OUJDA, Morocco (Reuters) - On the last stretch of Moroccan highway before the Algerian frontier, an end-of-the- world atmosphere appears to confirm the message of travel guides and government officials: the land border to Algeria is shut.
Spacious roadside cafes once packed with travelers lie empty. Where the road ends, weeds push through wide cracks.
The only sound is the wind in the trees, the fluttering of Moroccan flags and the heels of two mustachioed border guards as they emerge from their office.
Their faces hold a look of faint surprise: “Yes, the Algerians are out there somewhere,” says one, glancing back beyond a huddle of disused customs buildings.
“But we never talk to them. We hardly ever see them.”
Rusty barriers and spiked chains crouch as a warning that travelers venture further at their peril.
But follow one of the beaten tracks over the hilly frontier and a different picture emerges.
No fences, searchlights or passports here. The way is clear for a steady stream of cars, donkeys and carts that furtively criss-cross no-man’s land weighed down with contraband goods.
Smugglers pay border guards to look the other way as fuel, food, household appliances, rugs, tools and CDs are ferried to and fro in a triumph of everyday necessity over politics.
The heroes are the “warriors” -- beaten-up old Renault and Peugeot cars without number plates, tax discs, insurance or lights that hurtle through the border zone at night, their trunks and back seats laden with Algerian fuel. When border police decide to make arrests, the owners abandon their vehicles and flee.
Much of the fuel winds up in Beni Drar, a small town near the border city of Oujda that is growing so fast from the profits of contraband that local people call it “Beni Dollar.”
The economics are irrefutable. You get 30 liters of Algerian diesel for 140 Moroccan dirhams ($18.29), compared with around 240 dirhams for the Moroccan version.
Legal filling stations lie abandoned but the smell of diesel still wafts over Beni Drar. On the road into town, young men point their thumbs to the ground, a sign to passing drivers that bootleg Algerian fuel is for sale.
A car stops and a vendor dashes into the trees and hauls a plastic 30-litre bottle of pink gasoline from a hole in the ground hidden under leaves and twigs.
“I make 60 dirhams a day and can feed my family -- that’s 60 dirhams more than I’d make sitting at home or looking for a job that never comes,” said the vendor who asked not to be named.
Cannabis from Morocco’s Rif mountains finds its way to Algeria. In the other direction come “Qarqobi” amphetamine pills which are occasionally found in bags of flour by startled Moroccan bakers, according to local legend.
The Oujda chamber of commerce said contraband brought in 6 billion dirhams in 2004, but it warned of the risks. Food transport is often unhygienic and there is a dangerous trade in copycat medicines and banned drugs.
“Contraband helps people live but there are dangers,” said chamber of commerce president Driss Houat.
Wherever prices differ across the border, the smugglers find their market. Algerian newspaper Echourouk reported in October that over 30,000 chickens were being smuggled daily from Morocco in trucks fully equipped with chicken coops.
Morocco’s fertile eastern region makes for cheaper and tastier fruit and vegetables than those available in Algeria.
Algeria’s energy exports allow it to slap more generous subsidies on essential goods like flour, semolina and sugar.
“Morocco benefits because it doesn’t have to spend so much on subsidies for people around Oujda -- the Algerians do it for us,” said Jelloul Araj, a Moroccan human rights activist.
Even hoteliers who suffered heavily when the border shut are smiling again as people flock to Oujda’s cheap markets.
“A lot of hotels closed over the years but we survived and we’re expanding again,” said the owner of one Oujda hotel, asking not to be named as he held out a packet of dates.
“Have one. They’re Algerian contraband -- top quality.”
Algeria closed the border 13 years ago after Morocco accused its security forces of involvement in a Marrakesh hotel shooting and imposed visa restrictions.
Now signs of growing activity by religious militants across the Maghreb are focusing attention on lax border security. On November 22 Algerian newspaper El Khabar reported the arrest of 15 men specialized in smuggling explosives over the frontier.
travelers find little to suggest they are entering another country beside scattered military watchposts, and in some places a white line optimistically daubed by the Algerians.
Sub-Saharan migrants in Morocco awaiting passage to Europe say police often dump them in no-man’s land at dead of night.
A game of migrant ping-pong ensues as they are harried back and forth by gun-toting Algerian and Moroccan border guards before finding their way to makeshift camps.
Morocco and Algeria are under pressure from the European Union to open the border to stimulate their economies and create much-needed jobs, but that appears unlikely given continued animosity over the Western Sahara dispute.
In the meantime, people wanting to visit relatives across the frontier must pay traffickers to take them overland by stealth or face a grueling road trip to Casablanca then a flight to Oran, 150 km from the border.
Most families in Oujda have relatives across the border. Even Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has a sister living in Oujda, said rights activist Araj.
“The political decision to keep the border shut is punishing the inhabitants, both Algerian and Moroccan,” said the chamber of commerce’s Houat.
Editing by Sara Ledwith