Morocco’s smuggling rackets: hashish, people and contraband

Morocco’s smuggling rackets:
hashish, people and contraband

Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy

Jane’s Intelligence Review
December 2005, Vol. 17 n° 12, pp. 40-43.


Trans-Mediterranean drug trafficking from Morocco has grown in line with European consumption, but now also provides the infrastructure for smuggling people and consumer goods. Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy reports.

(Part one: Morocco said to produce nearly half of the world’s hashish supply, Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy, Jane’s Intelligence Review, 1 November 2005.)


Most of the hashish produced in Morocco is sold abroad, overwhelmingly in Europe, although there is a significant domestic consumer market for the drug.

European consumption has long acted as a pull factor on Moroccan hashish production. Spain and France not only contributed to the development of cannabis cultivation in Morocco during the colonial era but, more recently, their respective growing hashish consumer markets have also spurred production in the Cherifian kingdom.

The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, for example, notes that in France the “lifetime prevalence rates for cannabis use among adults aged between 15 and 64 increased from 21.9 per cent in 1999 to 26.2 per cent in 2002”.

The parallel increases of hashish production in Morocco and of hashish consumption in Europe are attested to by the rise in European seizures of Moroccan hashish noted in the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime World Drug Report 2005, which reports that seizures have risen from about 200 tonnes in 1985 to 950 tonnes in 2003.

In 2003, out of global cannabis resin seizures of 1,361 tonnes, 950 were seized in Europe and 96 in Morocco. France is the world’s fifth highest-ranking country in terms of hashish seizures (six per cent). Spain, which is Morocco’s closest European neighbour, seized most of the world’s hashish in 2003: 727 tonnes, that is, 53 per cent of global seizures and 76 per cent of European seizures. That Spain seizes that much hashish is evidence of the importance of the Spanish territory as a transit zone for Moroccan hashish. It is also most likely a legacy from when Spain and France split the Moroccan kingdom in two protectorates in 1912, when Spain ruled over the northern half of the country and granted the right to cultivate cannabis to a few tribes. It is therefore worth noting that the former colonial powers that held sway over Morocco are most directly concerned about Moroccan hashish trafficking and consumption.

Although all of the hashish consumed in Spain and 82 per cent of that consumed in France is estimated by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime to be of Moroccan origin, the two countries are far from being the only European consumers of Moroccan hashish. Eighty per cent of the cannabis resin destined for the West and Central European markets is estimated to originate in Morocco, and national markets such as those of Portugal, Sweden, Belgium and the Czech Republic, among others, are overwhelmingly dominated by Moroccan hashish. In accord with a geographical logic, most Moroccan hashish consumed or transiting in France comes by way of Spain, mostly by road: most French seizures are conducted at the Spanish border. Also, due to the central location of France within Europe, less Moroccan hashish is imported from the Netherlands to France than from France to the Netherlands.

Trafficking from Morocco

As many seizures have shown during the last decades, most large shipments of Moroccan hashish are exported from Morocco across the Mediterranean Sea aboard fishing vessels and private yachts. As explained in the 2001 Report on the cannabis situation in Morocco’s Rif region by the French Observatory of Drugs and Drug Addiction (Observatoire Français des Drogues et des Toxicomanies), shipments of up to two tonnes are increasingly being confiscated from small Zodiac speedboats that are believed to be capable of making roundtrips to Spain, especially to Malaga, in one hour. According to the same report, the primary zone of export for Moroccan hashish is located around Martil, Oued Laou and Bou Ahmed on the Mediterranean coast, although the bigger ports of Nador, Tetouan, Tangier and Larache are also used by hashish traffickers.

However, according to the Spanish press, the routes of entry of hashish into Spain have recently diversified due to the use of faster boats with a wider range. Drug smugglers are now reaching provinces such as Huelva, Almería and Murcia y Valencia, where seizures have multiplied. Important quantities have also been seized as far north as the Ebro river delta.

Traffickers also export hashish concealed in trucks and cars embarked on ferries leaving from the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla or from Tangier. According to the Observatoire Français des Drogues et des Toxicomanies report, and as shown by recent seizures conducted in Europe, Moroccan hashish is also being sent southward by truck to the Atlantic port of Agadir, to Casablanca and Essaouira, from where it is exported to the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, the UK and, of course, Spain.

It also seems that large quantities are increasingly sent to West Africa before being exported to Europe. Recent seizures of cocaine and hashish packed together and in the same manner were made in Morocco and in Spain. This suggests that Colombian drug traffickers have allied themselves to Moroccan counterparts and either now ship cocaine directly to Morocco, or store it temporarily in Mauritania. Another new route for cocaine trafficking is likely to have emerged, taking advantage of African ports and arriving in Morocco by way of Nigeria, Ghana, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Gambia, Senegal, Mauritania and Western Sahara. Some Moroccan hashish is also exported to Algeria, via the Oujda-Maghnia road, along which contraband and human smuggling also takes place.

The high level of drug trafficking across the Mediterranean Sea, where most transportation of hashish still occurs, implies that drug traffickers benefit from both low-level and high-level protection and complicity among some Moroccan authorities, a reality that more than one decade of arrests and trials have gradually confirmed. One recent case was the dismantlement of the ‘Mounir Erramach network’ in 2003, which shed light on the old and complex web of protection and complicity benefiting hashish trafficking in Morocco.

As is the case in all countries producing agriculture-based illicit drugs, farmers are very rarely directly involved in drug trafficking activities. This is also the case in Morocco, where very few cannabis growers from the Rif have the resources and connections required to ship hashish to the main ports of the Mediterranean coast, let alone across the sea to Spain. Hashish trafficking within and from the Rif requires the roads to be ‘bought’ and traffickers, not farmers, have the financial and socio-political means to do this, something that is unavoidable considering the frequency of police roadblocks in the Rif Mountains and the many military watchtowers dotting the Moroccan Mediterranean coast.

‘Buying the roads’

‘Buying the roads’ is a well-known worldwide trafficking and smuggling process whereby traffickers and smugglers buy their way across national and international roadblocks and checkpoints. Most frequently, what traffickers and smugglers buy is the transit of their cargo, no matter what the cargo is. As recent important European seizures of hashish in Moroccan seafood exports confirm, both legal and illegal goods can be traded on the same routes or even together in the same cargo, something that is, of course, made easier by the marked increase in movements of goods by land, sea and even air, which has occurred globally during the last few decades.

The Rif economy depends on a huge contraband trade that feeds off growing unemployment and pauperisation now that outmigration opportunities to Europe have been all but suppressed by strict immigration policies within the European Union. In the Rif region, as anthropologist Gina Grivello notes in the online UNESCO document, Compliance and transgression: The impact of international migration on gender expectations among Riffian Moroccans: “Many families have had to adapt to the transformation from a peasant-based economy to one that is semi-proletarianised. Lack of water, devastating land erosion, the highest unemployment rates in the country and political marginality have rendered this region incapable of sustaining its growing population.” Both the contraband economy and illegal migration, or harraga, act as safety valves for the Rif region and Morocco at large.

Contraband smuggling occurs via the same ports used for hashish trafficking, although, of course, in a reverse direction. The three most important entry points for smuggled goods are the two Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla and along the Algerian border around Oujda. Smuggled goods are numerous and range from cosmetics, tires and detergents, to gasoline and processed foodstuffs. According to the findings of an American Chamber of Commerce workshop in Morocco in 2001, the contraband economy provided work for 45,000 people, 75 per cent of whom were women, and generated annual sales revenues of 15 billion dirhams (USD1.7 billion) that evaded import duties and sales taxation. Moreover, it is estimated by the same source that every job created in the contraband business deprives the national economy of 10 legitimate jobs and that the industrial and agricultural production of Morocco suffers considerably from the unfair competition of smuggled goods.

The economy of Morocco and, to a larger extent, of the Rif region, also depends heavily on outmigration and foreign remittances sent from Europe. With USD3.6 billion in official remittances in 2003, Morocco was the fourth-largest remittance receiver in the developing world. According to a recent paper by Hein de Haas, from Radboud University Nijmegen, Morocco: From emigration country to Africa’s migration passage to Europe: “remittances are a crucial and relatively stable source of foreign exchange and have become vital in sustaining Morocco’s balance of payments. In 2002, official remittances represented 6.4 per cent of the gross national product, 22 per cent of the total value of imports, and six times the total development aid paid to Morocco. They also exceed the value of direct foreign investments, which are also much more unstable.” In fact, emigration, seasonal, semi-permanent and permanent, has always been so vital to the Rif economy that it has not changed since European immigration policies were considerably tightened in the early 1990s.

The toughening of European immigration policies has only spurred illegal migration and human smuggling, progressively turning Morocco “from an emigration country to Africa’s migration passage to Europe”.
In Between Morocco and Spain. Men, migrant smuggling and a dispersed Moroccan community, the academic Marko Juntunen states: “The gates of Western Europe were practically closed to Moroccans as Spain adopted [in May 1991] a strict entrance visa policy for visitors from the south. During the early 1990s, migrant smuggling on small open boats, a phenomenon called harraga, emerged in the area, and its socio-cultural and economic effects soon became visible all over northern and north central Morocco and in Andalusia, Murcia and Catalonia in Spain. The black market and underground economy connected with migrant smuggling expanded rapidly and constructed a new social and economic linkage between the two countries”.

Juntunen further explains: “A long tradition of cannabis smuggling between the northern provinces of Morocco and southern Spain offered a ready ‘infrastructure’ for migrant smuggling. The new immigration policy transformed migrants into profitable goods, which in many cases were more advantageous than hashish for the smugglers: the profit was guaranteed even if the boats failed to reach the Spanish coast. The migrants were also often more easily fooled than professionals in the drug business.”

As in the case of hashish trafficking, the author states, “there are numerous different methods of smuggling migrants: in cargo boats or fishing boats, but there are also networks with contacts with the crews of passenger boats and customs officials who accept unrecorded passengers”. In Larache province, the cheapest and most popular method is to cross the Strait of Gibraltar in pateras, small five- to seven-metre fishing boats. Quite often, illegal migrants smuggled to Europe are sent aboard pateras along with some hashish. The Spanish police reported in 2000 that migrants smugglers increasingly “forced their clients to transport hashish to Spain and meet their budgets by selling it during the first few days”.

The importance of the contraband economy and illegal migration clearly shows that hashish trafficking, while vital for the Rif region, is far from being sufficient to sustain its economy. Since the mid-1980s, a worsening economic situation in the Rif has pushed many people to migrate to Europe and immigrants from the Rif region have come to make up the vast majority of Moroccans settled legally or illegally in Spain. It is also interesting to note that in some caïdats (a caïdat is part of a cercle and a combination of cercles makes up each of the 37 provinces of Morocco) of the Rif region, more than 75 per cent of emigrants have crossed illegally to Spain or France.

Clearly, the Rif region depends on a complex economy of illegal trades, made up by hashish trafficking, widespread contraband and illegal migration, three activities that have grown together since the mid-1980s. The economic development of the Rif is therefore an essential and urgent goal for the European Union (EU), if its leaders are willing to reduce people smuggling and hashish trafficking from Morocco. However, according to de Haas: “From the Moroccan perspective, migration constitutes a vital development resource that alleviates poverty and unemployment, increases political stability, and generates remittances.” In fact, “the Moroccan government has little interest in stemming emigration while European employers are in need of labor.”

The same could well be said of hashish production and trafficking if the worsening context of the Rif region and the growing European consumption were to be considered alone. However, the cannabis economy is an altogether different problem, since the ecological and legal contexts threaten an activity that is vital for the Rif economy. Therefore, a massive effort to develop the economy of the Rif region must be carried out by Morocco and the EU if its socio-economic and political stability is to be improved or even maintained.

Eradication and prohibition

After the UN Office on Drugs and Crime revealed in its 2003 Cannabis Survey that cannabis was cultivated on 134,105 hectares in Morocco in 2003, cultivation reportedly dropped by 10 per cent in 2004, to 120,554 hectares.

Many direct and indirect factors can explain this cultivation decrease after years of rapid expansion. Cannabis cultivation, which has long been tolerated for both political and economic reasons, thereby allowing it to become the region’s main economic activity, has come under greater international scrutiny after the first UN Office on Drugs and Crime report was published in 2003. Moroccan authorities therefore felt compelled to start acting, as is attested to not only by the eradication measures undertaken in some parts of the Rif region from 2004 on, but also by the cultivation interdiction pronounced in many areas by the authorities.

While the 2004 UN Office on Drugs and Crime survey does not give estimates of eradicated areas in Morocco, the US 2005 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report explains for at least the 10th consecutive year that the government of Morocco “has stated its commitment to the total eradication of cannabis production”, but that, “given the economic and historical dependence on cannabis in the northern region, eradication is only feasible if accompanied by a well-designed development strategy involving reform of local government and a highly subsidised crop-substitution programme”. However, this has proved very difficult to achieve and, according to the International Narcotics Control Strategy Report: “Moroccan officials have indicated that crop-substitution programmes thus far appear to have made little headway in providing economic alternatives to cannabis production.”

However, while the Moroccan authorities have not conducted large eradication operations in the Rif region itself, they have carried out a few monitoring actions between 26 June and 17 July 2005 to the west of the region, in the province of Larache. Yet, Larache, where 10 per cent of the country’s cannabis was cultivated in 2003, is paradoxically the province that underwent the lowest decline between 2003 and 2004 (one per cent). The Moroccan press reported that at least 3,600 hectares of cannabis have been eradicated in the province of Larache.

The eradication campaign was directed by the governor of Larache, who declared that he obeyed government orders and that a public awareness campaign had been carried out in the mosques and souks of the province. However, as previous eradication threats had been numerous and, say most farmers, clearly formulated so that tolerance by some officials could be bought, most farmers did not take the warning seriously. Eradication was nonetheless carried out, right before the harvest season and without any compensation provided to the targeted farmers.

Notwithstanding the fact that eradication efforts have been shown to fail and, even worse, to be counterproductive, in Asia as well as in Latin America, the Moroccan authorities have resorted to a purely law enforcement-oriented policy without implementing any economic or development measures to help cannabis farmers cope with the sudden loss of income. The Agency for the Development of the Northern Provinces is supposed to conduct alternative development projects in the areas targeted by the eradication measures. But, so far, more than three months after the eradication campaign, no economic help has been received by the farmers even though experience from other regions of the world where illicit crops are grown clearly indicates that eradication is counterproductive if alternative development or alternative livelihood programmes are not set up and operative before eradication measures are resorted to.

However, since eradication has been minimal in Morocco, most of the 10 per cent drop in cultivation that occurred between 2003 and 2004 is likely to be due to the Moroccan authorities’ attempts at raising public awareness of the prohibition of cannabis cultivation. It must be noted that traditionally, cannabis cultivation is either tacitly authorised or expressly forbidden by Moroccan authorities throughout the Rif region on a yearly basis so that both its geographical spread and its total acreage is controlled and, to some extent, contained.

Only such control can actually explain why entire valleys are covered with cannabis one year and void of it the following year. It is evident that all the cannabis farmers of a given valley could not have decided all at once and on their own to plant or not to plant cannabis. Individual cannabis farmers would have little reason otherwise to stop what is their most lucrative activity.

In 2005, many douars, or villages, in Chefchaouen province did not grow cannabis because they had been told not to by the local authorities. The Moroccan state’s ability to restrict cannabis cultivation in and to some areas is in part due to the sophisticated structure of the Moroccan administrative authorities, which enables the state to probe into the situation of each douar, where a mokadem, or local informant, is appointed to inform the sheikh of the local affairs of the douar. Each sheikh is responsible for a number of mokadems and douars, and reports to the caïd of a caïdat. Every year, in each douar, the mokadem informs the population of the authorisation or interdiction to cultivate cannabis and reports about it to its hierarchy. There is no doubt that Moroccan authorities have every means to monitor cannabis cultivation across the country. Therefore, while cannabis cultivation is clearly illegal in Morocco, it has obviously been largely tolerated by the state since its independence in 1956 and its expansion has been condoned, and to an extent controlled, by the authorities.


About the author

Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy

Dr. Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy holds a Ph.D. in Geography from the Sorbonne University (Paris) and an HDR (Habilitation à diriger des recherches or "accreditation to supervise research"). He is a CNRS Research Fellow attached to the PRODIG research team (UMR 8586).

Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy est docteur en géographie, habilité à diriger des recherches (HDR), et chargé de recherche au CNRS. Il est membre de l'équipe PRODIG (UMR 8586).

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