In North Africa’s Forested Hills, Smugglers Rule

Smuggling is woven deeply into the social and economic fabric of the mountainous border region between Algeria and Tunisia, a reporter from El Watan Weekend finds as he accompanies local bootleggers on their treks. Bouzid Ichalalene travels back and forth across the border with a startling variety of people, from hip young men wearing sunglasses who buy and sell illegal assault rifles, to veiled women in taxicabs smuggling clothing; leaning out of pickup truck windows to greet peasant shepherds who are paid lookouts and urbane gendarmes on the take.

Ichalalene sketches the ancient Algerian city of Tebessa as a smugglers’s haven with a golden-hued ‘Dukes of Hazzard’ culture, featuring car chases, back-road four-wheel drive adventures, and smugglers’ marketplaces in hidden forest clearings. But there are tinges of darkness on the horizon: jihadi militants in the mountains, and a growing market for illegal assault rifles and other weapons smuggled in from the chaos that is Libya.

More than fifty pickup trucks are already parked here. All of them pointed toward the road, prepared for a rapid escape in case trouble arrives. The only thing you can hear is the rumble of the motors, all of them left running.

From this spot, which is about half the size of a soccer stadium, about a dozen backroads head out into the pine forest. As soon as he gets out of his truck, Rachid, the man who has brought me here, is accosted by a Libyan in his thirties, all smiles. Rachid asks him “what have you got for sale?” Assault rifles, pistols, Kalashnikovs. To have a look at them, my companion has to climb up into his crew-cab pickup. Rachid is happy with the prices. The Libyan offers him a pistol for 82,000 dinars [$500]. Rachid figures he can resell it for almost twice that. “I prefer to buy in Tunisia, because the weapons come in from Libya, and they are a lot cheaper,” he tells me. He introduces me as a family member, so as not to arouse suspicions.

In the other vehicles, merchandise is also changing hands: clothing, hookah tobacco, household appliances, fuel… Contraband markets like this one are widespread on both sides of the Algerian-Tunisian border. But weapons are not sold everywhere. We are less than 40 minutes from the border, a few hundred meters off the national highway. But it would be impossible to blunder into this place on your own. And also very difficult for the authorities to catch anyone red-handed out here.

Because in every direction there are dozens of lookouts-among others, the local sheep-herders. They are paid to keep their eyes open and on the alert to phone a warning ahead. “It all comes through Houidjebet [Algerian village a mile from the Tunisian border],” Rachid says. “There is no gendarme, no border guard, no soldier, who can stand up to the barons of the borderlands. The level of corruption is way above the mere bureaucrats. All of the supervisors are in on it. But don’t feel bad for them. They all get their slice of the pie.”

It had all begun in Tebessa. I had made an appointment to meet the smuggler in a public place, in front of the Maghreb Cinema downtown. Around us, the taxi stands and the bus station at the foot of the ruins of the Roman city, which continues to be demolished to make way for a bigger road; the crowded pedestrian streets with the open air clothing market, and the “Constantine Road,” as people here call it for want of actually knowing the official name.

It is 5pm, and the temperature has already dropped to zero degrees Celsius. Rachid arrives at last. He is in a black Mercedes with tinted windows. Shaggy-haired, eyes hidden behind sunglasses, he never stops scanning his surroundings.

Youcef, the contact who got me in touch with him, puts Rachid at ease. “Welcome, Mr. Journalist,” he tells me, putting his hand on my shoulder. “Well, at least I sure hope you are a journalist, and not from the security services!” After a long discussion regarding our upcoming journey, Rachid tells us to meet him the next day at 1 in the afternoon. The plan is to cross the border with him, but bypassing the customs and border post. We are going to take the smugglers’ roads. Before leaving, he locks eyes with me and tells me, “Tomorrow, you are going to see things you won’t believe. You are going to see that it is we who are in charge here. It is we who make our own laws.”

Almost 375 miles east of Algiers, the province of Tebessa shares a 185 mile border with Tunisia. The official unemployment rate in the province, with its 650,000 inhabitants, and without a single industrial zone, was 8.44 percent in 2015. But out here, virtually everyone will tell you that the real unemployment rate is over 30 percent. A local education official tells me that in the city of Tebessa, which he describes as “marginalized by the authorities,” young people “don’t even waste their time going to trade schools or universities. They just join up directly with the smuggling networks as soon as they can, instead of spending two years going to school so they can end up as unemployed college graduates.”

“As smugglers,” he says, “they are sure to make anything from 60 to a 125 dollars a day at minimum, which is obviously much more attractive than unemployment.” The streets of the city are filled with four-wheel drive pickups, Fords and Toyotas. These vehicles are links in an endless chain stretching out from every gas station pump. The price increases for gasoline, and the rationing which was first imposed, then abandoned as ineffective, have done nothing: gasoline remains the number one smuggling item [due to Algeria’s much lower prices compared to neighboring Tunisia, which is not a major petroleum producer].

To avoid shortages and delays, and to be ready to deliver gasoline to the other side of the border at any moment, the smugglers here have excavated beneath their houses, digging out storage ponds where they stockpile gasoline. “Other people use water tanks,” one local tells me. He is Salim, 27 and unemployed. Wrapped up in a burnouse, and awaiting his turn to fill up his truck with gasoline, he tells me in a Tunisian accent that “on the other side of the border it’ll sell for twice as much money.”

Most of the young people in the region are getting into this new and “very profitable” business. Though they worry that weapons trafficking, on the rise more than ever since the fall of Libya’s Moammar al-Qaddhafi, and an increasing concern for the security services, may jeopardize their business. “Sure,” he tells me, “what we are doing is illegal too. But we don’t really have a choice. We have to do something to get by, since the state doesn’t seem capable of creating any real jobs.”

The next day at around 11 am, I meet up with Rachid a few kilometers outside Tebessa. He’s proud of his latest acquisition, showing off an HK-416 assault rifle. “Made in Germany,” he tells me. “a really rare model.” His phone keeps ringing, and he answers every call. Along the road linking Tebessa to Bouchebka-one of the six official frontier posts with Tunisia-Rachid tells me, “every person you go past is either a smuggler or a lookout. Take a look at those who are parked facing toward oncoming traffic. They are the ones who give the alert if a patrol comes along.”

We pass a sheepherder and his flock at the side of the road. Rachid pulls over. “Hello Mahfoud, how’s the weather today?” Wrapped up in his brown qashabia robe, the sheepherder smiles from ear to ear. “It’s all sunny around here,” he says. Rachid explains their coded discussion to me afterwards. “It meant that there is no particular activity by the security forces along the border right now. Since the sheepherders are always around, they always know what’s going on.”

A few kilometers along, we come upon a gendarme roadblock at a big intersection. No concern registers on Rachid’s face.

Arriving at the checkpoint, the gendarmes smile and wave as soon as they recognize the driver. “Hello Rachid, how are you? Is business good?” an agent even asks. “Yes, thank God,” Rachid replies with the same theatrical concern. “I hope you’ve got everything you need.” The agent smiles back and wishes us a “good trip.”

“I buy them off with a phone card or a sandwich,” he tells me. But it would be a mistake to point the finger at them. “It is not their fault; it’s their bosses who send them out here in the middle of nowhere without even minimally decent working conditions.” A few kilometers past the roadblock, and we are in the middle of a village. On a little plaza, dozens of pickups loaded down with fuel containers are parked facing in all directions. A friend of Rachid waves him down. “Hey buddy, I’m looking for a car that’s in good shape. I need to switch to something more comfortable,” he says. “I could pay anything up to $5,000.” The price seems absurdly cheap to me.

But Rachid assures me that he’ll find the guy a good deal, since, he says, “most of the cars around here are stolen and don’t have any registration papers.” The owners of the pickups are squatting around a teapot. “They’re waiting for the green light from the lookouts and the security services to cross over,” Rachid says. The frontier is only a few kilometers away. Near El Houidjebet, we pull off the road and onto a dirt backroad. All along the road now, trucks pass one another every which way. To slow them down–people tell me that they run over everything in their way, including children–local authorities have built enormous speed bumps. And to bypass the speed bumps, the smugglers have in turn carved out little side-roads.

Just as we enter the backroad, Rachid points out a border guard vehicle parked in a patch of farmland. He explains that we will drive around, and rejoin the backroad…right in front of the border guard post! The houses we can see 500 yards away are in Tunisia. The lots of land here look like large, abandoned farming fields. There are a few greenhouses as well.

Rachid accelerates, kicking up a huge cloud of dust. For the guards watching the border, it would be impossible to miss. “Nobody is going to say anything to us,” he assures me. “We’ve made an agreement with them. There are certain hours of the day where they close their eyes to what’s going on, and don’t stop anyone. In return, we pay them. It’s a win-win business.” No checkpoints, no barriers, and then Rachid suddenly exclaims, “Welcome to Tunisia!” We continue along the road toward Kasserine. Looming over us the massif of Mount Chaambi, lair of the jihadis of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

The vegetation begins to thicken, an immense forest emerging in front of us. Coming in the other direction, a pickup flashes its lights. At the speed he is moving, kicking up a cloud of dust, it is impossible to see the face of the driver. But Rachid knows the code. The vehicle is loaded down, and the driver needs us to make way for him. A few minutes later, we lose ourselves in the forest; dirt road succeeding dirt road, and I give up on keeping track of where we are. Relaxed, Rachid plays the tour guide. “We are half an hour out of Kasserine, passing outside the town of Foussana right now.”

“Here on the Tunisian side, there are almost no gendarmes,” he says. “Their numbers are few and in any case they are all corrupt. On the Algerian side, there are the corrupt as well. The only difference there is that the newly posted troops will sometimes conduct surprise patrols. But that doesn’t last long.” On the other hand, sometimes, he says, “there are chases like something out of an American movie about the Mexican border.” When that happens, the smugglers have come up with ways of getting away, he says. “When you’re worried, you never travel alone, you always bring somebody along with you. They sit in the back of the pickup with the containers of gasoline. Their job is to throw them out onto the road to slow down the guys who are chasing you.”

At the contraband market later, Rachid does not end up doing the weapons deal with the Libyan. And by four pm, he is ready to head home. “Before nightfall,” he says. On the way back, the flow of traffic in the opposite direction is much heavier than in the morning. It’s the hour when all the smugglers who sell their merchandise during the night do their crossing. As we cross back over the Algerian border, Rachid smiles, saying “Buddy, I promise you that if I wanted I could drive a tank across and nobody would stop me.”

The next day, my contact Youcef suggests that we cross over to Tunisia again, this time going through the official border post at Bouchebka, and showing my passport. To get there, we take a collective taxi. The cost of a seat in a taxi to the border varies, depending on what you are carrying. If you are only your baggage, and don’t have much of anything to hide from the gendarmes along the way, you only pay about 65 cents. But if you are carrying merchandise to sell, you have to be a bit more generous with the driver.

Our driver’s name is Ammar. At 50, he knows the way like the back of his hand. I am sharing the taxi with two veiled Algerian women, a 30 year old Tunisian mechanic, and Youcef. The two women and the driver know each other well. The women buy clothing and cosmetics in the Algerian cities of Oum el Bouagui and Setif, and then resell them in the markets of Kasserine, in Tunisia.

As we approach the frontier, Youcef points out a trench that has been excavated a few hundred yards from the border post. “The Algerian authorities had it dug to stop the smugglers from just driving across,” he says.

In Bouchebka, several dozen houses have been built next to the border post. The only shops are some newspaper kiosks, a café-restaurant, and a general store. We’ve barely gotten out of the taxi before we are accosted by a crowd of money changers. The Tunisian dinar buys about 80 Algerian dinars here.

Youcef tells me not to stray from the taxi. Not for security reasons, but because we are going to transact some important business with the young men, between 18 and 30, who gather to offer curbside service as soon as you get out of the taxi.

Meriem, one of the two ladies who rode here with us, starts negotiating with one of them. “These guys carry the merchandise across the border, but without going through the border post,” Youcef explains.

Meriem, and the ‘transporter’ agree on a price of about $15. The guarantor of the transaction is Ammar, the taxi driver. So, right in front of the gendarmes, Meriem loads all of her merchandise onto the young man’s cart, and heads over to cross the border, now traveling “light”, with her passport.

Meanwhile, the transporter heads behind a fence to cross the border via a pathway. No one ever comes up to ask what they are doing. “The gendarmes, the border guards and the customs officers all work with them,” says Youcef. “They take a percentage of the sum the client pays, and redistribute it. A third for themselves, and a third each for the two others, the border officials from Algeria and Tunisia.”

Back in Tebessa, security sources are “aware of what is going on,” they later tell me. But “if we were going to get it entirely under control, we would have to arrest the entire province.”

Because here, in spite of what officialdom will tell you, smuggling is universal. It puts food on the table for the entire region. 80 percent of what gets smuggled is not going to endanger the country’s security; most of it being composed of food products, clothing and appliances. The other 20 percent though? “Mostly weapons and drugs,” I am told.

When my turn comes at the border, the customs officer asks me “What do you have in your bag?” I reply “Some personal items and a computer.” Without looking through it, the officer hands back my passport and wishes me a pleasant trip.

On the Tunisian side, there is no customs control at all. Meriem is already here, unloading her merchandise from the transporter’s cart, before getting into a ‘louage.’(A Tunisian collective transport). A seat costs about $2.50.

An hour later, we arrive in Kasserine. The protestors who occupied the provincial offices a few weeks ago are still here. They are demanding jobs. Some of them have sewn their own mouths shut. Others are threatening to join the jihadis in the mountains.

Nabil Guessoumi, president of the Kasserine Union of Unemployed College Graduates, sympathizes. “It’s a perfectly normal reaction,” he says. “People need to work to live. If they can’t they have to join the smuggling network. I remember at one point, the unemployed guys in my neighborhood had started a soccer team. One day I ran into one of them and asked him if he was still playing. He told me he couldn’t because everybody else had gone up into the mountains to join the jihadis!”

In this city, Algerian products are everywhere. In the markets, it is impossible to avoid Condor branded items. Along the sides of the road, in the absence of real gas stations, you buy your fuel directly out of gasoline containers from improvised “stations.”

Amel Rabhi, head of the Tunisian League for Human Rights, says that “the Tunisian authorities urgently need to deal with the demands of the unemployed, in order to put a stop to this ever-increasing plague of lawlessness.”

I meet with a Tunisian special forces officer near the slopes of Mount Chaambi. He seems to think it necessary to tell me that “the Tunisian troops who are in charge of securing the border with Algeria are corrupt. Sometimes we get word that there is a group of terrorists in a certain place. We deploy dozens of kilometers on foot to encircle them, only to find when we get there that they have already departed. And it is clear that members of our own unit have forewarned them.”

The wife of sergeant major Mokhtar Mbarki, murdered by his own subordinates in June of 2013 on Mount Chaambi, tells me that her husband, only days before he was killed, had told her “he wanted to quit the army. He couldn’t stand what his fellow officers were doing.”

As the day draws to a close, I head back, uneventfully, to Tebessa. And there I run into Rachid again, in a bit of a hurry. That same night, he is heading back to Tunisia, where “business” awaits.

Bouzid Ichalalene Translated from French by International Boulevard