A Relentless War

There is an atmosphere of intense concentration around the solid wood table. General Makhloufi, Commander in Chief of the Royal Gendarmerie, Tangier Province, stands in front of a giant map of the region outlining the tireless battle that the police—under his leadership—are waging against the growing and trafficking of cannabis in the Rif. He pinpoints each operation on the map. Facing him, three senior officials from the US Drug Enforcement Agency in staid suits are propped up on their elbows, listening, taking notes, and wondering when the general will stop bullshitting them. To one side, the military commander and the Tangier region intelligence chief wait patiently for their colleague to wrap up his presentation, impressed by his assured delivery. In a few days’ time in Lisbon an important conference is due to take place on the war on drugs in the Mediterranean region, convened and organized by the Europeans. The Americans meanwhile, afraid of being sidelined, are on an unofficial tour of North Africa to cement relations before sitting down at the conference table. Yesterday, Rabat, today Tangier the White City, gateway to the Mediterranean.

The general moves away from the map and is set to launch into a protracted conclusion when a young police officer slips into the room, places a folded piece of paper in front of him and exits. The note reads: “Fisherman brought in twenty-kilo sack of white powder to police at Asilah, possibly cocaine. Says it was washed up onto the rocks this morning, 1km from the city. We are investigating.” It is signed “Captain Abadou.” The general raises his eyebrows, passes the note to intelligence chief Rashid Guessous on his right, and sums up: “Cannabis growing and trafficking are now a major threat to law and order in Morocco because the trade is fuelled by the demand from Europe. Cannabis is part of our traditional culture and has never posed a problem. But European countries are increasingly lax on their home turf and increasingly demanding and interventionist on our territory. We will not permit the war on drugs to be used as a pretext for undermining our sovereignty. This is the message our representatives will be taking to the Lisbon conference.” The general sits down. The young police officer dashes in again, with another slip of paper: “Three more sacks of powder found on Asilah beach, almost certainly cocaine, origin unknown. Beach under guard. Captain Abadou.” The general scribbles: “Know about this?” and passes the note to Guessous, who shakes his head.

The DEA delegation leader takes advantage of the general’s momentary silence to thank him for his impressive presentation and to praise the efficiency of the Moroccan authorities. He then asks if they can discuss recent developments in cocaine trafficking through West and North Africa, and even ventures a pointed question: “You’re doing an admirable job in cracking down on Morocco’s cannabis trade, but aren’t you running the risk that the established cannabis routes to Europe will be taken over by the cocaine traffickers?”

Rashid Guessous is put on the spot. Yes, West Africa is the new gateway to Europe for South American cocaine. But no, we’re not worried, since the overland routes are mainly through the Sahara and Algeria. So far, Morocco has been spared the scourge.

The young police officer bursts in again with another scrap of paper. “Around thirty suspect sacks washed up on three different beaches. We’re out of our depth. Captain Abadou.”

The general stuffs the note into his pocket and adjourns the meeting.

The two generals and the Moroccan intelligence chief board the army helicopter sent to pick them up. Silence inside, palpable unease, each man covertly eyeing his neighbor. You never know who might stab you in the back. They fly over the coast southwest of Tangier. The three men can distinctly see hundreds of sacks floating just beneath the surface of the water, being washed toward the shore. Stunned silence. Then General Makhloufi clears his throat:

“If that really is cocaine, there are tons of it . . .”

“Just when we’ve got those DEA bastards on our backs.”

“Where the hell can it have come from? Turf war out at sea?”

On the shore, hordes of tiny people from the inland villages are streaming toward the beaches. The western suburb of Tangier is also on the move. Makhloufi snaps into action. “We must intervene, pronto, because if that is cocaine, the situation will quickly get out of hand, and in a matter of hours. We’ll try and get to the bottom of all this later.”

As soon as they touch down, it’s all stations go. Makhloufi, regional head of the anti-drug squad, sets up a crisis taskforce. He orders the army to cut off access to the shoreline, one soldier every hundred meters for several dozen kilometers. The gendarmerie is dispatched to comb the beaches, the navy to retrieve the sacks from the sea and keep a lookout for boats in distress, and the police are instructed to set up roadblocks and search all vehicles. By late afternoon the entire coast is cordoned off; a vast hangar in the port of Tangier is requisitioned and placed under army guard for storing all the sacks recovered. Two chemists are brought in and in no time confirm that the powder is definitely cocaine—and of the purest quality.

Inside the hangar, thinking on their feet, the taskforce hastily count up the sacks recovered so far. One sack weighs twenty to twenty-three kilos. They haven’t all been weighed and no one has recorded the weights of the ones that have; two hundred and eighty-five sacks are piled under tarpaulins—that could amount to as much as six and a half tons of cocaine. And how many sacks have been fished out by local people, unknown to the police? Mind-boggling numbers. An army cordon is put in place around the hangar, one soldier every two meters, and then the taskforce leaves the premises.

Makhloufi and Guessous drive back to the center of Tangier together.

“You weren’t expecting a consignment around now?”

“Of course not. You’d have been the first to know.”

“So these sacks are nothing to do with your friends?”

“No way.”

“Mine neither. So, I’m going to invite our three Americans to join our taskforce.”

“That’s risky.”

“Maybe, but they might be able to trace the source of the cocaine, which would help us clean up and control the market. We can’t just have some lunatic dumping tons of powder on our shores and keeping us in the dark.”

All night, Tangier sings, dances, and parties in a frenzy of debauchery, the glow visible for miles around: it takes a heavy toll on the population. A dozen dead from heart attacks, hundreds of people taken ill, five brawls involving over two hundred people, twenty stabbings. The police are nowhere to be seen and the hospitals are soon inundated. Meanwhile, volunteers do their best to administer first aid to the sick and wounded in the street. In the early hours, the Commander-in-chief of the Royal Gendarmerie, Tangier Province, declares a state of emergency. Regardless of the intelligence chief’s misgivings, Makhloufi informs the DEA agents of the situation first thing in the morning, inviting them to attend the taskforce meeting at the prefecture.

They form two operational groups. The first is tasked with informing the population and placing the city and the surrounding area under police control, in an effort to limit the ravages of illegal cocaine consumption and retrieve as many sacks as possible.

The second group, the “investigation” team, is headed by Makhloufi and includes the DEA agents. They immediately request permission to take samples in order to trace the source of the drug. Permission granted. Makhloufi announces that he has already invited all the countries attending the Lisbon conference to do likewise over the next three days. After that, the doors of the hangar will be sealed to prevent theft.

The incineration of the impounded cocaine is scheduled to take place in one month’s time down at the port. There will be a great deal of pomp, with government officials and representatives from Morocco’s allies in the war on drugs in attendance: a propaganda stunt that will make world headlines, given the quantities involved. Two officers are put in charge of the logistics.

They still have to locate the boat that was the source of the white tide. Makhloufi is fairly confident. It can’t be very far from the Moroccan coast, and is bound to be in trouble, or to have sunk. The Moroccan Royal Navy is on the alert, it won’t take long to find the boat and bring it back to Tangier.

During the evening, the navy reports that a distress signal has been picked up from a boat positioned three hundred miles offshore. A tug is dispatched that night to tow it back to Tangier; the operation is expected to take thirty-six hours. A reception committee is formed, under the command of Makhloufi, who invites the DEA agents to witness the “haul”—his words—as observers, of course. Guessous wonders what mischief his colleague is plotting and whether he’ll end up paying the price.

The tug enters the port of Tangier towing the wreckage. General shock on the quayside: the vessel is an American marine patrol boat flying the Panamanian flag, its outline immediately recognizable. Only close inspection reveals that it has been decommissioned. The DEA agents cough and clear their throats. The minute it is moored, gendarmes storm the boat and arrest the crew. Four terrified sailors and a captain, all Latinos residing in Miami, US passports. The DEA agents are red-faced. Guessous, relieved, tries to stifle a smile, and Makhloufi relishes informing the American consulate.

The five men are arrested, handcuffed, and dispatched under heavy guard to the prefecture for questioning in the presence of the DEA and the American consulate. All the correct procedures are followed. The police search the boat. Traces of cocaine in the hold, highly sophisticated radio equipment, the likes of which the Moroccans have never seen, and a log book without a single entry or stamp.

The questioning is brief. The five men are eager to divulge all they know, which is very little. They’d been recruited in Miami by a go-between, a small-time racketeer known as Tiger Kab who runs a taxi outfit and frequently brings them in on dodgy jobs. This time, there was big money: ten thousand dollars in cash, fifty percent up front, fifty percent on delivery. A drug run, no risks as the operation was supposedly “protected.” They were flown to the Canaries, where the empty boat was waiting for them. After a month in the port, with the captain trying but failing to learn how to operate the radio system, they received orders to hook up with a mysterious cargo boat off the coast of Madeira. En route, the first engine gave out. Name of the cargo boat? No idea. Throughout the transfer operation it had been masked. An hour after they’d set off again, the second engine gave out, and the patrol boat was doomed. The captain desperately tried to contact the client to summon help, to no avail. After two days of solitary drifting, the crew lost their nerve and dumped the cocaine in the water, thinking that the sacks would be carried out to sea and slowly sink. They waited another three days to be sure they were rid of them, and then sent out an SOS.

The police note the client’s details to pass on to the Spanish police, but Makhloufi reckons the trail is already cold. “You guys, on the other hand, are going to be busy,’’ he warns the DEA observers. “Who sold a US army patrol boat? When? And who was the purchaser? Who has such sophisticated radio systems? Who is Tiger Kab’s client? This whole business stinks of amateurism, but an amateur who’s loaded. Someone who can afford a patrol boat and six tons of coke shouldn’t be too hard to track down, even in the USA.”

Three days after the white tide, the door of the hangar where the cocaine’s being stored is sealed, in front of the press. Then the military guard is scaled down. The sentinels are replaced by regular patrols. But patrols, no matter how frequent, mean blind spots. This disused hangar has long been a place where all the local kids hang out, they know it inside out, all the weak points, loose panels, cracks and holes in the roof. As soon as the patrols are in place, they find a way of sneaking inside the hangar, stealing a few grams of cocaine, and leaving undetected. At first it’s a game, but very quickly the older kids and adults get their hands on the stolen powder and smuggle it out of the Tangier area, which is under close surveillance, using the network of mountain paths to get it to Casablanca further down the coast. The game turns into a small-scale but highly profitable industry. For years, each time a two-bit dealer is arrested, traces of the white tide will be found.

After a couple of weeks, a captain carrying out a tour of inspection hears muffled sounds coming from inside the hangar. The guards shrug, it’s probably mice or nocturnal creatures, there’s no one in there.

Makhloufi is informed. He decides to pay a discreet visit by night, taking with him a workman to break the door seals, plus Guessous, the captain, and another officer, but not the Americans.

An edifying sight greets them inside the hangar. The tarpaulins have been pulled off and tossed into a corner, the orderly heaps of coke sacks dismantled. Many of the sacks have burst, and there are traces of white powder all over the concrete floor. It looks like the scene of a giant pillow fight.

Guessous is the first to react. He is pale with rage.

“How many kilos gone? Right under our noses. Heads are going to roll . . .”

Dumbfounded, Makhloufi quickly takes charge.

“I don’t care who’s behind this or how they got in. The public incineration is in less than two weeks and must go ahead. That’s the only thing that counts.” He turns to the soldiers and the workman. “You did not enter this hangar, you have seen nothing. State secret, court-martial. Our country’s honor is at stake. Is that clear? Good, now let’s clean up this mess.”

They stack a hundred or so slashed sacks under tarpaulins. There are a hundred and eighty remaining sacks still intact, but some five hundred kilos of cocaine appear to have vanished.

The next night, the captain drives into the hangar at the wheel of a white pickup, accompanied by Makhloufi and Guessous. They unload a hundred sacks of flour, which they add to the sacks of coke, making orderly piles, then they load the slashed sacks onto the pickup and cover them with a tarpaulin. The captain stays behind. Makhloufi takes the wheel himself, Guessous beside him, and they drive to a secret location. No escort: in the circumstances secrecy is the best way to guard against theft, declares Makhloufi. All the same, the police patrols controlling the city have been tactfully informed, and they look the other way when the white pickup drives past. The two men are silent, intent, conscious that they are taking a huge gamble. There will be no further mention of the white pickup. State secret.

Two days later, General Makhloufi announces that the date of the public bonfire remains unaltered, but that the venue has changed. After an environmental group protested against the hazards of incinerating the cocaine in the open air both for human health and the environment, a decision was taken to destroy the cocaine in a closed location—the furnace of Tangier’s cement works. This announcement immediately arouses the suspicion of the friendly foreign powers invited to attend, and they ask the Moroccan government to take further samples and carry out new tests. The government has no objection, but the taskforce in Tangier refuses.

The three DEA agents return to Tangier and request an urgent meeting with Makhloufi. It is a heated exchange. “This new arrangement is a farce. The furnace will be filled far from public view, it won’t be possible to monitor the process. Under no circumstances will we sanction this. We refuse to attend and we’ll ensure that the whole world knows why.”

Makhloufi sighs. “This whole business is pretty bizarre, I agree. But if you insist on talking about this final episode, we’ll begin at the beginning, and our scenario might go something like this: an illicit drug run, organized by the CIA and the American army in league with the Miami Mafia to finance some unofficial operation. The crew, still being held in Tangier, will do anything to avoid being sent back to Miami where they’ll be killed. Their testimonies all add up and could be devastating.”

On the appointed day, the incineration takes place at the cement works in front of a small audience of officials from all countries, quietly sitting in rows in the large hall. The three DEA agents sit together in the front. General Makhloufi, in full- dress uniform, opens the ceremony with a short speech:

“Morocco’s allies represented here today are working together in this relentless war on drugs, the scourge of the coming century.”

He receives a massive ovation.

“Une guerre sans merci” © Dominique Manotti. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2013 by Ros Schwartz. All rights reserved.