Is this the end of drug baron “El Nene”?

Mohamed Taieb Ahmed is missing after his boat was reportedly ambushed off the Moroccan coast

“El Nene” makes the victory sign in a personal photo taken in January.
“El Nene” makes the victory sign in a personal photo taken in January.

On Sunday August 3, Mohamed Taieb Ahmed, a drug baron better known as “El Nene” (The Baby) who police believe controls a substantial part of the cannabis trade between Morocco and Spain, was enjoying a day aboard his speedboat with two friends off the Moroccan coast near the upscale resort of Marina Smir, around 30 kilometers south of Tangier.

According to the report that his wife and the two friends made to police, around 6pm another motorboat approached Taieb’s vessel and an unknown number of men opened fire on it. In the ensuing chaos, Taieb is said to have jumped overboard, and has not been seen since.

If the 39-year-old is dead – and until his body is washed ashore there are many who have their doubts – it would certainly be a fittingly dramatic end to a short but spectacular career that has made him an idol to many young Moroccans who have little chance of ever finding work.

His disappearance also comes just weeks before the Spanish release of El Niño, a film seemingly inspired by his career – though the producers refute this is the case and he himself has denied having any involvement in the production.

His spectacular career has made him an idol to young Moroccans who have little chance of ever finding work

El Nene began his career at the age of 14 in the slums of Ceuta, the Spanish enclave on Morocco’s northern coast, and soon established himself as ambitious and ruthless. Until then, the cannabis trade in Spain was controlled by Spanish traffickers and shipments were brought across the Strait of Gibraltar aboard fast, powerful motorboats, often piloted by men such as Alan Parker and Alberto Parodi, who were based in Gibraltar, knew the waters around the British Overseas Terriotory, and were easily able to outfox the Spanish coastguard and police. But El Nene decided to take over the delivery aspect of his business, and began piloting Phantom speedboats into Spanish waters himself, sometimes making three trips in a single night, sometimes in adverse conditions.

By the mid-1990s, and barely out of his teens, he was one of the main drug bosses in Ceuta. Generous to those loyal to him, he lavished cars and motorbikes on friends. But he also earned respect for his open contempt for the Spanish police, publicly insulting Civil Guards, and on one occasion holding a knife to the throat of an officer at a road check.

El Nene is also credited with inventing the use of the decoy drug run, sending out three motorboats, two of which were empty. He would then personally reclaim the seized boats, paying the fine to the Civil Guard. At the height of his operations, he is said to have had around 70 people under his command in North Africa, and around 30 along the Spanish coast between Marbella and San Roque.

He was first arrested in 2000, and sent to the Victoria Kent open prison outside Madrid, but within a year was out on parole. El Nene returned to Morocco and resumed his career. He continued to run his drug-trafficking activities from a villa in the luxury resort of Marina Smir. By now it was believed that one in every 10 kilograms of cannabis entering Spain belonged to El Nene’s organization. To prevent extradition to Spain (he was born a Spanish citizen), he took up Moroccan nationality under the name Mohamed el Ouazzani.

But in 2003, after a shootout with a rival gang left a bodyguard of King Mohammed VI injured, he was arrested, and sentenced to eight years in a Moroccan prison.

He was arrested in 2003 after a shootout with a rival gang left a bodyguard of King Mohammed VI injured

After fellow prisoners rioted over his abusive behavior in jail in the city of Salé, he was transferred to Kenitra where he was given several cells to himself, and kept a number of prison guards in his pay.

But three years into his sentence, in December 2007, he decided not to return to prison after being granted a furlough, and headed for Ceuta, where the Spanish police were immediately alerted to his presence but were unable to arrest him, as all the charges against him in Spain had lapsed.

On April 24, 2008, just over a year after walking out of prison and setting himself up in Ceuta, the Spanish police arrested El Nene. He was first held in Madrid, and then extradited to Morocco, after having his Spanish nationality taken from him. In Ceuta, there were demonstrations demanding his release. After a two-year silence, he returned to Ceuta, without anybody being quite sure how he had pulled it off.

Since then he has kept a low profile, opening a small café, and seemed focused on bringing his family together after his wife gave birth to a girl in June.

For the moment, the Spanish and Moroccan authorities are keeping an open mind as to his whereabouts, and have searched the area where he is believed to have gone overboard. Spanish police arrested and then released four people believed to have been aboard the vessel that allegedly attacked El Nene’s. The four refused to make a statement, and an investigating judge has since passed the case on to the High Court in Madrid.