Mustafa, the swimming fridge smuggler, and his macabre pact

19.Oct.03,  first published by the telegraph: read the original article here.

If an illegal immigrant recovers the bodies of others who have drowned, police let him carry on crossing the sea border between Ceuta and Morocco with his booty. Kim Willsher reports from Tarajal

For a smuggler called Mustafa Tarek Hammu, the cost of a quiet life can be counted in human bodies. Under an unusual "gentlemen's agreement", police in the Spanish enclave of Ceuta allow him to swim along the coast to neighbouring Morocco, towing smuggled fridges or crates of whisky behind him, if he also recovers the corpses of would-be immigrants drowned at sea.

Even in this lawless and chaotic frontier town that marks Europe's southernmost border on the Strait of Gibraltar, it is a bizarre arrangement. But with hundreds of people from Africa making the journey to Europe every day across the strait - just eight miles wide at the narrowest point - and many dying in the attempt, Mustafa is a boon.

"I save the Spanish police patrols the job of fishing bodies from the sea, and they turn a blind eye to my business activities," he says. "It's a good arrangement, since leaving the bodies out there or washed up on the beach would be a health hazard for everyone. It's a hard life, but it's the only way I can survive."

It is still dark at 7am at Tarajal beach, a desolate and detritus-strewn stretch of coast leading to the Moroccan border, as groups of young men and boys cluster around the sea wall to play their cat and mouse game with the border patrols.

Every morning, hundreds of the "porteadores", the sea smugglers, some as young as nine, cross the land border to collect Spanish goods, wrap them in plastic and swim back to avoid paying customs duty. In Morocco, a fridge can be sold for twice as much as it cost to buy in Ceuta.

The 100-yard trip takes just 10 minutes but the smugglers must run the gauntlet of gun-toting Spanish Guardia Civil and Moroccan police on either side to earn their 4 for each crossing.

Mustafa, 30, has lived, worked and slept on Tarajal beach since he was 15. He rolls up his trousers to show open wounds on his left leg, which was shattered when he was hit by a motor scooter 14 months ago. Though it has been pinned, Mustafa - himself an illegal immigrant to Ceuta - is not entitled to free medical treatment. He says he has to make four smuggling trips to Morocco every day to raise the 20 euros (15) a day he needs for medicines and antibiotics.

"I have lived in Ceuta almost all my life but because I don't have papers or an identity card I can't get free medicines," he explained. "I want the opportunity to earn an honest living and have some kind of future, but without papers I have no alternative but to smuggle."

The goods are bought at an industrial estate in Ceuta by the smugglers' bosses, a local mafia of Moroccan middle-men. Fridges and washing machines are dismantled and the motors transported by road while the bodies are swum across the maritime border.

When lookouts on a hill signal that the coast is clear, the young swimmers strip to their underwear, hoist bundles of contraband on to their shoulders and run down the pebbly beach.

Aziz, 22, said: "We take computers, clothes, tyres - anything we are asked. It's OK if the sea is calm, but when it's rough and the waves are high it can be dangerous. If the Moroccan border guards catch us they demand baksheesh [bribes] or sometimes confiscate everything."

Though the Spanish border guards mount round-the-clock patrols and sometimes fire plastic balls at smugglers, they are more concerned about stopping the drug and human traffic coming in the opposite direction.

"These guys like Mustafa are not really harming anyone so we often take a laissez-faire attitude," said a Spanish policeman. "The real problem is stopping immigrants coming over."

Since 2000, Ceuta - a seven square mile enclave that is home to 79,000 people - has been separated from Morocco by a 200 million razor wire border fence subsidised by the European Union. Two weeks ago, a 55-year-old Moroccan smuggler trying to break through the fence died after being shot, it is claimed accidentally, by a Guardia Civil officer.

European officials admit that they have no idea how many people are making their way across the Strait. About 50,000 illegal immigrants are seized at Europe's ports or at sea every year, but there are no exact figures recording how many get through or die in the attempt.

Only last week, Spanish police caught 550 people, most of them Moroccans, trying to sneak into southern Spain and the Canary Islands in rubber boats.

One Moroccan charity estimates that in the past five years more than 4,000 illegal immigrants have perished in the treacherous currents of the busy strait.

Some of the smugglers on the beach at Tarajal admitted taking up to 400 euros (300) a time to smuggle African immigrants across the sea border to Ceuta. "The Africans can't swim so they pay us to swim with them on our backs," said one youth.

"It can take four or five hours because we have to go quite a way out to sea to avoid the patrols and it's very dangerous, especially for the Africans. We tell them not to panic, but sometimes they do. If that happens and we can't hold on to them, we have to leave them."

This tide of human misery often washes up along the stretch of coastline where Mustafa lives. "At one point there were bodies turning up every day," he said.

"You cannot imagine how terrible it is finding a dead person in the sea. If I come across one I just leave whatever I am carrying and bring them ashore. People are more important than objects."