“Give me the passports!” demands a middle-aged man. A dozen women comply. “Taking our passports ensures that his stuff arrives in Morocco,” explains Fatiha, 62. “He will return them later, when we need to cross the border with our packages.”
It is 7am at the customs gate of Melilla, a Spanish enclave on the coast of Morocco. Fatiha and hundreds of other Moroccan women – mostly widows and divorcées – have come across the border from Morocco to begin their day’s work as porters or porteadoras. Once released from the checkpoint, they will race to pick up their loads in Spain for delivery to Morocco. If Fatiha hurries, she may make as many as five trips in the next six hours, tottering under giant packages across the border and back again.
Travelers may only carry personal luggage from Spain into Morocco without incurring a customs duty. Fatiha’s “personal luggage” is full of someone else’s merchandise: bolts of delicate fabric for wedding dresses, bound for markets in the rest of Africa. Three hundred meters away, Moroccan trucks idle, waiting to be loaded with cheap Spanish exports. Fatiha is paid for every bundle of cloth delivered. “Yesterday, nobody wanted to take them,” says Said, a truck driver.
“The fabric weighs over 90 kilos and they were paying only €3 [US$4]. But today, [the men organizing the export] offered €4 [$5]. The bundles were all taken in 10 minutes.” Every year, more than €1.4 billion ($1.8 billion) worth of goods stagger into Morocco across the borders of Melilla and Ceuta, another Spanish territory on the Moroccan coast.
With each crossing, porteadoras lose a few dirhams to Moroccan border police. Around the world, policemen receive one-third of all bribes paid, according to anti-corruption organization Transparency International; back in 2002, border officials at Ceuta and Melilla were estimated to have been taking as much as €90 million ($116 million) in bribes every year, according to Moroccan newspaper Al-Ayam. In order to keep porteadoras’ bribes coming, border police invent paperwork problems, send women to the back of the line, or simply beat them.
Melilla’s border closes at noon, so porteadoras are desperate to be quick. A missed crossing can cost a quarter of a day’s wages. During an early morning rush into Melilla in 2008, porteadora Safia Azizi fell and was promptly trampled to death. “They just didn’t stop,” recounts a former porter. “Hundreds of men and women laden with huge bundles ran right over her.”