Our little Christmas road trip wound up yesterday. We left 8th century Moulay Idriss (photo above, nestled in the hills framed by Roman Volubilis) and struck almost due north, through Ouezzane and into the Rif Mountains.
Ouezzane, perhaps best known here through the family of the Cherif of Ouezzane and his turn-of-the-century (19th-20th) "British Bride of Tangier" Emily Keene, was one of the northern outposts of the French during their Protectorate, which began almost 100 years ago in 1912.
As did the Spanish Protectorate, separated from the French by a couple of rivers, including the Loukkos. Below, a photo from a great collection of Fifties-era photos by several French soldiers, on the site "3/12ème RCA Maroc – historique du 3ème escadron du 12ème R.C.A. (Régiment Chasseurs d'Afrique)."
Well, perhaps not in the time of the French Protectorate, which was to come to a close a mere six months later upon Morocco's independence in November 1956. The bridge has since been finished, as we can attest from our crossing it yesterday.
But back in 1956, the same "3/12ème RCA" site has another photo of a kepi-wearing French soldier in front of a sign at the outskirts of Ouezzane. The sign reads "ZONE D'INSECURITE" and tells drivers that it's forbidden to drive north at night. The soldier is part of a platoon that sweeps the road and escorts civilian vehicles to the next post.
Fast forward to 2011. The Lonely Planet Morocco guidebook tells us that the
Rif is home to the largest acreage of cannabis cultivation in the world, an estimated 1340 sq km, or 42% of global production. Cultivation has expanded rapidly since the 1980s, in part due to increasing European demand. The cannabis trade is now the region's main economic activity, involving an estimated 800,000 people, and probably Morocco's main source of foreign currency…
Elsewhere, Lonely Planet warns travelers of the "notorious reputation" points east of Dardara, where we had a great lunch to top off our trip through the Rif.
This is an area (Issaguen and Ketama) beyond the law. People will wonder what you are doing here, and naturally assume you are buying hashish. There is nowhere to turn if you get into trouble, and little to hold anyone back who wants same. Travellers are strongly advised to pass through and not spend the night here.
So, we skirted the most iffy part of the Rif, but even our lunchtime stop in Dardara is considered a key checkpoint for drug traffic control. As recently as December 16 a gendarme shot his superior officer there, in a case still under investigation (TelQuel Magazine). The same magazine carried a full investigative report on Rif drug trafficking in a 2004 cover story, where it mentions that Dardara checkpoint:
Dardara roundabout, the most sought-after post by the region's gendarmes, is a veritable gold mine. The most telling illustration is from a saying in the region: "a gendarme at Dardara is worth seven ministers."
With stakes that high, perhaps the shootout should come as no surprise.
Back in 1956, the nighttime prohibition on the Ouezzane-Chefchaouen road was for travelers' own good. It sounds like the Pont du Loukkos, though it may have never seen much customs traffic in the French-Spanish Protectorate days, certainly gets a lot of nighttime drive-by traffic of another sort. Best to be off these roads by dark anyway – for more reasons than one!