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In May this year, a record 701kg of cocaine was intercepted by the coastguard and seized by customs authorities in the port of Oran, Algeria’s second largest city. The narcotics had been found on board the Vega Mercury, in a container full of frozen meat. The shipment reportedly started its journey in Brazil, then stopped in the Spanish ports of Las Palmas and Valencia before reaching Oran. It is reported that the Spanish authorities tipped off their Algerian counterparts.
The container ship was ordered by Dounia Meat, Algeria’s largest importer of frozen meat, owned by businessman Kamel Chikhi and his brothers. Nicknamed ‘El Bouchi’ (The Butcher), Kamel Chikhi is a powerful entrepreneur who runs several real-estate projects and import companies in Algiers. Chikhi was immediately arrested, along with three other members of the company. The scandal, which became known as ‘cocaine gate’, also led to the eviction of high-ranking officials, including the powerful former director of the National Security, General-Major Abdelghani Hamel. His eviction was linked to the fact that his personal chauffeur had been cited in the investigation.
What did the seizure mean for Algeria, a country that has, up to now, not been seen as a strategic player in the African cocaine trade?
First, it seems unlikely that the cocaine was intended to be consumed locally. Although the size of the national consumer base remains unknown, it is likely too small for such a vast amount of narcotics. Cocaine is a very expensive drug in Algeria, and can cost between 20 000 to 40 000 DA (€145-290) per gram, depending on availability. It seems far more likely, therefore, that the cocaine was being transited through Algeria for final distribution in Europe and the Middle East.
Second, it means this route – from Brazil to Spain and then Algeria (Oran), including its final destination market – had no doubt been tested and carefully secured through smaller transactions. Before sending such large quantities, drug cartels typically secure routes and have in place strong local partners and final markets.
A diplomat and security expert told ENACT that drug seizures likely represent only 10% of the amount in circulation. This means that the Algerian traffickers who facilitated this operation are likely to have a well-established connection with cartels and intermediaries in South America.
It is no coincidence that Oran was used as a transit port. A major commercial and passenger port located only 200km from Spain, Oran is strategically positioned for drug trafficking. In January 2015, fishermen discovered more than 81kg of cocaine near the Habibas Islands, only 10km from the city’s shores.
The chemical characteristics of the Habibas seizure match those of several smaller confiscations made by the police in recent years. This suggests that the cocaine transiting via Algeria might be related to an exclusive supplier. Prior to the Oran operation, the most recent significant cocaine seizure occurred in 2015, when 156kg was discovered at the Baraki port. In this instance, the narcotics had been concealed in a food container carrying powdered milk imported from New Zealand and transiting via Spain towards Algeria.
It seems notable that both seizures occurred in port zones, in containers destined for Algerian shores. Algeria has increasingly become part of the global economy since the mid-2000s, with imports rising from $15.25 billion in 2005 to $48.6 billion in 2016: a growth of 318%. This is due to the adoption of a massive import policy supported by significant oil revenues in the 2000s, which still represents 95% of its total export revenues.
The recent cocaine bust in Algeria echoes a similar seizure in Morocco, where 2.4 metric tons of cocaine had been seized near the capital, Rabat, in October 2017. In February 2018, Moroccan authorities confiscated 541 kilograms of cocaine in a cargo ship coming from Brazil and directed to Casablanca.
Cocaine trafficking in the Maghreb has been at an all-time high since 2016, suggesting the emergence of new routes. According to the UNODC World Drug Report (2018), the quantity of cocaine seized in North Africa increased six-fold in 2016, and accounted for 69% of the quantity seized in Africa. If traditionally narcotics from South America reach Africa from the west coast before being distributed in Europe and the Middle East, recent developments suggest that cocaine is increasingly transiting through the north-west coast.
This trend seems to be facilitated by historical cannabis routes that start in Morocco. There is a proven connection between South American drug cartels and Moroccan cannabis traffickers, who in turn have strong networks in the northwest of Algeria.
These alliances position North Africa as a very promising transit hub for cocaine trafficking. The stretch of the coastline between Casablanca and Algiers, passing by Oran (Algeria) and Rabat (Morocco), is a ‘golden arch’ for drug traffickers. It offers an open window on three continents and close proximity to European consumer markets. Dubbed the new North African ‘cocaine coast’, cocaine trafficking is likely to flourish here in the years to come – not only due to its proximity to the lucrative cocaine market in Europe, but also given difficulties in crossing the conflict-prone Sahel-Sahara region.
Combatting this new trend calls for greater inter-regional and inter-continental cooperation against drug trafficking. Joint maritime operations aimed at curbing cocaine trafficking, such as the one recently conducted by Spain and Morocco, are highly recommended. Algeria’s naval forces have to strengthen security along key ports through better training and capacity building programmes.
Moreover, Algerian customs have to implement an effective policy to reinforce controls on imports that arrive on container ships. The so-called ‘Green Corridor’ policy, which allows experienced importers to accelerate the entrance of goods and commodities, needs to be reviewed to better align with rigorous international standards set, for instance, by the World Customs Organisation.
The ‘cocaine gate’ debate remains heavily politicised, and depoliticising it will also help trace, identify and prosecute the actors involved in this operation. But above all, Algerian authorities have to go beyond this seizure, and interpret it as a warning that criminal networks are increasingly using the country as a cocaine transit zone.
Jihane Ben Yahia, ENACT Regional organised crime observatory coordinator – North Africa, ISS; and Raouf Farrah, Africa Lead Analyst, SecDev Group