Why was the fake document planted in the Noor One at all? On the face of things, it’s reasonable to infer that someone with knowledge of the tanker’s journey and cargo, weeks after Yiannousakis had already been arrested on drug trafficking charges, was attempting to yoke the entire heroin operation around his neck through a note packed with ludicrously incriminating information. But the most intriguing piece of the puzzle in light of Yiannousakis’s new story was an episode at the Athens airport. Three months after the Noor One had reached Elefsina, the managing director of Marinakis’s shipping company flew from Fujairah City to Athens. Upon arrival, he was asked to open his suitcase. His luggage contained €622,000 in 500-bill notes.
Marinakis has told investigators that the cash came from a recalled wire transfer; legal authorities insist that it’s clear evidence of a money-laundering transaction. The dispute is at the heart of the ongoing investigation in Piraeus. Meanwhile, the long-running Turkish inquiry into the Noor One has converged on the Greek case. Just months after he’d shocked the country with his new story, Yiannousakis mysteriously recanted it. Marinakis had nothing to do with the Noor One, he rushed to explain. The report of a third ton of heroin successfully trafficked through the Balkans had been a fabrication. And the culprit behind the whole affair was not Marinakis but Zindashti—the Iranian Kurd allegedly behind the assassinations of the Noor One’s other backers. As a result, in spring 2018 Athens issued a warrant for Zindashti’s arrest.
Across the Aegean, Turkish authorities appeared to comply. Early one morning that April, police ambushed Zindashti’s Istanbul villa, arresting him and nine others—four current or former police officers among them. The next Sunday, Marinakis publicly pronounced his innocence. “The arrest of Zindashti is a major blow to a game of many years,” one of his newspapers, To Vima, claimed in a bombastic English-language account. This was self-satisfaction masquerading as vindication. Turkish prosecutors had never made any claim that Zindashti was the mastermind behind the Noor One. He was arrested for allegedly murdering the lawyer of a murdered Noor One funder. Either way, the Turkish action ultimately proved to be another dead end in the case. Zindashti spent less than six months in prison—and within hours of his release, he’d vanished from police observation.
Zindashti’s extensive criminal résumé counted for less, in the grand scheme of things, than his apparent ties to the inner circles of Turkish political power. Six months after his bizarre early release from prison, Zindashti’s face was plastered across the front page of the Turkish newspaper Cumhuriyet; he’d been photographed out to dinner with one of Erdoğan’s closest advisers, as well as a senior member of his party. Less than a month after the photo’s publication, Ilhan Üngan, one of the last living Noor One funders, was shot twice in the head while walking along Istanbul’s seafront, weeks after his brother had told a state prosecutor that Zindashti would send gunmen after them. Three arrests followed; Zindashti was not among them. What had seemed a story about Ankara’s inability to stop a vendetta may just be something else: a window into the connections sluicing between Turkey’s authoritarian state and the Mediterranean criminal underworld.
Will the Noor One tell a similar story about Greece? The investigation into Marinakis might yield an answer—but in the meantime, the case has already morphed into a proxy conflict within the Greek political system. For those on the left, Marinakis and the Noor One seemed to represent everything that they had voted Syriza into power in 2015 to destroy: above all, the interlocking directorates of power that conjoin political dynasties and oligarchic capital. Syriza’s leader, Alexis Tsipras, has continually played on developments in the case to bolster his following, in and out of power. In early 2019, when a photograph of then-Prime Minister Tsipras lounging on a yacht served as campaign-season ammunition for now-Prime Minister Mitsotakis, Tsipras fired back: “At least I wasn’t the one who was aboard Marinakis’s yacht—or aboard the Noor One. Nor is my best man someone who is awaiting trial for smuggling a couple tons of heroin.” (Tsipras was, as it happens, not speaking accurately: Marinakis is not awaiting trial but rather under state investigation; state prosecutors will only decide about launching a formal trial against the oligarch at the end of the inquiry.)
For the sitting government’s antagonists on the right, meanwhile, the story surrounding the Noor One was a signature example of how Tsipras’s coalition would stop at nothing to weaponize Greece’s justice system against its enemies. Over the course of 2017, Defense Minister Kammenos delivered one parliamentary rant after another about the tanker, rattling off the names of the companies that had put cash into Yiannousakis’s accounts. The next summer, Kammenos sparked another media furor when he was photographed in Monaco alongside the prosecutor who had launched the investigation into Marinakis. What about Marinakis himself? He denies any connection to the Noor One whatsoever. He likens himself instead to Socrates—a wise man condemned by a state that fails to appreciate his services. “In Greece’s long history one can find fitting role models,” he told a crowd at a ceremony in March 2019 to dedicate a statue of a Greek revolutionary. “Through its travails over the centuries, light always wins over dark and true heroes and benefactors finally take their rightful place in our history.”
Marinakis declined to be interviewed for this article. But Zindashti was willing to talk. For months, he wrote me emails from an undisclosed Middle Eastern country about his life, his friend Mohammed Diesel, and what he knew about the ship whose arrival on Greek shores, he insists, led to the murder of his daughter. Zindashti never mentioned heroin trafficking or the murders he’s alleged to have ordered. But he was adamant about one thing: Yiannousakis, whom Zindashti only ever knew by the nickname “Makis,” wasn’t acting alone. Behind him was a Greek his friend Diesel called “Shishko”—Turkish for “fatso.” “I used to hear often the name of Shishko when Shahid Ahmet [Diesel] and Mekish [Yiannousakis] were talking,” Zindashti told me. Zindashti said he met Shishko once, in March or April 2014, in the lobby of Dubai’s Hilton Jumeirah. It was a meeting about the Noor One, scheduled to depart weeks later. Yiannousakis confirmed this meeting for me, including the date when Zindashti said it happened, and its locale. However, Yiannousakis claimed not to know anyone who went by the name Shishko.
I sent Zindashti numerous images of large Greeks with beards, asking him to confirm if any depicted the man he knew as Shishko. The photo he sent back was the one of Marinakis. “I only remember him because he was really fat otherwise if he would be a normal man he probably wouldn’t get my attention,” he said. “I repeat, he was REALLY FAT.” Late last summer, I visited the Noor One. It can still be found in Elefsina, meters from where it came to rest six years and 17 deaths ago. It slumbers down an unlit dirt road in a lonely bay. The slip where the ship is now located is flanked on one side by cement stacks belching white smog; on the other is the tumbledown sanctuary where the ancient Athenians once celebrated their religious mystery rites. The march of rust and the lap of the sea are slowly eating away at its hull; the Noor One lists into the water, as though doing its best to disappear from sight entirely. It’s been recently put up for auction, with an asking price of €60,000—less than what it would fetch as scrap metal at the going rate. There are no buyers.