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From Brazil to Spain, how Algeria’s port of Oran fits into the cocaine drug trade

By Rania Hamdi
Posted on Monday, 5 July 2021 10:35

Port of Oran, Algeria Michael Runkel/SIPA

In Algeria, nearly half a tonne of cocaine was intercepted off the coast of Oran at the end of June, in a case reminiscent of other drug seizures that have taken place in the region. One of them involved Kamel Chikhi (aka “the butcher”).

On 30 June, the indictment chamber of the Court of Algiers examined the case of the 701kg of cocaine seized on 26 May 2018 from the MC Vega Mercury, in the port of Oran.

Although the court validated the investigation of this case, it did not reveal why such a historic quantity of cocaine was on the vessel in the first place. This dossier was soon prioritised after the coastguard intercepted, during the night of 26 June to 27 June, 490kg of white powder that was found floating off Oran’s coast.

Grey and black bags – that had been attached to the buoys with ropes – caught the attention of some fishermen, who raised the alarm. They had probably been put there by the drug traffickers, after being informed that the ship carrying the cocaine was about to be searched.

The similarities between this case and that of the 2018 seizure are disturbing.

“Two historic catches in the same region point to the same supplier. This means that this circuit, which gives drug traffickers direct access to European markets, has not yet been secured by the Algerian authorities,” says an expert on the issue. It also implies that “the drug trafficking network has not been fully neutralised, despite the fact that multiple arrests were carried out within the context of the 701kg of cocaine that was recovered in 2018.”

Red meat, white powder

At the time, the drugs were found in a container carrying frozen meat that had been imported by businessman and real estate developer Kamel Chikhi (aka “the butcher”), in reference to his former job.

According to the judicial investigation, the cargo began its journey in Brazil, from the port of Santos, then called at the Spanish ports of Las Palmas and Valencia, before reaching Oran — Algeria’s second-largest city. It was found among 15 other containers containing Brazilian meat and was marked with a small triangle-shaped mark.

Chikhi was sentenced on 18 April to two years in prison for “granting undue privileges” in a corruption case. He has now also been charged and prosecuted for “setting up a criminal organisation with the aim of importing, marketing and distributing drugs”, “international drug trafficking” and “money laundering”, as have his two brothers, one of his associates, his commercial director and one of his agents working in the port of Oran.

Magistrates, government figures and high-ranking army officers were also cited in this investigation but were not worried about being charged.

Cocaine, which is sold for €145 per gramme, is inaccessible to most Algerians. Therefore, Algeria probably acts as a transit country for deliveries to Europe and the Middle East.

The interrogations, which began on 8 November 2019, have been conducted irregularly but have yet to reveal the circumstances surrounding the drug transaction or its route and, above all, have not provided answers on the payment circuits or the recipients of this merchandise.

The conclusions of the rogatory letters sent to Dubai, Spain and Brazil at the end of 2019 “have not proved the link between the cocaine and the main accused”, according to a member of the defence.

The connection between Oran and Valencia?

When questioned in 2018 by the investigating judge and gendarmes, Chikhi denied all and said that he had been set up.

“The coast guard seized the white powder off the port of Oran so that it could not be traced back to the recipients of the goods,” said the defence. “Before informing the Algerian authorities through diplomatic channels, the Spanish authorities in Valencia proceeded to open the goods and change the seals on the container, even though neither the transport company’s representative, captain nor the person in charge of container security onboard the ship were present. That is not normal.”

In any case, the port of Valencia seems to be at the heart of this matter. Before allowing the cargo to leave the port of Santos, the Brazilian customs authorities checked the goods in the presence of a representative from Minerva Foods, which supplied the frozen meat, a representative from the Swiss transport company MSC and the ship’s captain.

The fact that 490kg of cocaine were also intercepted at the end of June in the same region should prompt the justice system to carry out additional investigations to determine the origin, owners and recipients of the drug that is arriving in Algeria, according to a member of the Algiers bar association.

Especially at a time when the indictment chamber’s magistrates are considering the conclusions of the judicial investigations into Chikhi’s case, which closed at the end of June by the examining magistrate of the Sidi M’Hamed court’s second chamber of the criminal division.

Cocaine, which is sold for €145 per gramme, is inaccessible to most Algerians. Therefore, Algeria probably acts as a transit country for deliveries to Europe and the Middle East.

Prior to the 701kg cocaine scandal, 156kg of white powder was discovered in 2015 in a bonded warehouse in Baraki, an Algerian suburb. The goods were hidden in a food container carrying milk powder that had been imported from New Zealand and transited through Spain to Algeria. The case was never solved.

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