El Estrecho

The word stands for narrow in Spanish, but when you put an ‘El’ in front of it, it means only one thing—the Straits of Gibraltar, made famous through history: Gades of the Phoenicians, the Pillars of Hercules, the end of the Mare Nostrum, the Moorish Caliphate, the conquest of Ceuta, and the Battle of Trafalgar.

Not many bits of sea have such historical significance. It is through there ISIS will come, if as they hope, they are to occupy the green fields of Iberia, and smell the sweet orange blossoms from the shores of the Wadi Ana and the Wadi Al Kabir.

The state of play in the Mid-East, late May 2015 (map by El Pais)

The state of play in the Mid-East, late May 2015. Areas controlled by ISIS are the color of dried blood (map by El Pais)

And ISIS, or whatever you want to call it (it has more names than a Hapsburg archduke) has definitely been making progress. Right now they seem to be heading south, if Palmyra and Ramadi are anything to go by, but the would-be caliphs are already well established in Libya.

I’ve never seen US foreign policy more bizarre than it is at present. Occasionally, everyone knows what the Americans think (he’s our sonofabitch), mostly no one else has a clue what the Americans think, but right now, even the Americans are confused.

Suffice it to say that the US would like to remove Assad because he is supported by their (shia) Iranian enemies, and is therefore assisting him with air strikes against ISIS, a sunni organization with money from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, who are America’s (sunni) friends, in the hope this preserves the integrity of (shia) President Maliki’s Iraq, which is a major policy goal for Iran,  and who the US is aiding by providing air cover for Iraqi and Iranian shia militias, thereby alienating the Saudis, Jordanians, and sunnis in general. Confused? You won’t be, after this episode of… SOAP (Strategic Options for American Policy).

Despite its small size and population, it was Portugal that put an end to the previous caliphate’s European aspirations, oh… some seven centuries ago.

Across El Estrecho come boatloads of immigrants, but in these days of Southern European austerity, so does something else—hasheesh.

Good data are hard to come by when it comes to illegal substances, but the Moroccan production of cannabis resin appears to be of the order of seven thousand (metric) tons per year—this is based among other things on the Moroccan government cannabis surveys, which certainly made me smile.

These data could be greatly improved by means of satellite remote sensing, which is described as incipient—one of these days there will be a very happy doctoral student out there.

Nevertheless, some cultivation data exist, with the Moroccan estimate being around 250,000 acres, or one thousand square kilometers. 18% of the country’s surface area,  or twenty three thousand square miles (61,000 km2), is arable, so 1.5% of farmed area appears to be devoted to the crop.

At a farmgate price of 150 dollars per pound, that’s an annual income of 2.1 billion dollars—two percent of the national gross domestic product.

In Morocco, the conversion rate of cultivated plants into hashish is estimated at 2.5%, which would convert to a raw crop production of two hundred-eighty thousand tonnes, and a yield of 2500 pounds per acre, or 0.28 kg per sq. meter, about the same as the yield for field beans in the UK. So, if you’ll excuse the pun, the numbers pass the smell test.

Of those seven thousand tonnes, the Spanish authorities seize one thousand, or about 15%. By the time the rest hits Northern Europe, the gross value has jumped to eighteen billion dollars.

Of course there are direct large-scale routes to supply hash to the north, containers moving through the ports of Rotterdam and Hamburg, TIRs trucking product through Europe’s autobahns, autoroutes, and motorways.

But across El Estrecho, the fast boats ‘fly’ over from Morocco and lose themselves in the swamps and marshes of the lower Guadalquivir. With a three thousand pound load and up to four 250 horsepower engines, the speedboats can pull sixty knots, twenty more than the government.

Sanlucar de Barrameda—one of the ports where Martin Pinzon recruited the crew for Columbus—is the gateway, a town where unemployment stands at 47.3%. This is the entrance to the Doñana National Park, and in the neighborhood of Las Colonias the fishermen complain the local economy is suffering because of catch bans—it’s illegal to net for shrimp and glass eel, the latter a highly valued delicacy in Japan.

So the young men turn to the ‘trade’, whether at the bottom of the ladder loading or unloading boats, one hundred pound loads on their back for three thousand dollars a night, or as drivers, where a trip across the straits fetches fifty grand.

Speeding over water in a small boat is back-breaking, particularly when the wind gets up. If you have any sense you sit aft, away from the bucking of the prow. The job is called matahombres—man-killer, and if you don’t end up in jail, you retire young, and usually poor—easy money is easily spent.

In Southern Spain austerity is no longer a problem—it’s a way of life.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones and tablets.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones and tablets.


One Response to “El Estrecho”

  1. Lourenço Says:

    The seizures seem to be going down in Spain (the data for 2014 is still not solid but it has been going down since 2007). Data from 2012 refers to 325 tons of seized cannabis resin by the Spanish authorities, so more close to 5% of the total production than 15%, which is a pretty acceptable “loss rate” for a “tax-free” business.


    Additionally there are reports that the yield is actually growing, although the production area is being affected by eradication campaigns.
    There seems to be a tendency to use larger vessels, with bigger loads . MAOC-N has reported in the past few years seizures over 10 tons (this one in Italy was 40 tons):

    The logic is probably linked with decreasing the number intermediaries and going for a direct to market stragegy (right to central europe and the UK) instead of using go-fasts and then loading on TIRs (less people to support / bribe).

    Still… in the grand scheme of narcotics, cannabis resine seizures is what law enforcement shows to the media when they cannot get sizeable cocaine interceptions 🙂


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