Morocco's UKP2 billion hashish trade is under threat in the wake of suicide
bomb attacks.

In the green fields around the whitewashed town of Chaouen, sickles glinted
in the thin morning light as farm workers cut and stacked sheaves of
cannabis, reaping this year's bumper harvest.

In the Rif mountains of Morocco, kif - the word for cannabis - covers the
valleys and hillsides in profusion.

The illicit crop is Morocco's biggest foreign currency earner and,
according to EU estimates, is worth UKP2 billion a year, making the country
the world's largest hashish exporter.

For a long time the Moroccan authorities have turned a blind eye to the
smuggling trade that accompanies cannabis cultivation. The impoverished
region has a fiercely independent character and its economy depends on the
cannabis trade.

But now, like much else in Morocco since May 16 when Islamic suicide bomb
attacks killed 32 people in Casablanca, all that is about to change.

Reports have been circulating among Moroccan officials and Western
diplomats that some of the profits from the Rif's cannabis have found their
way to fund Islamic terrorism.

One Western diplomatic source said: "We have heard some evidence that
perhaps terrorist cells that were based in Tangier were mixed up in the
drug smuggling industry. It is of great concern and efforts are now being
made to substantiate those claims."

After the attacks, King Mohammed VI announced that Morocco's "period of
leniency" towards Islamic fundamentalists was over.

More than 700 Islamist terrorist suspects have been rounded up and the king
has given warning that no Islamist or regional political parties would be
tolerated.

"The situation in the Rif is now under review," said a senior Moroccan
court official.

Pascual Moreno, the director of an EU anti-drugs programme in the area said
that action must be taken soon. Mr Moreno, a Spanish agronomist, said:
"They have created a society of smugglers not wealth."

He added: "In the future, if they do not sort out this problem they face
the likelihood of separatism growing in the Rif and a growth of Islamic
terrorism more generally. It is a potentially explosive area."

The problem is not new. After independence from France in 1962, the king's
father, Hassan II, faced an uprising in the area and personally led his
armies into battle.

The problem remains immense. Of the region's five million inhabitants, one
million people depend on cannabis for a living. The scale of Morocco's kif
cultivation is far higher than officials are willing to admit.

Mr Moreno, whose stint trying to encourage farmers in the region to adopt
alternative forms of agriculture is soon to end, has angered both Rabat and
Brussels with his assessment. He said that the kif is tumbling down the
mountain far from its traditional area, with the harvest doubling every
three years.

He estimated that 600,000 acres are now under kif cultivation, three times
more than Morocco's estimates.

Mr Moreno, who has worked in Morocco for 25 years, said the EU's UKP750,000
pilot project was a failure.

He said: "Give them goats to produce cheese? Really? You cannot persuade
them to earn 10 to 40 times less."

He added: "These projects are made to please European public opinion. It is
badly conceived. They think it is an agricultural problem. It is not. It is
a question how much money farmers will gain."

To take on the cannabis growers the Moroccan authorities will have to
tackle an intricate web of mafias based in the mountain redoubt of Ketama,
in the heartlands of the "Green Gold".

On the winding 60-mile road from Chaouen to Ketama, hawkers sporadically
leap out from the shade of pine trees brandishing slabs of hashish, much of
which is mixed with goat excrement.

The spindly crop is grown by the roadside, thinly veiled by a row or two of
maize. Along this route is smuggled about 70 per cent of Europe's hashish
according to the World Customs Association.

In Ketama, dirty concrete block houses form the backdrop of a wild west
frontier town. Buxom saloon girls totter along filthy roads on high heels,
and the scions of local smuggling families listen to country and western
music in hotel bars.

The smugglers who come to buy are involved not just in moving blocks of
hashish across the Strait of Gibraltar but also in organising the big
business of smuggling illegal immigrants across the water.

One Moroccan expert on kif cultivation is sceptical that much change can be
achieved, pointing out that growing the crop is legal in the region but
transporting it is not.

He said: "They just pay off the police at the checkpoints. It is powerful
people who move at the highest level who control the smuggling. How come
the growers are still poor? There is no will to stop it. The land is being
destroyed so they just keep spreading out in lower areas."

He added: "Some of the smallholders are fed up they have to buy the seeds
in the first place and they face the risk of being shopped to the police if
things go wrong."

In Tleta Ketama, five miles away, the police commissioner ordered an escort
to drive me out of his province, declaring: "There is no problem here. No
drug mafias."

The window behind him gave out on to a yellow and blue mosque, surrounded
by terraced fields of green cannabis.

Another officer looked out at the scene. "Ah, nature!" he said.

Pubdate: Sat, 09 Aug 2003
Source: Daily Telegraph (UK)
Copyright: 2003 Telegraph Group Limited



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