The Lady Mules of Morocco
By six each morning, Malika and thousands of other lady smugglers known as <i>porteadoras</i> gather at the foot of an immense metal corral that connects Morocco and Spain.
Feb 1 2011, 12:00am
This is how a vodka-bottle belt is made. Alcohol is frowned on by Morocco’s Muslim majority, but it’s still easy to find in discreet black plastic bags sold in supermarkets.
By six each morning, Malika and thousands of other lady smugglers known as porteadoras gather at the foot of an immense metal corral that connects Morocco and Spain. The Moroccan police, with varying degrees of tenderness, organize the crowd into lines before the women launch themselves over the border into Melilla, Spain, to collect their day’s salary muling contraband back into Morocco. The crossing is known as Barrio Chino, and waiting for them on the other side, in the center of a Spanish esplanade, are dozens of white vans filled with secondhand clothes, shoes, blankets and fabric, tires, boxes of chips, toilet paper, and an enormous of collection of other domestic wares both necessary and recreational.
As the gates are set to open, Malika, who is 44 and has been working this border for a decade, points to the sky with her finger like a pro athlete and mutters a prayer to Allah: “Ach adu an la ilaha ila lah wa ach adu anna mohammadan rasulo allah” (“I testify that there is no other god but Allah and that Muhammad is his messenger”). For Muslims it’s a traditional deathbed incantation—and it’s a totally reasonable thing to do given the coming test. It is possible she’ll be stomped to death by women frantic for contraband TP and cheap alcohol—like Safia Azizi, who in late November 2008 died of a punctured lung after being trampled in an ensuing stampede.
Malika has been smuggling stuff across this border for ten years. She hauls as many of those enormous bags beside her as time permits.
At 6:30 AM, the gates of what the Moroccans call “the Cage” are finally opened. It is estimated that 8,000 Moroccans, a great majority of them women, pass through here carrying all kinds of stuff on their backs each day.
I stop to talk to a policeman, and as the women begin to flood across the border even he is aghast.
“Look at that,” he says. “Do you think that belongs in this century? Thousands of women carrying bales I couldn’t even lift? You try and lift one.”
Once they’ve made their way to the Melilla side of the Barrio Chino, groups of female mules quickly organize themselves and begin loading up. I see a wrinkled woman with a grimy scarf wrapped tightly around her neck to soak up the sweat. She bends herself at the waist and another 110-pound bale is plopped on her back. I can hear her spine cracking and her teeth chattering, and I seem to be the only one impressed by this. There are other things on people’s minds, obviously: bags of sunflower seeds, spare car parts, bottles of booze, boxes of shoes, all sorts of clothes.
Spanish authorities, the Guardia Civil, organize the line in order to avoid tumults and body avalanches. They also arrange for Moroccan security forces to charge a one-euro commission to each woman each way.
Another woman bends until her head is practically on the floor, and 175 pounds or so of merchandise are placed on top of her back. Another woman, Yamila Agao, is waiting impatiently for her boss to arrive from the warehouse with a cargo of shoes.
“He’s late! That means I’m only going to have time to make one crossing,” she says. Yamila tells me that at 32 she is a divorcée, the product of an arranged marriage with a cousin she never learned to love.
Yamila invites me to go with her to her house, which she shares with a few other porteadoras in the suburban neighborhood of Darb Annamus, close to the border they work. The area is surrounded on all sides by a landfill, and the stench makes breathing difficult. Theirs is a sickly shack without windows—between them they pay 50 euros for rent each month. They walk me through a litany of horrible biographies (mean men, dead men, and so on) and explain that contraband keeps them afloat.
They also explain the logistics of the operation: Workers on the Spanish side prepare bales of goods, runners drive them to Barrio Chino at the border, distributors separate them, marcadores number them so they can be counted upon receipt, and finally the porteadoras haul the bales back to Morocco. The wholesalers and warehouse owners, like every Mob-based enterprise in every country, stuff bags with money to pay everyone so that in the end nothing stops the flow of cash from returning to them. A police source confirmed recently that the industry generates some 500 million euros every year.
The Guardia Civil often gets handsy with the porteadoras.
At the Cage the following morning, I ask a pair of policemen what they think about the situation.
“Look,” one officer says, “the Spanish government doesn’t get rid of this Mafia because it’s not in their interest.”
“To avoid hurting the feelings of Morocco, and also because there’s a lot of money in this business,” another agent adds. “But this is outrageous! It’s like the Middle Ages. Sorry, I have to go… I’ll leave you to it.” He heads off to try and restore order in a queue where a careless elbow or a push has set the women fighting.
“If we weren’t here, they’d kill themselves,” the first officer says.
Another agent who wouldn’t give his name for fear of reprisal tells me how the local government in Melilla has legalized this so-called atypical trade in the Barrio Chino. Authorities have actually erected a signpost featuring a female silhouette (complete with a shapely commuter gal rather than a hunched porteadora!), carrying a bag that is about one-third the size of what the women here carry. The message is clear: Right this way, poor and hapless smugglers.
What the sign fails to mention are the bribes. Dozens of customs officials line the way back to Morocco, and women are permitted to pass only after offering up a contribution to each.
“Each porteadora pays five dirhams [60 cents] to every agent who asks to see their documents,” explains Abdelmounaim Chaouki, president of the State Department of Civil Society in northern Morocco. “If they refuse to pay, they’re denied entry or sent to the back of the queue.”
This woman has just passed through the two checkpoints and, already on the Moroccan side, walks to the point of delivery.
Nineteen-year-old Yousre Salló is the son of a customs official and has no delusions about the extent of corruption in an industry Moroccan civil servants are falling over themselves to get into. Here on the border their salary doubles. Yousre himself works as a runner but receives special treatment.
“I won’t touch a bag for less than ten euros,” he tells me. His less fortunate coworkers are understandably jealous.
“He moves the same amount as us but earns twice what we do,” complains Zacarías Biniya, a 20-year-old from Meknés in northern Morocco. With dim prospects for the future, Zacarías and almost all of his friends see smuggling as the only option. Well, apart from crossing illegally.
“I had a neighbor who took a raft to Spain, and we never heard from him again,” he tells me with his head bowed.
After a moment of silence, Zacarías snaps out of it and lifts up his calloused hands. He tells me about his experiences since he started working here three years ago.
“I’ve been humiliated and beaten by both the Spanish and Moroccan police,” he says. “They treat us like shit, most of all the Spanish policemen born in Morocco. When I speak to them in Berber, they insult me in Spanish. They really don’t want anything to do with us.” He thinks quietly for a second. “If the government closed down the contraband, they’d be forced to find other work for us.”
It’s midday when the border closes and the smuggling stops. As often happens, some of the porteadoras, still panting and out of breath, are stuck on the Spanish side of the Barrio Chino looking across, their bales having arrived too late for them to make the final trip back into Morocco.
The border of Beni-Enzar, between Nador and Melilla, as seen from the Moroccan side.
A porteadora has just been loaded with a massive bale on the Spanish side of the border.