The last remains of the Spanish empire

Spain continues to hold on to isolated islets and crags with no strategic value off the coast of North Africa

An army helicopter on the Peñon de Vélez de la Gomera
An army helicopter on the Peñon de Vélez de la GomeraSpanish Ministry of Defence

There was a time of splendor, almost a century ago now, when trade was plentiful at Peñón de Alhucemas: when the gates of the island fort swung open and the nearby residents of Rif would come in to sell their chickens, eggs, fruit, vegetables and coal. At another rock fortress, Peñón de Vélez de la Gomera, there were no fewer than five shops and taverns, including one shoe store.

 At every one of these tiny "plazas de soberanía" or sovereign strongholds held by Spain along the northern coast of Morocco, there were postal employees, border patrolmen, schoolteachers and lighthouse-keepers among a population that was over 400 in Alhucemas and Vélez (including the prisoners). Over at Isabel II, one of the Chafarinas islands - the largest of the minuscule Spanish archipelagos in the area - the population was more than 700 at one point, and there was a casino and a small military hospital on site.

Amar Binauda used to sell fish to the soldiers when he was young. He would moor his boat at Isabel II island and offer his wares to the Spanish military. He even had a fisherman's house there. His father before him also did business with the Spanish garrison: he was their butcher. But that was a long time ago, when the island troops still mingled with the residents of the nearest coast: the Moroccan pier of Cabo de Agua.

Binauda is now 74 and he never talks to the Spaniards any more. "Each one is in his place," he says. "With the Sahara thing, everything changed. There is no relationship." He is referring to the former Spanish colony of Western Sahara, which Morocco took control of when Spain walked out in 1975.

Throughout the 20th century, these enclaves gradually lost both their military usefulness and their residents. By the time of the last published census in 1970, the population was almost exclusively made up of military personnel under the orders of Melilla General Headquarters, who could not bring their families to the islets with them. Even so, 40 years ago it was still possible for the curious tourist to visit these tiny spots of Spanish sovereignty, located in landscapes of great beauty.

A century ago these outcrops of sovereignty had shops and schools

"The postal service of travelers and cargo is ensured by a steamboat owned by Compañía Transmediterránea, which makes a weekly trip from Melilla," explains a military brochure published half a century ago.

"The trip was cheap and slow - it lasted a week - and there were barely any passengers on board the boats," remembers a former tourist who is now in his eighties and remembers reading nonstop during the trip. "At every stopover there was more than enough time to get off and take a walk around."

These days, the Spanish islets off the coast of Morocco are off limits to civilians, except for the Chafarinas Islands where visits are permitted by biologists from the Higher Council for Scientific Research, a state agency, and by workers from the National Park Network, of which the islands are part. The islands are home to over 2,000 pairs (the world's second largest colony) of Audouin's gull, a rare species whose conservation is at risk. Nine out of the 11 marine invertebrates considered endangered species also call the Chafarinas home.

Up until a decade ago, there was still some kind of contact between both the islets and the nearby Moroccan population. The non-commissioned officer stationed at Vélez's infirmary used to go over to the nearby fishing village from time to time and see a few patients. Ali, who is 30 years younger than Beniauda, has childhood memories of the soldiers at Alhucemas coming over to Sfiha beach to play soccer with the villagers and go swimming. The island rock that holds the military garrison is near the coast, but not so close that it is easy to swim there.

The other two islets, Isla de Tierra and Isla de Mar, on the other hand, are literally stuck to the beach. The few meters separating the sandline from Isla de Tierra can be covered on foot, as the water is shallow. "We always used to go there to swim or to collect mussels and clams," recalls Ali. "There is a part of it that is shielded from the wind. We would take the sheep there on rafts and leave them there all winter. Nobody had a problem with it."

Contact between Spanish soldiers and locals stopped after the Perejil conflict

In other words, Spanish sovereignty was not explicit anywhere. But everything changed in 2002. The Spanish-Moroccan conflict over the islet of Perejil (known as Leila in Arabic) put an end to the casual relationship. The nurse no longer came down to the village, and the soldiers placed barbed wire fences along the perimeter of Isla de Tierra to prevent holidaymakers from reaching it. Yet Perejil, a craggy protuberance with a surface area of 0.15 square kilometers that Morocco took control of on July 11, 2002, only to be evicted by Spanish forces six days later, is technically not a plaza de soberanía. It is a strange no man's land, according to the agreement reached 10 years ago.

For a decade now, these rock islands have been the cause of intermittent friction between Rabat and Madrid. The most serious incident was in June 2010, when King Mohammed VI was enjoying a few days of rest aboard a yacht that was moored in Alhucemas Bay. The monarch was bothered by the constant flight of the helicopters bringing supplies to the Spanish garrison on the peñón, crossing Moroccan airspace as they did so. Mohammed VI asked for the flights to be suspended during his holiday, and the Spanish Defense Ministry agreed, but took a while to do so, sparking his majesty's ire.

Then, in May of this year, the islets became a headache for the Spanish government one more time. African immigrants trying to reach Europe had found a new way into Spain. The first four boats filled with undocumented migrants pulled into Chafarinas and shook the garrison out of its lethargy. In late August, more immigrants reached Isla de Tierra, probably by swimming there. Alarms went off in government hallways, as Spanish officials scrambled to prevent an avalanche of illegal immigration via this new mode of entry. But this could only be done by working together with Morocco. To leave the sub-Saharan migrants on the islet or to send them all to Melilla or mainland Spain would have been "like stating that Spanish territory was open ground," said Foreign Minister José Manuel García-Margallo.

To prevent such a thing, the government bypassed its own immigration law, according to many human rights groups, including Amnesty International and the Spanish Committee for Refugee Support. The law makes it mandatory to initiate individual deportation procedures with all kinds of legal safeguards, including the right to a lawyer. If these same migrants had entered Melilla or the mainland, they would have benefited from the law, but not so on the islets, where "Spanish sovereignty is less protecting," said one diplomat in ironic tones. Even so, the Socialist Party backed the conservative government on the issue.

The islets are also Spain, but a somewhat particular Spain. Alborán belongs to the province of Almería in administrative terms, but the seven other islets (the archipelagos of Alhucemas and Chafarinas and the Peñón de Vélez) have an "undefined internal status," according to the scholar Alejandro del Valle. "They are completely outside the state's territorial organization because they are not part of any province," he writes in an article published by the think-tank Real Instituto Elcano.

Life there is tedious. Visits to garrisons on the islets were stopped in 2005

"These are territories that do not show up explicitly as being Spanish in any relevant text," continues Del Valle. "This regulatory void creates uncertainty on many levels: the recognition and delimitation of marine spaces and territorial or security waters, applicable domestic jurisdiction."

These "advance posts, true watchtowers of the homeland," as Melilla military headquarters described them, are thus vulnerable, and keeping a military presence there is expensive, especially in times of crisis.

When the first group of sub-Saharan migrants sat down in Isla de Tierra last August, newspapers like the Casablanca-based As Sabah saw "clouds ahead in the relations between Madrid and Rabat." But Mohammed VI wished to avoid a conflict, and gave the green light to the readmission into Morocco of 72 boat people. It was the second time since the Spanish-Moroccan readmission agreement of 1992 that Rabat took back a contingent of sub-Saharan transients, whom it quickly deported to Algeria through a border that has been theoretically closed for the last 18 years.

With immigration, the "occupied Moroccan islets are becoming a problem for Spain," headlined the Casablanca daily Akhbar al Youm. Ultimately, that was not the case as Morocco lent a hand, just as it does in the Spanish enclave of Melilla, where it deploys military personnel to back the Gendarmes and the riot police if necessary in their fight against illegal immigration.

But the Moroccan authorities could get tired of helping, or occasionally wish to draw attention away from their own internal problems - the country is slipping into an economic crisis - by letting a conflict erupt in the nearby Spanish territory. Crags and islets cannot be defended without help from Morocco. It is impossible to fence them in, like Ceuta and Melilla, or to station hundreds of Civil Guards there to hold back people trying to jump over.

If Spain hands over the islands, Morocco could demand Cueta and Melilla

"The strategic value of the islets and the Chafarinas is equal to zero," says a general who was once in command of them. The diminutive possessions do not hold any relay or radar systems, or indeed any electronic warfare instruments that might be useful for the deployment of the Spanish Armed Forces or surveillance of northern Africa, beyond the necessary equipment to ensure communications with the garrisons. In the age of satellites and airborne radars, it is no longer necessary to sit on your neighbor's lap to spy on him.

Which is not to say that military officials would like to end a presence that goes back 500 years, in the case of Melilla. "Spain can't be handed out in pieces," says the above mentioned general in angry tones. Another general, who was Army Chief of Staff, reasons that "if Spain handed them over, Morocco would next demand Ceuta and Melilla, and if we agreed, it would claim the Canary Islands."

That is why it is rare indeed to find a single member of the military who does not applaud the Spanish recovery of Perejil in 2002, even if most Spaniards did not even know of its existence. The attitude seems to be "not a step back." These minor outposts are the first line of defense.

And that is despite the fact that the islets themselves are impossible to defend. Each one of the three garrisons - on Chafarinas Islands, Peñón de Alhucemas and Peñón de Vélez de la Gomera - has an infantry section (between 25 and 30 servicemen) under the orders of a lieutenant. They also have a team from the marine services with a Zodiac to help incoming vessels (only the Chafarinas have a mooring dock). They lack artillery and military leaders would rather keep quiet when they are asked if they have any portable missiles.

Their main vulnerability lies in their proximity to the coast of Morocco, which Vélez de la Gomera is joined to by an isthmus. They are also very far from headquarters in Melilla, which lacks the right transportation to send additional troops in case of an emergency. It's been years since the Navy took back the patrol boat it left in Melilla after the Perejil incident. A tugboat comes by every two months to take away heavy or dangerous material such as fuel. Same with the Chinook helicopter that drops by every four to five weeks from the base in Colmenar Viejo (Madrid) to relieve the troops. There is also a Cougar helicopter based permanently in Melilla, but it is smaller than the Chinook and its mission is to conduct medical evacuations and carry emergency supplies. To get to the islets, the aircraft need to fly over Moroccan territory. It is not surprising, then, that the Army tries to be as self-reliant as possible at all three garrisons: they have their own desalination plants, generating sets and a solar power plant in Chafarinas, as well as a nurse.

Life here is tedious. Up until 2005, there were regular visits from officials' relatives, and even the odd summer camp. That year there was a veritable mutiny on Chafarinas. Up to 11 soldiers were charged with sedition after the lieutenant punished them when a visitor's GPS disappeared. In order to put an end to such trouble, the commander general in Melilla decided to put all visits on hold. Now it is exceptional for any civilian to obtain a permit to come near areas that, like the Chafarinas, are a natural paradise.

Vélez de la Gomera, for instance, is located near a small cove and a tiny hamlet that can only be reached by sea or a dirt track stretching 20 kilometers from the main road. Near the small beach, which is populated by chickens and sheep, there are a few fishing boats. To the left, the Spanish rock rises 87 meters above sea level at its highest point. Vélez was once an island, but has been connected to the mainland since 1930, meaning it has a land border with Morocco.

The soldiers at Vélez, say the villagers, do not mingle with the Moroccans, either. Just like in Chafarinas and Alhucemas, everyone stays in their place. This was where seven Moroccan activists planted four Moroccan flags on August 29. Images of the incident show Spanish servicemen in the background, dressed in shorts and some wearing flip-flops, in an attitude that suggests they don't have much to do there.

"Even though there's not a lot going on there, they used to be pretty decent postings," recalls Miguel Ángel Alonso. He did his military service at Vélez in 1984 and spent three months there. "Back then there were 80 to 100 of us on the island. They used to call us the 'rock people.' We did almost everything in the morning, and tried to work out in the afternoon. It was a good life. The odd person got out of line, but we knew we could not cross into Morocco, and all our supplies came from the outside."

Each garrison comes from an army unit in Melilla. The personnel at Chafarinas belong to the Great Captain of the Legión Corps; the servicemen at Alhucemas are part of the 32nd Mixed Artillery Regiment, and those at Vélez de la Gomera come from the 52nd Regular Regiment. For as long as they remain on the islets, they receive a bonus that is equivalent to what they get while out on maneuvers, but less than what their colleagues in Lebanon or Afghanistan get.

Is it expensive to maintain these sovereign strongholds? Military leaders shrug. "The really expensive thing is maintaining Melilla, which also lacks any strategic interest, unlike Ceuta," they reply. The military personnel in Melilla make more than their colleagues on the peninsula, but their situation is no different from that of physicians, teachers or any other civil servant.

"It didn't even cross our minds," says a member of government when he is asked about the possibility of giving the crags and islets away to Morocco. And what if they were wiped off the map as though they had never existed? "That would be a different story." Nobody would miss them.

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