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Drug Trafficking in Northwest Africa: The Moroccan Gateway

[Madrid regional government delagate Cristina Cifuentes, right and the chief of Spain's national police force, Ignacio Cosido second right, look at part of a haul of hashish and marijuana in Madrid, Wednesday, 26 December 2012. Spanish police have seized eleven metric tons of hashish smuggled from Morocco on trucks with tanks rigged to hide the drugs. Thirty five people were arrested in what was described as the breakup of a major smuggling ring that fed the European market. Authorities said in a statement Wednesday that the hashish was sent to a Madrid suburb for distribution to countries including Belgium, Britain, France and Holland. Image from Paul White/AP Photo.] [Madrid regional government delagate Cristina Cifuentes, right and the chief of Spain's national police force, Ignacio Cosido second right, look at part of a haul of hashish and marijuana in Madrid, Wednesday, 26 December 2012. Spanish police have seized eleven metric tons of hashish smuggled from Morocco on trucks with tanks rigged to hide the drugs. Thirty five people were arrested in what was described as the breakup of a major smuggling ring that fed the European market. Authorities said in a statement Wednesday that the hashish was sent to a Madrid suburb for distribution to countries including Belgium, Britain, France and Holland. Image from Paul White/AP Photo.]

Since the beginning of the twenty-first century, West Africa has become a pivotal platform and crossroads for terrorism, drug and human trafficking, crime and insurgency. However, in analyzing drug trafficking in the Sahel, it is paramount to also look at the role and geographical location of Morocco, where Moroccan drug barons are increasingly linked to their African and Latin American counterparts. Indeed, the Moroccan kingdom plays an important role between the African continent and Europe. The country occupies a key geostrategic location and is a gateway between the Mediterranean region and the rest of Africa. Morocco also provides a passage to mainland Europe from Africa. As a strong ally of the European Union, Morocco acts as the EU policy-implementer with regard to border-policing, preventing African migrants from crossing the Strait of Gibraltar. As a reward, many foreign companies, such as the French car manufacturer Renault, have invested in the newly built Tangier tax-free port area, the Tanger Med Port Authority, creating employment in the region. The country is also a close Western and French ally, obtaining different economic and political incentives, such as Paris’ unconditional support for Morocco’s policies in the Western Sahara, despite its appalling human rights abuses record. The country is also the first major fence African migrants encounter when migrating to Europe.  

Furthermore, the economic crisis, which is shaking the European Union, has had repercussions on the economy of the peripheral southern countries of the Mediterranean. Morocco, which had until recently managed to contain this economic crisis, but whose economic development heavily depends on European aid and investments, is increasingly affected by the current situation which persists in Europe. Also, in a morose socio-economic European context, cannabis trafficking between some European Union member states, Morocco, and Latin America, raises questions concerning health and how the drug money is being spent.  

The first cannabis plantations in Morocco appeared in the fifteenth century, and even as early as the seventh century, according to some historians such as Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy. In the nineteenth century, Sultan Moulay Hassan I authorized the cultivation of hashish in limited areas and for local consumption only. Throughout the years, the cultivation of cannabis--or hashish--developed, particularly in the northern mountainous Rif region. However, it is from the 1960s that the cultivation of cannabis took off with the King Hassan II’s intentional exclusion of the Rif region from any economic development, which encouraged the cultivation of hashish.

Indeed, in the early years of the Moroccan independence, the Rif region was not only suffering from deep poverty but also contested the monarchy’s legitimacy. To recall, the Rif had always been a contentious region. During the 1921-1925 period, Riffian leader, Abdelkrim al Khattabi, temporarily proclaimed the independence of its region, which was under Spanish rule at that time. Likewise, in 1958, Moroccan troops led by the future king Hassan II, crushed an uprising in the region in which people expressed socioeconomic greivances. However, these events also ironically pushed the makhzen to allow the cultivation of cannabis in the Rif region, so that its inhabitants may generate an income, creating a parallel economy. Having said that, this may also be perceived as a personal revenge, as Hassan II deliberately excluded the region from any economic development. Until today, literacy rate in the Rif is the lowest in the country and basic infrastructure has yet to match that of the rest of the country. Indicatively, during his reign from 1961 to 1999, Hassan II never visited the region.

Additionally, this intentional sanction from the royal palace eventually pushed the Riffian population to a massive exodus to Europe in the 1960s and 1970s. This migration, however, which led most of the population to France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, and from the 1980s, to Spain, became the early foundations of what would later be known as the “Moroccan network” of cannabis trafficking between Morocco and the European continent. One of the consequences of this Moroccan migration was that due to the increasing demand for cannabis emanating from Europe, the cultivation of cannabis became a primary source of income for many inhabitants of the Rif region whose families include migrants. The current result is that with the help of European traffickers, the Moroccan commercial networks have, with time, managed to consolidate and transform Morocco into the main provider of cannabis to the European continent.   

Facing this alarming increase of drug trafficking between Morocco and Europe, and under the pressure of the international community, especially the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), King Hassan II embarked on a path of eradicating the cultivation of cannabis during the mid-1990s. Using targeted operations, the makhzen was obliged to convince the international community of its willingness to eradicate this scourge. Nonetheless, despite a drop in the cultivation of hashish and some positive and convincing results—a reduction that poor weather conditions also triggered, namely the poor harvest of 2005—drug trafficking in Morocco remains a serious and thorny challenge for both the Moroccan authorities and Europeans. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report, in 2010, Morocco cultivated forty-seven thousand five hundred acres for a total production of thirty-eight thousand tons of cannabis and seven hundred sixty tons of cannabis resin. With twenty-one percent of the world production, Morocco is also the primary producer of cannabis herb in the world. It is important to understand that this cultivation of cannabis is a vital source of income for more than eight hundred thousand Moroccans[i], equivalent to two-and-a-half percent of the Moroccan population and accounts for nearly three percent of the gross national product (GNP) of the Moroccan agricultural sector. In comparison, the turnover of the non-irrigated lands utilized for the cultivation of cannabis is seven to eight times more than the cultivation of barley, and even fifteen times more when irrigated. Yet today, there is not a single week whereby the North African press does not mention a major confiscation of drugs in the region. For example, sixty tons of cannabis coming from Morocco was intercepted in Algeria in 2008, fifty-three tons in 2011, and twenty-six tons in the first semester of 2012. According to police sources, over fifty-three tons of cannabis was intercepted between January and November 2012.

In a broader drug trafficking scale, in July 2012, Moroccan custom officers intercepted ten kilos of heroin dissimulated in thirty copies of the Qur’an that were destined to the European market. Likewise, in November 2012, almost two tons of cannabis was seized at the Franco-Spanish border of Perthus. In April 2013, nearly thirty-two tons of hashish dissimulated in a cargo of melons was also discovered in Spain. In 2012, Moroccan authorities intercepted one hundred thirty-eight tons of cannabis in the ports of Ceuta, Melilla, and Tangiers. According to a report from the World Customs Organization, sixty-five percent of the total quantity of cannabis intercepted across the world in 2011 came from Morocco.

As previously underlined, the bulk of cannabis cultivated in Morocco is mainly destined to the European market. Neighboring countries in the region, including Tunisia, Algeria, Mauritania, and Libya remain as transit routes to Europe, and to a lesser extent, the Middle East. Due to its geographical proximity with Morocco, the Iberian Peninsula remains the main drug gateway to Europe. The drug is transported to Europe across Spain, using, for instance, speedboats. Drug traffickers are never short of new ideas to dissimulate and transport their illegal merchandise using the numerous vehicles which cross the Strait of Gibraltar every day, employing different caches such as art and painting frames, food tins, souvenirs, and other subterfuges.

In this regard, in June this year, Marc Sebaoun, son of French Socialist deputy, Gérard Sebaoun, and his friend, Farah Balhas, were arrested while returning from Morocco to France with twenty-two kilos of cannabis. Similarly, in October 2012, Florence Lamblin, deputy mayor of Europe Ecologie Les Verts (EELV) of Paris’ thirteenth borough, was forced to resign after her alleged involvement in a drug trafficking network that was uncovered its dismantling. The network had cells in Morocco, Spain, Switzerland and France. Money from this drug trafficking was reinvested in the legal economy with the complicity of three brothers of Moroccan origin, as well as white-collar delinquents, mainly senior managers and entrepreneurs, who often opened accounts in Swiss bank. Two people suspected of having recycled millions of Swiss francs have also been arrested in Geneva.

Moreover, due to the important and growing cocaine traffic between Latin America and West Africa, an increasing amount of cocaine cargo accompany the cannabis ones. This not only confirms the strategic geographical position of Morocco for these types of illegal transactions, but also the growing reinforcement and presence of South American cartels beside the Moroccan drug barons. It is apparent that drug traffickers are highly flexible and willing to increase their illegal commerce regardless of their partners. Just as a link between Latin American barons and terrorists such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) or the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) has been clearly established, the relation between cocaine and cannabis traffickers is strengthening. Besides the economic benefit cannabis traffickers can obtain from such cooperation, this not only further broadens the Latin Americans market opportunities in Europe, but also their money laundering possibilities in Africa. In doing so, cocaine traffickers clearly increase their financial benefits.

In order to recycle the money generated from drug trafficking, the narco-traffickers proceed to money laundering through different operations. Criminals frequently invest in real estate projects or insurance contracts, very often in countries where the legislation remains vague and the opportunities numerous, such as in Morocco for instance. The easy acquisition of property facilitates money laundering. Moreover, besides the ease of acquisition, it is the high level of economic benefits that appeals to the traffickers[ii]. This type of acquisition is hardly detectable due to the absence of any central data or registry. Unscrupulous brokers may also provide insurance investments in exchange for financial favors[iii]. Additionally, the large number of Moroccans living in the suburbs of Paris, Amsterdam, and London creates opportunities and incentives for the many unemployed to become part of such illegal trafficking between Africa and Europe[iv]. The current European economic crisis, which is also affecting Morocco, only encourages Rabat’s postponement of any effort to eradicate money laundering, which plays an important part in Morocco’s national economy.

Despite genuine concerns from the European Union and the United States to eradicate all trafficking in both their respective territory and in Africa, they, as well as international institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank appear to have a rather lax approach. Indeed, as Champin underlines, on the one hand, the latter impose conditions for their aid, but on the other hand, they close their eyes to countries where money laundering is endemic, such as is the case with Morocco[v].    

Consequently, despite the fact that Morocco is often highlighted for its lax concern over the cultivation of hashish and money laundering, it is currently difficult and improbable that Morocco would make much of an effort to contain drug trafficking and all the illegal activities associated with it. In these times of an economic crisis, it is unlikely that the Moroccan government would reject other sources of funds susceptible to bail out the state’s coffers (seven percent of budget deficit in 2012), which in turn contribute to the national economy.

Despite its relative healthy macro-economic situation, the country keeps attracting foreign investments. Unlike Tunisia or Egypt, Morocco’s tourism remains competitive. However, the Moroccan economy remains largely anchored and dependent on the European Union. The geographical proximity and historical and socio-migrant exchanges between the two shores of the Mediterranean Mare Nostrum can only aggravate the situation. Also in this geostrategic space stretching from the Sahel to the European Union, Morocco is a central link, which has also become a zone of transshipment for the transportation of drugs to Europe. As the different drug seizures in Spain and France indicate, the connection between the Moroccan and European drug traffickers remains very strong and appears to be far from fading.

[i]S. Julien, (2011), Le Sahel comme espace de transit des stupéfiants. Acteurs et conséquences politiques, Hérodote (142), p. 127

[ii] C. Champin, Afrique noire, poudre blanche, p. 127

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid. pp. 95-101

[v] Ibid. pp. 131-133

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