Female Smugglers Between the Source and the Commercial Estuaries

A close look at the phenomenon of the “women-mules”; the female smugglers who transport goods from the border crossing of “Ceuta”, the Moroccan city occupied by Spain, to all the popular markets of the country.
2019-07-17

Mohamed Benaziz

Writer and Filmmaker from Iraq


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Fernando del Berro

This publication has benefited from the support of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation. This text may be reproduced in part or in full, provided the source is acknowledged.

There are the “estuaries”, the random popular markets that spread on the sidewalks of most urban streets in Morocco, and there is the source, the city of Ceuta. Between them is a long trail upon which the goods travel along with the many stories of the women who carry them on their journey. The “Tarakhal” crossing is the narrow door through which public smuggling takes place. The Moroccan city of Ceuta, which has been occupied by Spain for six hundred years, is the source of all smuggled goods. A crowd of people and smugglers all try to pass through the small gate under the police’s incapability to organize the terrible congestion.

The Female “Mules”

Thousands of women carry huge bundles of used clothes, chocolates and other goods on their backs, comprising a shocking and peculiar sight. The mainstream media dubbed these women “the mules”, amid legal and media protests to the degrading label. Even though the term was later extracted from media circulation, it remains widely used among the public.

The number of "mule" women smugglers is estimated to be about nine thousand. The photos taken at the border before photography was banned show endless packed lines of these human carriers. These photos, in which a policeman is always present guiding the women, are very significant.

One-way smuggling, from occupied Ceuta to Morocco is only the tip of the iceberg of the parallel economy which plays a substantial role in the Moroccan economy and society. Parallel economic activities take place in several domains, most notably in real estate, a sector that “lays golden eggs”, amassing money through tax evasion and concealing the real prices from the land registry. According to a study released in April 2018 by the General Federation of Moroccan Enterprises (CGEM), the informal sector accounts for 20 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) and 20 percent of imports, affecting 54 percent of textile and clothing activities and 26 percent of the food industry. It employs 2.4 million people, accounting for 36.3 percent of the labor market in non-agricultural sectors nationwide.

Morocco’s proximity to Europe makes the continuous flow of goods possible. 14 kilometers is not an obstructive distance for modern ships and speedboats. The enormous quantities of goods available in Ceuta attract women from all parts of Morocco. From the slums that surround the cities, the popular neighborhoods, the desert or the countryside, women, mostly in their fifties, prefer the small trade to work in agriculture. They return with their goods the same way they arrived, in trucks and buses, sleeping overnights on the road. Whenever one of these vehicles is stopped for inspection, a driver's assistant talks to the gendarmerie to “reassure” them.

These women practice a so called "smuggling for livelihood”, according to the official sterile term. The goods they carry reach countless “estuaries”. These are random popular markets where sidewalks function as open-air shops that display Western goods bearing non-Moroccan brands, such as sheets, shoes, cheese and nail polish.

This type of smuggling is the most obvious form of parallel economy. It is a "terrestrial" economy, affected by the factors of the weather, dust and congestion. The so-called "souks of the north" that spread in the Moroccan cities, from the giant city of Casablanca to the small city of Tiflet (70 kilometers east of Rabat), are difficult to penetrate. In all these places, mothers are the breadwinners on behalf of the unemployed youth, and "family solidarity" means that a woman provides for the many family members.

What Makes the Informal Sector "Necessary”?

The answer is the weak purchasing power of the people, the lack of job opportunities and the prevalence of "disguised unemployment", that is the seasonal temporary self-employment.

The name most widely used for the informal sector is " the black economy”. It involves goods of unknown origin which lack the proper documentation from the manufacturer or a source of import. In unauthorized production units, unregistered in the commercial register, money is paid and received outside the banking sector and commercial transactions are conducted in arbitrary spaces. This sector evades taxes and the individuals who work in it are unregistered for health coverage or retirement pensions. The informal sector’s activities are found everywhere: in the ten-dollar smuggled piece of clothes sold on the sidewalks, in the hard currency trade by the young people who stand on Rabat’s street corners whispering “exchange, exchange!”, and in the “Ain Harouda” villages north of Casablanca, where covert factories load trucks with goods, textiles and clothing worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. The popularity of these goods in the markets is revealed by the luxurious cars that roam around the villages they come from. It is clear that the authorities are aware of the process and deliberately choose to ignore it. All of these activities are ways of earning a living in a world of “each-man-for-himself”.

It is difficult to practically investigate all forms of informal economy in the Moroccan sphere which harbors an aversion to investigative journalism. However, the case of the women porters can be observed as it floats back on the media platforms whenever there is an overcrowding death incident at the Ceuta crossing. Small capitals cannot afford a slow economic cycle, so the women try to promote their goods as quickly as possible in the “estuaries”. In the markets, the women sit patiently on the sidewalks or near walls for long hours, waiting to sell whatever they have.

Smuggling is Not a Coincidence

Occupying a street space for selling goods is permitted by “oral licensing”, and the same goes for smuggling. Sometimes smuggled goods are confiscated in cities in the heart of Morocco, a thousand kilometers from the border. No one asks how they got there in the first place, or why these goods in particular were confiscated, and not others elsewhere. This is often interpreted as selective punishment against a particular party for failing to perform certain tasks. For example, the smuggling of computers has decreased since the outbreak of Al Hoceima protests. Law enforcement was suddenly needed.

Smuggling has been practiced since the end of the nineteenth century in Morocco, so this kind of economic activity is not “new”. Until the last quarter of the twentieth century, smuggling was a function of the elite who needed expensive goods, like whiskey. At the beginning of the twentieth century, these goods became legal and international brands opened branches in Morocco, reducing the profitable smuggling business for money owners, since the economic elite would not smuggle second-hand clothing, but only the rare and expensive goods. With their retreat, what remained was the smuggling-for-livelihood, practiced by the poor women.

For the tax collector, the informal economy is “black”. The money is not detected by the banks and the capitals and debts are placed outside all financial institutions for fear of going through the banking systems. Statistically, about 40 thousand unregulated production units are founded per year in the informal sector in Morocco since 2007, and the number of transactions in the unorganized sector increased annually by 6.5 percent. Occupations in trade and commerce remain the most profitable for unregulated entrepreneurs. Hence, The General Federation of Moroccan Enterprises (CGEM, the employers' union) has called on the government to integrate the parallel economy into the structured economy.

Why Does Smuggling Continue to Thrive?

Moroccan consumers regard every foreign brand as a product of good quality, rendering the Moroccan market an encouraging environment for smuggling. Women left at the mercy of their economic situations, in deep poverty, without education or resources, participate, in whichever way they can, in the smuggling activities. In Morocco, more than ninety percent of all property is registered in the names of men, meaning that women (half of the society) own about five percent only of the overall wealth.

In addition, unemployment is widespread in Morocco. An official report recommended that the government provide 400 thousand jobs a year in all fields, but the economy currently provides only 200 thousand jobs. Therefore, there are 200 thousand people who must manage in other ways, and needless to say, this has consequences. King Mohammed VI himself declared the failure of the Moroccan development model to produce a fair distribution of wealth, a "model" established and launched in the hope of remedying the flaws revealed by the Arab Development Report in 2003. Fifteen years later, the king announced that Morocco had to adopt an alternative development model. Mohammed VI's description and evaluation of the economic situation was more accurate than that of the Moroccan opposition.

The Link between Protests and Smuggling Control

What is the most obvious manifestation of failure? The well-known story repeats itself: Suddenly, in an unexpected place in Morocco, protests erupt, resulting in confrontations, destruction of public properties, fires, burned cars, mass arrests, and marathon trials that end without issuing verdicts. Many condemn the events while raising an incredulous question: why does the sane, peaceful and well Moroccan citizen resort to such violent actions?

For instance, after fences were erected at the Algerian border, smuggling halted at that front, and unrest in eastern Morocco increased rapidly. The newspapers published that "Moroccans demanded jobs after preventing cross-border smuggling with Algeria." In this case, the smuggling of gasoline, usually practiced by men, was prohibited.

The citizens demanded that the state either ignores the smuggling or provides jobs for the people, but the state does not heed the second request. Thus, it appears that the Moroccan government is forced to choose between finding employment for young people, allowing them to migrate (Harraga), or allowing them to smuggle goods.

On October 28, 2016, a young man was killed in a truck in Al Hoceima, igniting a protest movement in the area, where social demands and feelings of persecution on a regional basis were intermixed. The victim was a fish smuggler who sold illegal product outside of the regulated fish market. This information was ignored because smuggling was an eminent reality in Morocco.

When the police intervene to enforce the law, the street sellers usually organize a protest in which they raise pictures of the king to avoid any possible collisions. The police are considered to be a loose device of control in the quiet days. It is clear that condoning the smuggling-for-livelihood acts as a pre-emptive measure to control the protests, sealing an unspoken deal between the authorities and the protesting smugglers. At the gates of occupied Ceuta, smuggling is permitted yet photography is forbidden.

There is yet another unconventional mode of protest. Smuggling had declined by the end of 2017 and the beginning of 2018 due to a long winter hiatus. Small capital, however, cannot afford to stop its circulation and always needs a small cycle. Moroccan newspapers reported that protesters had marched in the occupied city of Ceuta because of the diminishing smuggling activity, causing chaos and overcrowding and asking for the return of the women smugglers who sell them goods. Morocco’s geographic location is an asset in itself, and this reduces the possibility of a collapse in the situation of Ceuta which survives on smuggling. The Spanish Government responded to the protestors’ demands in April and began the construction of a maritime gateway between occupied Ceuta and Morocco to circumvent the overcrowding at the unique crossing point. Women smugglers will eventually adapt to the situation by creating other ways to reach the goods to-be-smuggled, and carry on their “business-as-usual”.

The content of this publication is the sole responsibility of Assafir Al-Arabi and Rosa Luxemburg Foundation cannot accept any liability for it.

Translated from Arabic by Sabah Jalloul
Published in Assafir Al-Arabi on 17/04/2018

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