RABAT (Reuters) - With the usual routes to Europe closed by the coronavirus pandemic, Moroccan drug traffickers are making a circuitous journey involving food trucks and fishing boats to smuggle locally grown cannabis to market, police say.
Morocco has since March imposed an internal lockdown that has stopped most movement between cities and closed its air and sea borders in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus. This has also blocked the normal drugs route.
Smugglers previously took the cannabis grown in the northern Rif Mountains, trucked it the short distance to the Mediterranean coast and then whisked it across the sea by speed boat or concealed in the daily fleets of commercial shipping.
But recent seizures of contraband show they have been forced to adopt an alternative, longer route - food trucks across Morocco and then fishing vessels sailing from Atlantic ports, police and domestic intelligence spokesman Boubker Sabik said.
The police successes in disrupting the smuggling networks during lockdown point to a “drastic shift” in trafficking methods, he said, as gangs “opt for coasts distant from Europe, requiring long and expensive sea trips in a bid for a safer route”.
While only 14 km (9 miles) separates Tangier from Spain across the Strait of Gibraltar, the route up the Atlantic coast requires a long voyage and a sea rendezvous with European smugglers in international waters.
It also involves driving the drugs for hours from the Rif to the remote beaches of Sidi Abed, 217km (135 miles) south of Rabat, using food trucks whose drivers have lockdown travel permits, Sabik said.
Police have seized 32.6 tonnes of cannabis resin, known as hashish, during the lockdown period and 62 tonnes since the start of the year compared to 210 tonnes seized last year.
North African and the Middle Eastern drug busts show that restrictions aimed at the coronavirus have failed to halt the narcotics trade, as European users buy more to see them through lockdown, the United Nations drugs agency said in a report.
Morocco made big strides in cutting drug cultivation this century, offering farmers subsidies to grow other crops as the land used for cannabis fields dropped from 134,000 hectares in 2003 to stabilise six years ago at 47,000 hectares.
However, while cannabis trafficking continues, the coronavirus restrictions have entirely stopped shipments of cocaine being flown through Morocco, once a way station on the way to Europe, Sabik said.
Reporting by Ahmed Eljechtimi, editing by Angus McDowall and Angus MacSwan