Rabat – The existence of informal and illicit trade networks among North African countries is not unheard of, nor is it a new phenomenon. Despite decades of war, failed diplomatic efforts, and a closed border, smugglers in Algeria and Morocco have kept close ties.
Perhaps this is not by accident.
Throughout North Africa, consumer goods such as food and textiles are often “moved in accordance with informal agreements between smugglers and state agents that regulate the types of goods coming through, their costs, and how much can be transported,” according to a June 2019 Washington Post article by Max Gallien.
Gallien’s conclusions are informed by the 14 months he spent conducting fieldwork on the political economy of informal and cross-border trade in North Africa.
Based on over 200 interviews with smugglers, state representatives, and civil society groups, Gallien found that much of the region’s smuggling occurs in conjunction with local and state authorities. He maintains that explanations of lawless spaces and individualized corruption are not suitable for analyzing the high levels of illegal trade in North Africa. States do not simply tolerate or turn a blind eye to certain smuggling activities; rather, states carefully regulate them “to maintain social peace in their borderlands,” says Gallien.
Regional differences in taxes, subsidies, and availability of goods have long nurtured the growth of these smuggling networks between Morocco and Algeria, which bypass formal tariff and trade regulations. Not only do the low-priced goods benefit consumers in both countries, but the activity of smuggling itself employs thousands of people who otherwise have very few economic opportunities.
In this sense, smuggling is the foundation of numerous borderland economies along the northern boundary between Morocco and Algeria.
Algeria’s greatest export, in both legal and illegal trade
For years, the most lucrative link in the chain of goods being smuggled in North Africa was not drugs or weapons but in fact a perfectly legal commodity: gasoline.
Although Morocco is not Algeria’s top trading partner–and certainly not a close ally–the neighboring kingdom, despite its closed border, is one of the main destinations for smuggled Algerian petrol. This relationship is “a modern incarnation of age-old trade networks, enabled by deep cross-border ethnic and tribal connections,” claims a 2015 report on the Maghreb’s border security challenges by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP).
The demand for black market petrol is driven by high fuel costs in Morocco, where drivers are currently spending about $1.08 (10.34 MAD) on a liter of gasoline. In contrast, a liter of gasoline in Algeria is $0.35 (42 DZD or 3.38 MAD). This translates to $4.08 per gallon in Morocco and $1.33 per gallon in Algeria.
Other cheap consumer goods such as medicines, scrap metal, household appliances, tobacco, agricultural goods, and vehicle parts are routinely smuggled into Morocco from Algeria.
“Algeria now feeds the whole region,” an Algerian customs official remarked to USIP in 2015, given the country’s abundance of subsidized products.
Thwarting survivalist smuggling
Morocco’s northern borderlands, specifically around Oujda-Angad and Berkane, are still teeming with well-organized contraband networks that have long-standing family and trade connections with smugglers in Algeria’s Province of Tlemcen.
Thanks to modern highways, contraband leaving Oujda can arrive in Rabat in five hours and Casablanca in six, decreasing smugglers’ risk of arrest or conflict.
Despite the attractive financial rewards to be reaped from smuggling, the everyday dependence on illicit economies along the border does not come without its disadvantages.
The livelihood of thousands of people involved in smuggling is entirely at the mercy of security forces who can crack down on specific networks or individuals at any given time. This can completely disrupt communities which are already socially, economically, and geographically marginalized.
The revenue generated from smuggling also offers political influence to otherwise undesirable characters, and the security personnel, political elites, and formal businessmen who have ties to illegal trade are prone to corruption. But these drawbacks are tolerated in exchange for a booming housing market, steady youth employment, and comfortable livelihood.
However, years of maintaining a porous border did not only make desired commodities more affordable.
While Algeria was losing billions in tax revenue to fuel smuggling, the Moroccan government sought to reduce the flow of undocumented migrants, tobacco, and medicines into the kingdom.
Smugglers of fuel, cigarettes, and cannabis had been using donkeys and mules to transport jerry cans of contraband. To undermine this strategy, Morroccan authorities began tagging donkeys for traceability, while Algeria shot at unaccompanied animals near the border.
Anour Boukhars notes contemporary security tactics in an article for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Modern methods include “building miles of trenches, barriers, and fences, as well as employing sophisticated drones and surveillance technology.”
Both governments began fearing the exploitation of the border’s smuggling routes by drug cartels and armed terrorist cells. Consequently, they each made independent efforts to impede these movements over the past decade, but “it was ultimately the 2011 Arab uprisings and the resultant political turmoil. . . that drove both Algeria and Morocco to tighten border control,” states Boukhars.
From clothes to cocaine
The cross-border smuggling of consumer goods such as fuel, dates, milk, cigarettes, and Turkish-made clothes has been significantly curbed by new border control measures.
But rather than fading away, smugglers simply adapted to the new challenges posed by heightened border security.
Despite the crackdown on smuggling consumer goods, illegal trade between Algeria and Morocco has not subsided. And the developments in border security characterized by new walls, fences, and cameras have only served to further hurt already struggling borderland economies.
Since the market for consumer goods has been reduced, smuggling between Morocco and Algeria has taken an even more lucrative turn: well-resourced trafficking networks are now putting their efforts towards smuggling irregular migrants, weapons, counterfeit medicine, cocaine, and psychotropic drugs.
In Temara, cocaine dealers have recently begun supplying a growing demand.
“It wasn’t always a problem here,” a 25-year-old resident of Temara told MWN. “It started last year. They’re like a mafia. I’ve heard they’re violent.”
Karkoubi: a weapon of mass destruction
Morocco has always been one of the world’s top cannabis producers. Now, Moroccan smugglers exporting cannabis to Algeria are bringing back amphetamines.
When abused, amphetamines can lead to “psychosis and delusions” along with “feelings of paranoia and hostility,” according to Medical News Today.
Amphetamines are more commonly known as speed or crystal meth. In Morocco, the drug arrives in pill form, composed of cheap psychotropic drugs, cannabis, alcohol, and glue. Although considered a poor man’s drug, amphetamines infiltrate all levels of society.
In Morocco, amphetamine use has spiked among the country’s youth, particularly young men. The prevalence of the drug, locally known as karkoubi, has dangerous consequences.
Notably, a serial killer under the influence of karkoubi killed 14 people in Rabat from 2004 to 2005.
More recently, in 2015, a group of German tourists were randomly attacked in Fes by two knife-wielding men allegedly under the influence of karkoubi.
Karkoubi induces feelings of power in users, called the “Rambo effect,” alongside rage, impulsiveness, self-mutilation, and suicidal thoughts. Those under the influence of karkoubi may feel compelled to commit heinous crimes–such as rape and murder–only to not remember them after coming down from the high.
“For five years now, we have witnessed a spectacular upsurge in aggression and barbaric crimes,” Fatiha Daoudi, a lawyer and human rights activist, wrote for the Huffington Post in 2015.
“Not a day goes by without hearing about young delinquents, often minors, armed with cutlasses, causing panic under the effect of karkoubi. There are now whole neighborhoods held hostage by this type of offender.”
The drug first gained popularity in Casablanca before spreading throughout the country.
“I had a friend who went crazy because of karkoubi,” a 20-year-old Temara resident told MWN.
“He became violent and started fighting a lot, and he was stealing from people–his friends–for no reason. With time he just lost his mind.”
No end in sight
Reports of smuggling busts have been routinely flooding Moroccan media for years. Although the heroic efforts made by police to combat trafficking are certainly not lost on Morocco’s populace, the astounding frequency of these reports indicate a larger problem.
While the masses may be comforted by exciting stories of security forces impeding drug traffickers, disrupting human smuggling rings, and seizing hoards of weapons from would be terrorists, the reality is that these criminal networks have just recently emerged in response to increased border security–and they’re thriving. So while security forces are digging trenches, shooting suspicious donkeys, and locking up 16-year-old fuel smugglers from poor border towns, a hundred more traffickers of cocaine and crystal meth lie in waiting.
An end to the demands met by smuggling is nowhere in sight, nor is the reconciliation of diplomatic relations between Algeria and Morocco needed to adequately fortify the border.
But even with a cooperative anti-trafficking strategy, smugglers will continue to find a way. And they will make more money in doing so.
As explained by renowned American political theorist Wendy Brown, great floods of commodities and migrating peoples, “like any other kind of flood, inevitably breach or flow around walls and dams.”