Mediterranean Border-town Smuggling

Straits of Gibraltar - Africa viewed from Spain

Pic: The Straits of Gibraltar – North Africa viewed from Spain

Ceuta and Melilla – Transit Anomalies

Smuggling is an ancient profession; there are records of this black-market trade occurring as far back as the sixteenth century with goods being smuggled aboard Spain’s Manilla Galleons during its trade with the Far East. Little has changed.

Mostly, this clandestine business is about avoiding government levies, duties or taxes, but there are four types of smuggling which present more serious problems for governments:

  • Arms smuggling, which may offer a threat to a government’s stability and law-enforcement.
  • Drug smuggling, which presents politicians with a political conundrum due to the fact that while unable to legalise it, they are missing out on considerable revenue and profits.
  • Human trafficking – often quasi-legitimate and usually bonding women into prostitution – a business that remains morally abhorrent to most of us.
  • People smuggling. In their fight against these four, governments devote untold resources and allot vast amounts of tax payers’ money.

People smuggling is a relatively new branch of smuggling. The tide of public opinion now finds this abhorrent, too, while many people in a recipient country find the arrival of these smuggled folk inconvenient – to say the least. It, too, presents governments with a political and practical conundrum. Fair play: first-world governments have largely created this problem through their colonialism and, more recently, regime-change policies and are now playing catch-up with the consequences.

And, from my notes in 2001 –

“The bodies of these unfortunates continue to wash up on Spain’s beaches -”

The tax-free Spanish ports of Ceuta and Melilla on Morocco’s northern Mediterranean coast are all that is left of what was Spanish Morocco. Today, just like Gibraltar to the north across the Straits, these enclaves no longer possess the military significance they had in former times – though throughout the ‘sixties’ and ‘seventies’ they did achieve some notoriety due to the large quantities of drugs being smuggled out from their ports and beaches and destined for the European market. Nowadays however, authorities are far more concerned with another black-market phenomenon.

GoogleMap - Straits of Gibraltar

(Map sourced from Google Maps)

From this very stretch of coast between the points of Ceuta and Melilla, impoverished Africans – many of whom are from Sub-Saharan regions – make their leap-of-faith, putting their lives in the hands of unscrupulous people smugglers. These smugglers, having received their money, dispatch their clients in the black of night from local beaches, putting them out to sea on rafts and decrepit boats. They then wash their hands of them.

The desperate refugees are trying to reach Spain, a mere 27 kilometres away at its nearest point in the Straits of Gibraltar. Here, in this toe-hold in Europe, they hope and will strive for a better life. Of course it is not that simple. Savage seas, heavy shipping in the straits and the condition of their crafts conspire against them. The bodies of these unfortunates continue to wash up on Spain’s beaches near Tarifa and to the east of Gibraltar, and groups of bodies have been found floating at sea. It is estimated that some 3,000 have perished over the last 5 years, yet still they come. It is a tragic business.

Interestingly, there is a concurrent, highly lucrative trade in tax-free retail goods being smuggled into Morocco through the Duty-free port of Ceuta. While comparatively innocuous, it makes transits through this otherwise sterile town interesting.

To leave Ceuta and enter Morocco proper, you have to pass through Customs, Police and Immigration control. This is set amidst a broad stretch of land with the ocean to one side and a large barren hill, buttressing the space, to the right. Once through, there is a lively open bazaar on the seaward side of the road and rows of taxis and other waiting vehicles on the other. Sharing a taxi with up to five locals is an economical way to get further inland.

On one occasion, while waiting in our taxi for a further three passengers we had the leisure to observe this inbound smuggling. It takes place on a grand scale, and in a unique way.

In spite of the teaming rain hundreds of Moroccans of all ages – men, women and children, all with huge bundles on their backs – were trekking in an endless line over the aforementioned (now muddy) hill to circumvent the border control. We watched in fascination as they staggered and crabbed their way down a rugged track to an area close by us. Here, waiting cars, vans and 4WD’s were loaded to head inland to their buyers – the retailers in the cities. The couriers then trudged back through the frontier to the port to reload and repeat their circuit. Our driver assured us that it would continue until some boat’s hold was emptied.

It was a bizarre scene. Wearily traipsing in each other’s footsteps, these hunched and straining figures with their loads swaying on their backs appeared to be taking part in some monstrous ‘conga line’. It was evocative of scenes of mass exodus one sees from countries suffering famine or war.

Customs and the police turn a blind eye to all of this (quite likely paid off), but carry out random vehicle searches further inland. They also regularly pull over buses to do spot checks on passenger’s goods. This can be entertaining at first, but is ultimately tiresome. On one of our inland journeys a young Moroccan was unceremoniously taken off our bus by the police. They took him out of sight over a ridge at the side of the road and we never saw him again. The bus continued on its way without him, with my imagination running riot.

It’s an old scene. The first time I entered Morocco through Ceuta some fifty years ago, I was on a packed bus that was pulled over by the police. On this occasion, four other westerners and I were ordered off because our hair was too long. One of us had a pair of scissors and a quick hacking job was done, then we simply waited to flag down another one. Further into Morocco however, on another packed bus on the same route, we were stopped and boarded by the police again. A Moroccan woman in the seat directly across the aisle from me was discovered to be hiding some goods (duty-free from Ceuta) in her clothing and was asked to accompany them off the bus. Instead of getting up, she started a loud, continual wail and proceeded to repeatedly smash her head on the rail of the seat in front of her. I was, naturally, appalled. I no longer recall what the outcome was, but that image has stayed with me.

More recently at the frontier – this time coming from Morocco back into Ceuta – we found ourselves being jostled and pushed amongst a large, panic-stricken crowd of locals. All were laden with heavy bundles on their backs. This lot, another gang of couriers ready to trek over that aforementioned hill, must have just received notice of an imminent police check because they were hurriedly reversing direction and heading to a fence over a culvert on the seaward side. Here they hurled their bundles over, then clambered up-and-over to recover them. They then struggled onward along the seashore in order to by-pass the border control. So this was an alternative inward smuggling route – their ‘Plan B’, perhaps. And in charge of this young, motley crew was a little old lady shouting at them, pushing, prodding and abusing them: urging haste. The scene was right out of Dickens; she, a female ‘Fagan’ character directing her charge of ‘scurrying young thieves’. It had us spell-bound.

Here’s an interesting video link on current developments in Ceuta . . .

3 thoughts on “Mediterranean Border-town Smuggling

  1. Having been to Morocco via Tangiers and the Marrakesh Express I was not exposed to what you describe at all but it is easy to imagine. Many problems on that continent to escape from and the West is now enjoying the fruits of their colonial efforts gone awry.

  2. Indeed the West is reaping what it sowed 🙂 and has continued to meddle, now with Neocons kicking over hornets’ nests in places where history, surely, had already demonstrated the dire consequences of such acts.
    Hope your trip on the (Crosby Stills & Nash’s 🙂 Marrakech Express was a rewarding journey. Largely because of the people there, I would think, I have a great affection for Morocco and hope that your visit there was joyful, too.

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