For centuries, the Maghreb was a hub for traders ferrying slaves, gold, and salt across the Sahara. The arrival of modern states imposed lines that cut across these ancient transit routes, but also enabled local people to profit from the cross-border sale of government-subsidised goods. The new flows of informal trade were grafted onto the existing routes, giving them cultural and economic legitimacy, even if governments deemed them illegal.

In a speech in 1988, Qaddafi noted the importance of informal trade and praised people for establishing black markets, which he preferred to call “people’s markets”. The trade served his agenda, as his regime controlled and profited from much of the activity.

Along with the institutionalisation of regime-backed informal trade in Qaddafi’s Libya and under the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia, the geography of the Maghreb has also had a decisive influence on economic activity. On the roughly 1,000km Algerian-Tunisian frontier, for example, the peaks and valleys that form the easternmost reaches of the Atlas provide the backdrop for an intricate smuggling network. Some jihadists also exploit the Aurès and Chaambi ranges, using the ridges and valleys to elude security forces.

Multiple post-independence rebellions across the region, and later the rise of jihadist activity, shifted cross-border trade flows towards weapons smuggling. The smuggling networks soon branched out to other illicit goods, notably, contraband tobacco in the 1980s and cocaine in the mid-2000s.

Despite the attention given to illicit goods, the main items traded in the Sahara are fuel and subsidised basic foodstuffs such as semolina, sugar, pasta, and powdered milk – all illegal to export. Over time, regional economic imbalances have developed as a result of subsidy policies in Algeria and Libya. Foodstuffs smuggled from Algeria, for instance, became central to food security in drought-stricken northern Mali.

Investing in 'Wall Street'

Without formal employment and investment opportunities, informal cross-border activity is legitimised. This represents a major dilemma for authorities trying to assert control over cross-border flows. Clamping down on this vital economic activity challenges the social peace and blurs the lines between formal and informal, and licit and illicit.

Informal trading in towns such as Ben Guerdane also flourished when the United Nations imposed sanctions on the Qaddafi regime in 1992. Throughout the period of sanctions, which lasted until 2003, Libya was barred from directly importing non-essential goods. Tunisia thus became a vital resource for Libyans, and, during extended border closures between the two countries, informal trade was practically the only source of income for border communities.

In addition, Ben Guerdane developed a currency market that allowed the Qaddafi regime to access capital – a particularly acute problem during sanctions – adding to the economic clout of the cartels that controlled the informal trade. The phenomenon became so widespread that an entire street in Ben Guerdane was nicknamed 'Wall Street', for the rows of stalls set up by illegal currency traders.

Today in Ben Guerdane, currency traders still convert local currencies into dollars and euros for the purchase of imported goods. Such activities have become institutionalised over the years and are visible across borderlands in the region.

Blurring distinctions even further, smugglers are not isolated actors operating in self-contained environments. Considering the size and reach of informal economies the world over, smugglers often perform multiple roles. They hold legitimate jobs, supporting families and entire communities, and constitute but one link in a large supply chain. Knowingly or not, multiple actors play some part in the trade, be it as transporters, customs and security officials, bankers, or multinational corporations.

The parallel economy in which smugglers prosper helps reduce unemployment among people on the periphery, while also defusing social discontent and slowing the rural exodus.

By October 2011, residents of Ezzouhour, one of the poorest villages in Kasserine, felt the impact of Ben Ali’s fall as smugglers exploited the instability to increase their operations. Moses Saman/Magnum

Subsidies and Smuggling

Informal trade does not, by definition, operate in the shadows, as exemplified by the vibrant open-air markets in Ben Guerdane and the involvement of state officials.

Yet, it is more than economic imperatives that create opportunities for informal trade. The topography of the Algerian-Tunisian border – mountainous, forested, and with villages draped on either side – provides the ideal cover for smuggling.

The unremarkable features of Kasserine belie its status as a city where post-revolution, socio-political realities intertwine with borderland economics.

On the Tunisian side of the border, the unremarkable features of Kasserine belie its status as a city where post-revolution, socio-political realities intertwine with borderland economics. Like other peripheral areas, Kasserine, and the governorate of which it is the capital, are removed from the relative prosperity of Tunis and the country’s seaboard cities.

Domestic policies often take on a transnational dimension, as the economic decisions taken in one country’s capital can ripple across multiple borders. Algeria's lavish energy subsidies, for example, have a bearing on Tunisia's economy. Energy subsidies in Algeria make up 9.4 per cent of its GDP, but in Tunisia this figure is only 3.3 per cent. Consequently, at 2014 prices, one litre of petrol in Algeria costs $0.27, compared with $0.91 in Tunisia, thereby providing an incentive for smuggling.

Fuel is not the only commodity smuggled across Maghrebi borders. Informal trade is extensive, and electronic goods from Asia, foodstuffs from the wider Maghreb, and weapons from Libya are all ferried along transnational routes. The World Bank estimates that about 98 per cent of informal trade between Algeria and Tunisia circumvents Tunisia’s official border posts.

Despite the extensive nature of the trade, smugglers have had to find ingenious ways to evade border security. A labouring donkey crossing the Algerian-Tunisian border with 20 or more jerrycans of fuel is thus an unlikely but common symbol of this trade in an era of globalisation.

Smugglers are forthright in their socio-economic assessment, claiming that smuggling is the only way to subsist due to job scarcity.

In Kasserine, smugglers are forthright in their socio-economic assessment, claiming that smuggling is the only way to subsist due to job scarcity.

Although the Kasserine governorate – where at least one in five residents is unemployed – offers a microcosm of borderland life, such economic disparity is not unique to Kasserine or Tunisia; many areas across the Maghreb are affected by similar structural inequalities.

Informal currency exchange booths such as this one are common on the Tunisia-Libya border. Without a state presence to enforce regulation after 2011, the smuggling trade was ‘democratised'. Khaled Mechergui/Getty

The trabendo, as the smugglers are known locally, are deeply rooted in local communities. Their exploits are extolled in YouTube videos set against dramatic movie scores. Tebessa, an Algerian city of 300,000 inhabitants, largely depends on informal trade, and pick-ups loaded with fuel flow steadily towards the Tunisian border. Underscoring the extent of smuggling, entire city blocks in Tebessa have been converted into makeshift fuel depots.

In addition to being gateways for informal trade, peripheral regions such as Kasserine were instrumental in Ben Ali’s downfall. Kasserine lies just 80km from Sidi Bouzid, where Mohamed Bouazizi self-immolated in December 2010. But it was not until January 2011, in Ezzouhour, one of Kasserine’s poorest neighbourhoods, that the protests galvanised into a national movement after security forces killed 22 protesters.

Under the Ben Ali regime, informal trade flourished along Tunisia’s borders. The one-party system developed patronage ties with a variety of traders who formed cartels. The self-regulating economic system that evolved allowed disadvantaged regions to sustain themselves. It also became a convenient method of governance for the regime, which even harnessed the system to distribute rent. Informal partnerships between the trading cartels and Ben Ali’s government enabled security forces to exercise enough control to curb the smuggling of illicit goods.

From Informal Trade to Organised Crime

But in 2011, the cartels that controlled the informal trade lost their patron. Amid the upheaval, police forces withdrew from Kasserine, while other state institutions such as border control effectively ceased to function. Without a state presence to enforce regulation through a system of favouritism and bribery, smuggling proliferated and resulted in the ‘democratisation’ of the smuggling business. Smugglers entered a golden age and made the most of government paralysis. Figures from Tunisia’s government underscore its reduced ability to curb smuggling. Security forces thwarted 3,650 smuggling operations in 2010, compared to about 550 in 2011 and 2012 combined.

Operating in a bigger playing field and with greater security risks, smugglers began arming themselves as an insurance policy, blurring the lines between informal trade and organised crime.

Unrest in Libya further amplified the smuggling of illicit goods across its frontiers. The sudden availability of Qaddafi's stockpiles attracted profiteers, rogues, and jihadists who saw the opportunity to spread firearms, ammunition, and explosives across the Maghreb. This windfall created an opportunity for some smugglers to engage in a more profitable trade – weapons.

Increasingly porous borders allowed the flow of fighters and weapons a degree of free movement. Persistent economic marginalisation – particularly youth unemployment – transferred certain borderlands into the hands of criminal networks and jihadist groups preying on the destitute.