By Nazim Fethi
By Nazim Fethi
Maghnia, Algeria, July 21, 2012
It is 10 pm when we arrive in the known “smuggler’s hub” of Maghnia. In this town perched on the far western edge of Algeria, 600 kilometers from the capital and across the border from Oujda in Morocco, the cafés are packed with patrons.
Maghnia is the capital of “trabendo” (contraband). From drugs to chickens, from alcohol to Ramadan food, everything comes through the town.
In the market square, young men openly offer all sorts of goods brought in from Morocco.
“If you want a large quantity, we can come to your home; I’ll offer you a reasonable price,” suggests one youth, barely fifteen years old.
“My phone never stops ringing,” comments Bachir Friki, another local “trabendiste” with a knack for sniffing out a good deal. “Whatever sells, either here or over there, I’ll take it. Right now, I’m stocking up on dates, since Moroccans snap them up during Ramadan,” he adds.
Clothing, food, medicine, makeup, even livestock, sell well, but the hottest commodity is petrol.
Cars have a second tank to run an ad hoc shuttle service between the petrol stations and depots on the border. The fuel will then be sent into Morocco in jerry cans: by donkey, motorbike, car and bicycle.
“Three car motors, 5 gearboxes, 2,070 liters of diesel, 3,600 more liters in jerry cans, that’s a partial run-down of a single night’s work,” one black-market dealer tells us.
We pass cars that are unrecognizable because of modifications to the fuel tanks. This is the territory of the “hallabas”, smugglers who specialize in fuel trafficking.
“Petrol is ten times cheaper here than in Morocco, so you can imagine the potential profits to be made,” explains Rachid, who has never done any other kind of work.
Drug smugglers are less cheerful. Recent counter-trafficking successes and security enhancements have them worried.
“We’ve stepped up their efforts to thwart trafficking operations,” confirms one police officer under cover of anonymity.
“Every day, we seize hundreds of kilograms – sometimes tonnes – of cannabis,” he says, “The harvest season is approaching in the Moroccan Rif, so producers want to liquidate their whole stock now.”
Many of the people from Maghnia advise us not to venture out at night: “The border strip belongs to the ‘trabendistes’ after nightfall. If the customs or police catch you, they’ll think you’re a smuggler.”
In recent years, Maghnia has also become a transit point for illegal immigrants who want to reach Europe via the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla.
It is not just harragas. Young Moroccans also come here to seek seasonal or permanent work, like Abdelhafid, who says, “Maghnia is the starting point.”
At the border, young people sit in vehicles and listen to music. “These are the heddhaya lookouts”, teenage Hamid tells us. “Generally they have SIM cards for both countries.”
The border guards are also on the lookout. They wait for “la mouquatila” or “warrior” vehicles. These are cars without plates or lights used by smugglers.
“They hurtle along at top speed, and will never stop at a roadblock. The drivers are real stuntmen; they don’t care whether people fire at them,” a taxi driver complains.
From the Akid Lotfi Army post in Algeria, the guards watch as the lights from Oujda twinkle in the night sky above Morocco.
Border guards stationed near Maghnia lead a dual combat. They have long been on the front lines of the fight against terrorism, while also protecting the immense border between Algeria and her neighbors.
On the Moroccan side, troops have also been guarding the border since 1994.
People in both countries are impatient for the borders to be officially reopened. Rumors circulate frequently, and residents hold their breath.
“Whenever officials stop off in the town, whenever people notice work to resurface roads or tart up the buildings, people say: ‘here we go, this time it’s for real,” says Said, who works as a full-time teacher and part-time tarabiste.
“The borders are a way of life here. We have families on the other side of the border and nothing has managed to stop us keeping in touch all these years,” he adds. Others look at the issue from an economic perspective.
Maghnia bank clerk Oualid Moussaoui says that any discussion on reopening the land border “should be preceded by agreements between the two governments over their commercial exchanges”.
“Reopening the borders will bring Maghnia back to life,” salesman Samir Hadjiat tells Magharebia. “I could make daily return trips to Oujda, without any hassle, to barter with my Moroccan brothers. Everyone in Maghnia will benefit from it.”
Further down, the wadi gradually narrows, and the Algerian and Moroccan roads leading to the coast become closer still. Drivers on both sides pull over and exchange greetings.
To the left lies the Moroccan beach of Saidia, to the right is the Algerian beach of Marsat Ben M’hidi.
Here, only a small trickle of water serves as a borderline between the Algerian and Moroccan roads before flowing out to the beach. People can cross on foot or by car.
In the summer, young people get to spend their evenings in another country.
Festooned with Algerian and Moroccan flags, the two beaches are crowded with summer visitors during this period of blistering heat. Beach-goers from both countries share the same regret: that the borders remain closed, preventing natural contact.
“In the summer, I have a chance to perform some profitable little jobs,” Hamid tells us. “I watch over the car park, I act as a go-between for flat rentals, and I even do the shopping for families who cannot get out.”
Hamid and his friends often spend their evenings in Saidia. “They organize special events, especially in the summer and during Ramadan, so we go there to have a good time,” he says.
“We’ve got Moroccan friends who also come here for the Raï music evenings. For them, crossing the border is just as easy,” he adds.
On the beach at Muscarda, we come across families that made the trek from Algiers. They have fallen in love with this piece of paradise.
“What a shame the border’s closed. And yet, the motorway comes all this way!” says Samira Chelih, a teacher. “I would love to take my children to Morocco and introduce them to our neighboring country.”
Badis Sadi, a clerk in a state bank, is convinced that “sooner or later, the borders will be reopened”.
“I’m willing to bet that no fewer than five million Algerians will go to Morocco for their holidays,” he says with confidence.
“We just need the two governments to sit down around the table and talk about what’s bothering them,” Sadi adds.