OUJDA- Until three months ago, petrol smuggling literally drove Morocco's neglected eastern region, where the subsidised liquid smuggled in from Algeria fuelled the local economy.
OUJDA- Until three months ago, petrol smuggling literally drove Morocco’s neglected eastern region, where the subsidised liquid smuggled in from Algeria fuelled the local economy.
But in June, Algiers took drastic measures to curtail the illegal trade, clamping down on traffic across its border with Morocco, which has officially been closed since 1994.
“Since the Algerians shut the border my car hasn’t budged,” one Moroccan resident of the area told AFP.
The unofficial cross-border movement of people and goods has long been a feature of daily life here, with members of the same families living either side of the divide and much money to be made from contraband.
Algiers beefed up its border controls in a bid to stem the haemorrhaging of cheap Algerian fuel, through which the state was losing $1.3 billion a year, according to energy ministry figures.
Before the clampdown, some 600,000 cars were estimated to be running on Algerian fuel smuggled into neighbouring countries, notably Morocco.
It remains unclear what prompted the move by Algiers, although it coincided with an outburst of particularly hostile rhetoric from senior officials in both countries.
In energy-rich Algeria, petrol and diesel cost as little as 23 dinars (0.23 euros) and 13.4 dinars (0.13 euros) a litre respectively.
By contrast, its western neighbour and regional arch-rival imports virtually all its energy needs, with motorists paying more than one euro for a litre of petrol.
So the Algiers move had serious implications for the Oriental region of Morocco, as it is known, with its population of more than two million.
“My car carried up to one tonne of diesel, two or three times a week. Today it’s good for nothing,” complained one man in his 30s, sipping tea near the Zouj-Bghal border post.
Since acceding to the throne in 1999, King Mohamed VI has sought to promote development in the remote region, launching projects from factories to infrastructure, including a motorway connecting Oujda to the capital Rabat, 520 kilometres (320 miles) away.
But decades of neglect and its remote location, far from Morocco’s commercial centres on the Atlantic coast, have made the region heavily dependent on covert trade — and remittances from Moroccans living abroad.
The first painful consequence of Algeria’s new policy was a jump in contraband fuel prices, 30-litre cans of diesel nearly tripling in price and fares charged by the ubiquitous white Mercedes taxis rising with it, by 20 percent.
“We are fed up with this situation. One day we’re going to take over the streets with our cars and block everything,” said Fathi Miri, one of thousands of taxi drivers now struggling to survive.
Because of the reinforced border controls, and ditches that smugglers say have been dug by the Algerian authorities since June, the only viable way to haul goods across the border now is by donkey.
Loaded with jerrycans, the pack animals travel after dusk in their hundreds, through olive groves and along steep winding paths that they follow instinctively, transporting their precious cargo.
But it can be a dangerous journey.
“The Algerian army recently fired at some donkeys and killed them. Fortunately they were unaccompanied on the Algerian side,” said one Moroccan living near the border.
But given the new challenges to transporting fuel, some smugglers have turned to people trafficking.
“I help Moroccans into Algeria and Algerians into Morocco,” said one.
“I get 300 dirhams (28 euros) for each client transported across the border. But with the onset of winter, there will be no one,” he added.
Until Algeria tightened its border controls, more than 18,000 people lived off fuel smuggling, said Hassan Ammari of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights (AMDH), who questions what they will do now.
As a stopgap measure, the Moroccan government is sending around 700 tonnes of fuel to the region daily.
But this is a drop in the ocean, compared with the 300,000 tonnes that used to arrive from Algeria, said Mohamed Benkaddor, president of the region’s consumer protection association.
“Cooperation between our two countries is necessary, whatever the differences,” Aftati said.
However, this view does not seem to resonate in Algeria, where government officials earlier this month hailed the clampdown on smuggling, saying it was starting to “bear fruit”.