Drug gateways - Melilla and Ceuta

Moroccan officials tell US diplomats that enclaves are springboards to Europe

Ceuta and Melilla are major entry points where European-bound drugs, especially heroin, arrive from North Africa through Morocco, US diplomats say. In a batch of US Embassy cables from Rabat released by WikiLeaks, diplomats quote Moroccan government sources as explaining how South American drug cartels dump their loads in various points throughout West Africa.

Consumption in these areas is low because poor residents cannot afford the high price of these narcotics. For that reason, the drugs are moved north to Europe where consumption is high.

Because of lax border controls and weak security in the neighboring countries, traffickers use the southern and eastern parts of Morocco to bring in their shipments, the sources tell US diplomats. This creates "a vast no man's land, where illicit trafficking flourishes," states one cable dated October 30, 2009.

Ceuta and Melilla "have the lowest levels of inspection in the European Union"

Among the most common drug routes they describe is one that connects Gao, Mali with Bechar in Algeria and finally Uchda, in Morocco. From there, the narcotics are shipped to Ceuta and Melilla.

Another route is from Nigeria "through the extensive Algerian desert" to Bechar, an important city in southern Algeria not far from the Moroccan border.

The cable describes a third route with a Canary Islands destination through Mali, Mauritania and the Western Sahara. In Agadir, on Morocco's Atlantic coast, there are 1,500 boats willing to take drugs to the Canaries, diplomats say.

The proliferation of cocaine trafficking in an area traditionally used for illegal transportation of hashish is a recent phenomenon. Up until 2008, US diplomats said that hashish was brought though the Rif mountains and across the Mediterranean, and also transported in cars and trucks through the Spanish enclaves, which "have the lowest levels of inspection in all of the European Union," according to the cables sent to Washington. Another common route is to transport the drug through Gibraltar.

Recent documents by law enforcement agencies describe the "aggressive" tactics undertaken by Moroccan authorities to curtail hashish growing and production, which include fumigating and burning marijuana fields. Government officials also encourage growers to swap their crops in favor of figs and olives.

While Morocco has doubled its efforts to wipe out hashish cultivation - the volume of plantations has fallen from 134,000 hectares of fields in 2003 to 52,000 hectares in 2009 - US government officials still consider the North African country as one of the world's foremost producers of the drug.

Still, as US diplomats continue to point at Melilla and Ceuta as drug springboards to Europe, the Moroccan port of Nador - 14 kilometers from Melilla - is seen by many experts as a major transshipment point. High-speed boats from Nador can reach distant points such as Alicante, Ibiza and even Marseilles with ease. In 2006 and 2007, EL PAÍS first reported these routes.

One US Embassy cable dated January 2009 describes the arrest in Nador of dozens of people - mostly police, military and navy officers - in a drug conspiracy.

Another cable from the US Embassy in Algiers mentions how traffickers have become more active off the Algerian coast because of tighter enforcement by Spanish security forces.

The US Embassy in Rabat also underscored the Moroccan government's warning that such drug activities are probably helping finance terrorist groups in the area. Nevertheless, diplomats tell Washington that Rabat provided them with no evidence to support their theory.

In March 2009, a US diplomat in Madrid asked High Court Judge Javier Gómez Bermúdez for his thoughts on possible terrorists attacks in Melilla and Ceuta. The judge, according to another cable, said that this could occur "any day" but denied that the risk was high because of the number of Spanish security forces located in the enclaves.

The US diplomat told Washington he didn't agree with Bermúdez's assessment because radicals could blend in among the traffickers and smugglers if they wanted to cause a lot of damage.

Civil Guard officers inspect an automobile at a border control point in Ceuta in 2007.
Civil Guard officers inspect an automobile at a border control point in Ceuta in 2007.JOAQUÍN SÁNCHEZ

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