Tunisia – At a checkpoint outside Qayrawan, two soldiers inspect a mini-bus transporting locals to Tunis. Looking in the boot, the soldiers pick out a large black Nike bag. Its owner is called, opening it to reveal hundreds of flat caps, and an assortment of tracksuits packaged in plastic sheaths.
The products have reached Tunisia through Ben Gardane, a town located 30km from the Libyan border, having originally reached Libya from China and Turkey.
After a couple of minutes of debate, the bag’s owner is invited to take a seat in a military jeep which transports him to a local police station. The mini-bus follows. Fifteen minutes later the owner returns to the bus struggling under the weight of the black bag.
The products have been smuggled into the country, but the policemen have turned a blind eye. The bus continues its journey north. Ben Gardane has long been regarded as Tunisia’s principal smuggling hot-spot.
In an area long neglected by government investment, smuggling in Ben Gardane, home to 58,000 people, has traditionally been a major economic activity, providing employment for as much as 20 percent of the population.
Such has been the contribution of smuggling to economic growth in southern Tunisia that, before 2011, the Ben Ali regime is said to have accepted – and even encouraged – the emergence of trafficking cartels.
However, while last month’s successful presidential election illustrates Tunisia’s ongoing commitment to democratic transition, the emerging Tunisian state has become increasingly concerned with the perceived lawlessness of the southern border with Libya and the impact of the smuggling trade on the country’s fragile economic and security situation.
Economically, recent World Bank survey suggests that Tunisia loses around $1bn per year as a result of illicit trading, smuggled goods accounting for 50 percent of bilateral trade with Libya.
Meanwhile, with no signs of an end to the conflict in Libya, mounting threats posed by religious fighters along the Algerian border and in light of a troubling phenomenon that has seen over 2,500 Tunisians – more than any other Arab state – travel to Syria, the Tunisian state is wary of smugglers in Ben Gardane that are facilitating the movement of arms into the country.
War in Libya has at times created risks that affect trade, but in terms of the 'contra' trade the border is long. There are ways to avoid getting caught.
At times, rhetorical questions, vocalised by the country’s interior ministry and repeated by local media, has conflated smuggling in Ben Gardane with terrorism.
This has alienated locals who differentiate between the informal smuggling of goods such as oil, electronics, clothing, sportswear, textiles and food often through official border crossings following the payment of a bribe, and the illicit smuggling of weapons, alcohol and drugs which takes place on a smaller scale and away from the eyes of the authorities.
Hundreds of ramshackle stalls line Ben Gardane’s main thoroughfare, home to saraf – middlemen in the smuggling economy, who serve as currency exchangers, moneylenders, and dealbreakers networking with suppliers in Libya and further afield.
Off a side street, opposite a small karate dojo, Moncef (an alias) sits on a plastic chair conversing with a small group of middle-aged men.
“Politicians and the media call us terrorists,” says Moncef, explaining that he has worked in smuggling since his teens, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather before him. The group also includes a qualified lawyer. “But there has been no investment here since Ben Ali. There are no good jobs.”
Moncef claims that he is involved in informal smuggling and pays a bribe between 40 to 50 Tunisian dinars ($21-$26) per vehicle, with prices varying depending on the value of the goods being transported.
The costs of the bribes are rendered insignificant by comparison with official import taxes levied by the Tunisian state, a factor that has traditionally helped the black market economy flourish.
While Moncef says that weapons smuggling accounts for a small proportion of illicit trade through Ben Gardane, he believes clamping down on it will prove difficult.
In an environment defined by a lack of job opportunities, people are drawn to the contraband trade due to the lure of higher profit margins and the porousness of Tunisia’s 500km-long border with Libya.
“War in Libya has, at times, created risks that affect trade,” says Moncef. “But in terms of the
‘contra’ trade the border is long. There are ways to avoid getting caught.”
Yezid Sayigh, a senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Centre, observes that the Tunisian army – one of the smallest in the Arab world – lacks the manpower to effectively police the border.
“The army is stretched and has been asking for an increase in everything – budget, numbers, weapons and systems – to cope with new and growing challenges.” This lack of manpower is also discernible in Tunisia’s other security institutions.
In a 2013 interview with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Lassaad Bechouel, a senior customs officer in Tunisia’s interior ministry admitted: “There are 1,400 customs officers spread across Tunisia … [it] isn’t enough to combat the challenge on the border, the human and logistical resource at the disposal of smugglers, and their ability to challenge every kind of restriction.”
Bechouel’s comments came shortly after Tunisia’s Interior Minister Lotfi Ben Jeddou – himself a survivor of an assassination attempt in May 2014, announced that the killer of leftist politicians Mohammed Brahmi and Chokri Belaid had previously been wanted by Tunisian authorities on suspicion of smuggling weapons into the country from Libya.
After paying a bribe, smuggling goods over the border is no difficult task [Al Jazeera]
The majority of the altercations the Tunisian army has faced since 2011 have, in fact, come along the country’s border with Algeria.
Max Galliane, an Oxford-based researcher who has worked extensively in Ben Gardane, partly attributes the volatility on the Algerian border to the collapse of cartels in the area who held sway under Ben Ali.
By contrast, cartels, such as those run by the Twazin tribe in Ben Gardane, have maintained their monopolies occasionally providing tips that have informed counterterrorism operations.
“On the Algerian border it became this free for all,” says Galliane. “The Tunisian state is not aware of who the new networks are, and lacks the leverage to gain intel to inform security operations along the border. The Libyan border has remained more quiet.”
Galliane notes that linking Ben Gardane’s smugglers with security threats becomes en vogue during election seasons as rival political parties seek emphasis on their commitment to ensuring national security.
But away from security concerns, Tunisia also faces an uphill struggle to clamp down on smuggling to generate much needed economic growth.
However, Tunisia, where state investment has traditionally favoured the north, lacks the capital to invest in infrastructure in areas such as Ben Gardane to provide alternative forms of employment to those involved in smuggling.
Given such constraints, Habib Sayah, a Tunisian political risk analyst, notes that attempting to clampdown on smuggling in Ben Gardane, in both its informal and illicit forms, might not be in Tunisia’s immediate interest.
“The smuggling issue is an economic issue. But the financial means of the Tunisian government are far from sufficient to confront it,” says Sayah.
“The best solution would be to adopt pro market policies abolishing tariffs or at least facilitating trade. It would be less costly and more effective than trying to invest. Attempting to simply clamp down on the trade could also cause further resentment in Ben Gardane.”