To Repel Migrants, European Border Patrol Turns Bloody

In Longreads

Bakari Pacal was sprinting along a jetty in northern Morocco when he heard a rifle crack. His stride broke, and he tumbled into the Mediterranean. It was dawn on February 6, 2014, and he was in the lead group of a mass rush on a border fence dividing Morocco from an obscure Spanish enclave on the African side of the Strait of Gibraltar, a city of 85,000 called Ceuta. Every few weeks, groups ranging from a few dozen people to a few hundred, most of them originally from West Africa, would attempt to enter the city by overwhelming its defenses. The previous September, about 250 had tried to reach Ceuta using this strategy; 91 made it. Pacal had tried and failed several times.

For most of its length the border between Ceuta and Morocco is virtually impenetrable. Defenses consist of two sheer cement walls, each 20 feet high, separated by a 12-foot buffer. On top of each wall are lengths of concertina wire: honed metal extruded into a wide spring, like a slinky made of razors. Guard towers loom every few hundred yards, manned by Moroccan soldiers on the African side and Spain’s Guardia Civil, called the national guard in English, on the European side. Security cameras and floodlights top the barrier, and 24 hours a day, armored trucks patrol a service road that runs alongside the walls.

But like all defenses, the border between Morocco and Spain has a weakness. Just past the official crossing, which sits right beside the beach, the foreboding barrier thins to a single line of hurricane fencing and extends onto a jetty about 25 yards into the sea, not even far enough to get past the breakers.

Pacal’s plan was to run down the stumpy jetty as far as he could, then jump in, swim past the jetty’s tip, and make a U-turn to get to the European side. The swim would not be much longer than a single lap in an Olympic-size swimming pool. Two hundred others with him were trying to do the same.

Twenty-six years old on the night at the jetty, Pacal had left his home in Douala, Cameroon, in 2012. He’d earned a degree in education from the University of Douala, he said, but couldn’t find work. Without a teaching job he had been driving a truck, never making ends meet.

“Someone hires you for 30, 50, 100 euros a month. At the end of the month, you hold out your hand, and nothing happens. You have to wait three months to be paid.” With a small group of friends and a brother, he decided to leave for better opportunities. He had a child on the way, but its mother would stay behind and wait for remittances once Pacal reached the EU. He applied for a visa with the French embassy and was turned down.

A previous smuggler’s route across the Atlantic, to the Canary Islands, was largely shut down by Spanish sea patrols by 2009. When Pacal left Cameroon, routes through Libya, just ending its violent overthrow of Mouammar Gadhafi, were only beginning to take shape. Morocco became the remaining way north, and swimming around the Ceuta jetty the most promising strategy to defeat one’s visa problems.

“You cannot go home empty-handed,” said Pacal. “You try, you wait, gather your energy, and try again.”

 

Pacal surfaced where he’d fallen off the jetty, treaded water, and got his bearings. Around him were other men swimming desperately for the Spanish side. Some had made it—23 of them, he would learn later—and were moving toward a patch of beach just inside Spain. On the Moroccan side, behind Pacal, perhaps three dozen more were making slower progress, wading along the breakwater’s base. Less confident swimmers than Pacal, he said, they were holding fast to the side of the jetty. But the going there was tough; the tide would pin them, crash over their heads, and toss the swimmers into one another.

Farther behind him, still on the beach on the Moroccan side, was his friend Mohammed Mbouombouo, who had not made it to the water. In the rush, he had fallen and sprained an ankle. Then, he said, “people fell on me, and I was trampled.” A Moroccan border patrolman set on him and hit him in the head with a baton, he said, and he blacked out for a moment.

Bobbing in the calmer water off the end of the jetty, Pacal saw a Spanish police boat holding steady in the current. Spain’s borders are guarded by the national police, the national guard, and the maritime rescue service, which often aids people who get in trouble trying to cross the sea to Europe. He decided to swim for it. By the time sunlight reached the jetty, at least 15 people in the sea around him would be dead.

 

Immigration flows at Ceuta are not large compared with other places. Each month this past summer, 200,000 people crossed from Turkey to Greece; only 27,000 citizens of sub-Saharan African nations were estimated to be transiting the country toward Europe in 2013. (EU nations granted 600,000 visas to immigrants in 2014.)

The fear, said Iván Martín, an economist at the Migration Policy Centre of the European University Institute, in Firenze, Italy, and a frequent adviser to several European Parliament committees on migration policy, is that the number could suddenly explode, as it did this year in Greece and in the central Mediterranean in 2013. The summer after Pacal fell off the jetty, an estimated 219,000 people crossed or tried to cross the Mediterranean, often from Libya, according to the EU border agency Frontex. The year before, 2013, the number was under 60,000, and the year before that, less than half as many.

“Europe is scared of the potential size of these flows [of migrants through Morocco]. They don’t want to open the door in case it attracts more,” said Martín. He spoke by phone a week after returning from meetings with human rights officers in Morocco.

Beginning in 2005, the EU contributed 200 million British pounds (about $300 million) to fortify the wall around Ceuta, after paying as much as 75 percent of the cost of fence construction in the previous decade, according to a study by Said Saddiki, an international relations scholar then at Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah University in Fez, Morocco. “They are considered among the highest cost fences in the world because of the sophisticated technologies involved,” he said, responding to questions by email.

Though “the European Union is strongly supporting the migration policy in Morocco,” said Martín, no accurate accounting of how much is spent, or on which side of the border with Spain, has been made public. The total cost of Moroccan and Spanish border security has never been tabulated and would require a European parliamentary inquiry to uncover, he said. “I don’t think anybody, and I mean anybody, has a good picture of what the costs are. I don’t think this is an exercise that can be done with public information.”

Spain and Morocco historically had a good relationship, and border security was minimal. But as Europe began to erase its internal borders Spain’s obscure territory inside Morocco became “the de facto southern frontier of the EU,” wrote Saddiki. “Now you come to Spain, and you can go on to France or Germany,” said Germinal Castillo of Ceuta’s Red Cross, which often treats hypothermia after sea rescues and injuries from falls at the walls and fences. The collapse of border policing across much of North Africa following the 2011 Arab Spring and the onset of political crises across much of the Sahara, the Sahel, and the Horn of Africa have significantly raised the number of migrants and refugees coming to Ceuta’s gates.

With Europe dependent on Morocco to secure the border at Ceuta, the North African kingdom found itself with enormous leverage over its larger neighbor. The relationship was briefly on view after an embarrassing incident on Aug. 7, 2014, when Spain’s Guardia Civil boarded a luxury yacht in Spanish waters off Ceuta. “Do you know who I am?” Spanish reports quoted a passenger in sunglasses asking guard officers. It took the Spaniards a moment to recognize Mohammed VI, king of Morocco, out for a sail.

He would later call Spain’s King Felipe VI to complain. Five days later, Morocco’s border patrol mysteriously disappeared from its side of the fence. At least 1,200 people overwhelmed Spanish border officers over the next 36 hours, and the national guard rescued 920 people attempting to enter Spain by sea between Aug. 12 and 15—a sudden increase over previous weeks. Within days, Spain’s interior minister, Jorge Fernández Díaz, would make unscheduled stops in Tétouan, a Moroccan city of about half a million near Ceuta, publicly assuring Moroccan officials that the slight against King Mohammed had been a mistake that would not be repeated. Border patrols resumed in Morocco the following week.

“The Moroccans play their role of gendarme, policeman on the border, to avoid floods of migrants,” said Mohamed El Boukili of the Rabat-based Moroccan Association of Human Rights, one of the country’s largest civil society organizations. “The presence of Morocco at the border is backed by covenants and contracts between the Moroccan state and the European Union.”

Even if the border is paid for and run jointly, the Moroccan side operates under Moroccan sovereignty. EU immigration and civil rights laws do not apply equally on both sides of the fence. “In Spain, there is a state of law, and here in Morocco we can say there is a state of law,” said El Boukili. “The standard is violence against the migrants every day, in different ways.”

EU officials, said Martín, “know perfectly that Morocco doesn’t have the resources to ensure the kinds of rights we are guaranteed in Europe.”

Ceuta represents only one example of countries outsourcing significant elements of their border security beyond their fences. In October, The New York Times reported what it called a “ferocious crackdown” on immigration by Mexico on its border with Guatemala. Paid for with “tens of millions” of dollars in U.S. funding, the program sought to rebuff immigration of Latin Americans 1,000 miles and more south of Texas, Arizona, and California. In late November, German Chancellor Angela Merkel led efforts to trade $3 billion in EU aid to Turkey in exchange for Turkish efforts to absorb Syrian and other war refugees before they reached the EU.

Efforts by nongovernmental organizations to document Morocco’s police practices on its EU border faced obstacles this year. In June, the Moroccan government briefly detained, then deported, two Amnesty International researchers who had been researching forced displacements of would-be West African migrants. The organization has not been allowed to resume its work. In October, Morocco’s minister of communications sent a letter to the executive director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, canceling that organization’s permission to operate in the country, where it had been looking into treatment of West African migrants. A series of 2014 European parliament inquiries into abuses at Ceuta’s border fences went nowhere.

European border governments “are lowering the bar, and they are giving Morocco a sense that [it] can get away with more than [it] used to,” argued Eric Goldstein, deputy director of HRW’s Middle East and North Africa Division.

Even if Spain had outsourced the murkiest parts of its border security needs to Morocco, that did not mean it would be able to keep its hands clean forever.

 

A Moroccan police boat was nearby too. Pacal knew if the Moroccan boat caught him, he’d be dragged back to the African side of the barrier and lose his chance to make landfall in Europe.

When he reached the Spanish boat a policeman on board swung his baton at him, Pacal said. Other swimmers were being hit too. “There were already people screaming, ‘Help,’ around the boat, several, and they clubbed them over the head.”

Rather than rescuing the swimmers, he realized, the Spanish officers were repelling them. Meanwhile, another group of Spanish officers standing near the jetty was tossing tear-gas canisters into the water, which emitted clouds that floated through links of the hurricane fence and settled over the swimmers. February 2014 was more than a year before tear gas would be used against refugees at border crossings in Macedonia and Serbia, sparking international outrage. “We were surprised,” Pacal said. “We were expecting reactions from the Moroccans,” who often treated the West Africans as interlopers. “But it was the Spaniards we had to fear.”

He had other mistaken expectations too. Pacal did not know that the Ceuta border police had recently tightened security. The local national guard force had been bolstered by a heavily armed riot control squad brought in from Seville, across the channel. The force on the beach, a mix of the riot control squad, the national guard, and Spanish national police, were armed with rifles loaded with rubber bullets and had permission to use them. The police commander took the first shot, from the Spanish side, according to a court summary later leaked to Spanish media. The commander, unnamed in the document, testified to having taken one of the rifles from a subordinate officer’s hands and firing into the water, as an example to his men.

Neither could Pacal yet know that the national guard officers would not alert the Ceuta chapter of the Spanish Red Cross, as is standard procedure in cases of border crossings at the jetty. Germinal Castillo, spokesman for the Spanish Red Cross in Ceuta, confirmed his organization was not called.

Shaken by the baton attack and seeing no way around the police boat, Pacal gave up. Though just yards from the Spanish shore, he abandoned his attempt to reach Europe, fearing his life was in danger. “It was the boat that made me return,” he said. He started paddling back toward the Moroccan side.

He saw his first fatality while swimming back to the beach. “The body of a teen,” he said. He did not recognize him. “I knew he was dead. He was [face down] in the water.”

Residents of the Spanish neighborhood of warehouses and family homes along the beach, called Tarajal, heard the commotion and gathered on balconies and along a two-lane coastal road about 100 yards from the jetty. Some began filming with smartphones: poorly lit videos that would be hard to parse but many of which ended up on YouTube or sold to Spanish news outlets within a few days.

The videos captured muzzle flashes from the police rifles, about half a dozen, as bright bursts along the Spanish side of the border fence. This one appears to be from a security camera belonging to a private business on the Spanish side.

In the water, Pacal assumed the shots were live ammunition; the possibility of rubber bullets did not occur to him. All he could surmise, he said, was that guns were going off, intermittent but close, and acrid gas was floating over the jetty. He was having trouble breathing because of “the gas, the salt,” he said.

A little after 6:30 a.m., he thinks, Pacal washed up on the sand a short distance from the jetty, exhausted. He rested a moment at the edge of the tide, cold in his drenched clothes. Dozens of people along the jetty were shouting, trapped in the waves, pinned between one another and the cement breakwater. The Spanish boat blocked their route forward; behind them their comrades, struggling in the water, blocked the path back to Morocco. More men were retreating in panic from the tear gas.

Pacal thought he heard the shouting continue for 10 minutes but realized later it must have been only a minute or two. What he was hearing was people being crushed against the rocks at the base of the jetty, trampling one another as they fought to escape from drowning.

The next bodies Pacal saw were drifting just offshore. Moroccan soldiers, fewer than a dozen, he recalled, started dragging the dead off the sand and a stretch of rocks nearby. They asked the survivors to help them recover the dead.

“Some Africans went into the water to retrieve corpses,” Pacal said. He helped drag bodies out himself. He was overwhelmed. “We were all crying. The Moroccan police, even some of them were crying.”

His friend Mbouombouo, on the beach, had regained consciousness and was arrested, he would recall. “They put us in a van; we sat for hours. Some tried to help” with the bodies, he said, “but I was injured, my foot, and I just had to watch, and you start to think too much.”

Pacal was also arrested and driven in a separate van to Rabat, three hours away, in his wet clothes, and dumped there. He said he borrowed money to return to Tangier a few days later.

The official death toll in what Spanish press would term “the Tarajal incident,” was 15. In October, TakePart spoke with four people who said they were there that night. The interviews, in Tangier and Ceuta, were conducted separately and are consistent, but the accounts cannot be independently verified. Two of the four, Pacal and Mbouombouo, agreed to speak on the record.

Unofficially, the death toll was estimated by Pacal, Mbouombouo, another eyewitness, and a Spanish emergency response official in Ceuta (who requested anonymity because the person was not authorized to speak on the matter) to be at least twice as high. Only five bodies were recovered on the Spanish side of the border, four by Spanish rescue divers and one that washed up on the beach beside the jetty two days later.

Moroccan police claimed to have recovered nine bodies on their side of the border but ignored requests from a Spanish court to provide forensic reports or the identities of the deceased. Representatives of the city morgues in Fnideq and nearby Tétouan, where autopsies are sometimes referred, did not respond to requests for information on whether bodies were examined there.

“They were wearing life jackets. They died in life jackets,” said Pacal, sitting with friends on the floor of the living room of his apartment, on a tall hill in Tangier, in October. He blames the tear gas for creating panic in the water, causing the crush that killed as many as 45 migrants in search of a better life, just a few yards from safety. “They were shooting gas at this mass of people.”

 

A Spanish investigation, assigned to the local judge in Ceuta, began within months. If the single judge decided the evidence was sufficient to go to trial, three Spanish police commanders and 13 rank and file officers would face charges of negligent homicide. Months of depositions began in March, just over a year after the incident.

Interior Minister Fernández Díaz, whose department oversees the border patrol, initially denied shots were fired, and the Spanish national guard denied having video of the incident. The denials caused embarrassment for the minister after private videos aired on Spanish national television, showing the telltale muzzle flashes.

“The use of anti-riot material is clear.… You can see it on the videos. Everyone had their mobiles,” said Helena Maleno, a member of the Spanish immigrants’ rights organization Caminando Fronteras (Walking Borders), who was among those deposed in the proceedings.

The use of tear gas and rubber bullets against swimmers in open water is the lone instance of its kind in recent memory in Europe. “We’re not aware of a precedent,” said Marc Serra, a researcher with Observatori DESC, a Spanish legal charity that has brought a civil case against the Guardia Civil for its actions on the morning of Feb. 6. The incident was so unusual, it would attract international media to the obscure Spanish outpost and spark an inquiry from the European Parliament.

The official story changed more than once. Fernández Díaz took pains to locate the incident outside Spain. “Fifteen people have died in Ceuta—pardon me, formally it was in Morocco—looking for a better life,” he said in a speech on Feb. 16. The Spanish national police soon released its own video, which focused on the large group of people approaching the fence and did not show the events at the jetty.

As part of her deposition Maleno turned over to the court recorded interviews with 28 survivors that Caminando Fronteras made in the days after the incident.

“The issue is whether the deployment of anti-riot materials—the gas and the rubber bullets—directly provoked the deaths. I have some hopes this judge will decide that it did,” she said in September.

The proceedings would be secretive and provoke months of speculation. Ceuta is a small community, barely five miles wide, on a bit of bulbous peninsula. An exceptionally high portion of its residents work for the government or the military, which has a large base on the strategic Strait of Gibraltar. The local police officers and bureaucrats inevitably know each other, and the government footprint is palpable in the city; each morning over two weeks in October, navy and police officers could be seen filling the city’s handsome seaside esplanade, jogging in Spanish-red military-issue exercise uniforms.

If the judge approved a trial, Ceuta, a community with a strong police culture, would have to put its own police department on the dock. If the judge dismissed the case, or if it went to trial but ended without a conviction, the 15 or more people who died at the jetty would never find justice. Their identities would be lost, their bodies having been dumped in potter’s fields thousands of miles from home and their families learning nothing of their fates or of who was responsible for their deaths.

The decision from the Ceuta court was expected by the end of 2015.

 

A few months into the investigation, Moroccan law enforcement began a series of violent attacks against migrants living in and around Tangier, 25 miles from Ceuta and the largest city in the region. Morocco had ended deportation of sub-Saharan Africans living within its borders in late 2013 and began offering one-year work permits after a government human rights audit advocated softening of the treatment of people transiting through the country. But in July 2015, the Moroccan civil rights organization GADEM denounced a recent sweep in Pacal’s neighborhood that resulted, the group said, in two hospitalizations and one death. In late September, a mix of local police, national police, and a special border patrol detachment simultaneously attacked two squatters’ camps, also near Pacal’s flat, and an encampment in the mountains, known as Cassiago, used to stage attempts to get over the border fence. Armed police broke cooking equipment, destroyed food stocks, and beat people with batons, according to Mbouombouo and another Cameroonian man, Cyril Souop, who said they witnessed the attacks. Police in Tangier refused to comment, and they said no forensic reports on the victims existed.

In October, Pacal agreed to lead TakePart around the peninsula to show us how migrants like him live and, to the extent possible, retrace his steps the night of Feb. 6. One day, we headed to Tangier’s small bus station across town from his flat and bought a 50-cent ticket for Tétouan, about half an hour south of Ceuta and an hour and a half southeast of Tangier. The old bus followed a dramatic curving road along the coast, with a view of Europe across the water. Pacal signaled the driver three miles before the border and hopped off where the road traversed a high ridge: Cassiago. On each side of the road were low trees. The mountain over Ceuta loomed, and the air smelled of the sea, which lay just out of sight below a stony ridge.

Along the road, a dozen young men from Cameroon and the Ivory Coast were killing time beside the curb. They greeted Pacal with handshakes and asked how things were going in Tangier, and gave a quick update of the police presence. Troop trucks passed every few moments. After one rounded a bend, we all sprinted across the road and followed a narrow dirt path into the trees for about a quarter mile. At a clearing were 20 more men, from the Ivory Coast and Guinea. A heated conversation began in rapid French: Pacal was accused, not unreasonably, of risking unwanted attention with three foreign reporters in tow. Eventually the group assented to a tour of the camp, and we went farther into the bushes to a shelter—a blue tarp, strung from three bushes with twine. Trash was everywhere.

The camp had been tossed a week before by the police, according to a man who said his name was Konaté and was from Abidjian, Ivory Coast.

A small group of men agreed to explain their most recent attempt on the fence. They had tried to climb it rather than swim around or float the distance in an improvised boat. (Pacal had recently organized one such excursion and had to retreat, again, though a friend made it.)

The men said they could scale the first wall with ladders they made from salvaged wood and rope and then falling into the 12-foot buffer between it and the second wall. “Normally, the middle ground is the territory of the Red Cross. In normal times, if you succeed and jump, the Spanish say, ‘OK,’ ” said a man in his 20s who said his name was Leopold and was from Conkary, Guinea.

Avoiding cuts from the razor wire was difficult, Leopold said, and he had seen people receive treatment after falling. That was happening less, he said. “You are badly wounded. But the Spanish throw you out. We don’t know why. Often the Moroccans even come after them with a baton to beat them,” he said.

Spanish police have long denied participating in such “summary returns,” the passing of people who arrive on Spanish soil directly back to the Moroccan side via service doors in the fence.

“The legal issue is that a person who crosses the fence is supposed to be given the opportunity to make an asylum claim,” said Serra. Jumping the border fence is considered an “irregular” entry to Spain, rather than an “illegal” one, he said, a distinction meaning that entrants had not broken a law. Because of their immediateness, summary returns granted frontline police officers the ability to make extrajudicial decisions about a person’s right to asylum and risked expelling people a court might have ruled eligible to stay if allowed to review the case, said Serra.

During a rush at the wall the previous week, said Konaté, men caught in Spain and returned to Morocco were loaded in vans and sent hours away, as Pacal had been the night of the deaths at the jetty. “Some were deported to Casablanca, others in Rabat,” he said. “But they have no transportation to come back. Even the wounded, there is nobody to tend to the wounded. Only God.”

Video from the Tarajal incident appeared to show Spanish border police at the jetty carrying out summary returns of some of the 23 men who reached the Spanish side of the beach before the tear gas was fired.

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Spain can’t make up its mind on the practice. A court in Melilla, southeast of Ceuta, has ruled it illegal under the Spanish Constitution and European Union human rights guarantees. But a 2014 Spanish national law, a broad statute called the Citizens Security Law, which took effect earlier this year, explicitly legalized the practice. A petition before Spain’s Supreme Court was working its way toward a hearing at the time of publication.

One in the camp favored his arm and agreed to pull up his sleeve. He exposed an eight-inch wound from what he said was the fence’s concertina wire. Goaded by this man, others started to tug at their sleeves and peel off their shirts, displaying wounds and scars. Several of the injuries looked fresh and included what appeared to be more slash wounds—gruesome injuries five and 10 inches long, still scabbing over—which they said were from the barrier or inflicted by border guards on either side.

Konaté held out a wrist with an irregular protrusion, which he said was from a badly set break; most all the men where covered in round white sores that they said were from bites by insects on the forest floor. None of the wounds’ causes could be confirmed, but they did not appear to be the normal scratches and bumps one would acquire living in a forest, and few appeared to have received even rudimentary medical treatment.

Pacal said it was time to leave. The men under the tarp begged the accompanying reporters to take photos of their wounds and send the pictures to the Spanish Red Cross. A sense of desperation marked the conversation. “We eat badly; we do not eat enough; we are badly treated in the street,” said Konaté.

Pacal spoke with the men for a few more minutes, planning his next visit, then left to wait for the bus back to Tangier.

 

Boukhalef, a neighborhood of low buildings in Tangier’s south, is known for two things: a weekend flea market and its popularity with West African immigrants, who began around 2010 settling in affordable flats there and turning it into a planning area for runs at the Spanish border.

In October a raid by local police destroyed several squats and knocked down tents in a vacant lot there, said one of Pacal’s roommates, a woman in her late 20s named Carole, one afternoon in their living room.

“They took everything, the police. The telephones, good clothes,” were impounded, she said while watching loud music videos on a television that had come with the apartment. “What was not important, they burned.” She said she was at the squat the day before, helping friends clean up. “I went to check when a brother called me. They burned everything.… They took everything of value.”

“I don’t think they are mobilizing these resources to prevent the 6,000 or 20,000 [immigrants],” said Martín. “They are mobilizing all these resources to deter larger flows. All indications are that the migration potential in south Saharan Africa is huge. It has not really started.”

Officers at the police station in Boukhalef would not comment on the accusation, but rumors of such attacks were common, and two vacant lots nearby were filled with burned kitchen supplies, spilled food, and blackened earth.

Pacal’s roommates made cell-phone videos of the camps, posting them on Facebook in an attempt to prove the existence of a campaign to evict them. Here is one:

Pacal had moved house from Boukhalef a few months earlier to the flat in a neighboring area, Mesnana, a denser district of apartment blocks in the south of the city. His new flat was nicer, he said, but to reach it he had to make a mile-long hike up a soaring hill, past a row of houses and stores. The locals did not interact with him much. Walking through the neighborhood, he would feel eyes on him.

Pacal lived with Carole, a second woman, and two men; they rented the small ground-floor apartment from a Moroccan landlord for about $300 a month. The Cameroonians tried to keep a low profile and scraped together money working odd jobs. Carole said she cooked food and sold it to other Cameroonians in the neighborhood and sometimes sent it in plastic containers to the forest camps at Cassiago.

The situation was manageable, she said, but she hated Morocco and did not understand why no one helped them leave if the neighbors were so displeased with their presence.

She had attempted to speak with foreign journalists before and had documented the difficulties of her life on social media. “We tell our story over and over, we film with telephones, but nothing changes,” she said, glancing at the television. “Three weeks ago, [some Moroccans] tried to break in—they pounded, pounded, pounded. I don’t know, I don’t do anything wrong. I go out; I don’t ask anything. But them, they are always at us.”

In early November, a Spanish news website, eldiario.es, reported that a tent camp had sprung up in Fez, 200 miles from Ceuta. Cameroonian residents of the camp said they had fled the forest near Cassiago after attacks by border police.

In September, an international diplomatic mission arrived in Ceuta to observe the border fence and discuss security with representatives of Ceuta’s government. Enikö Györi, the Hungarian ambassador to Spain, was gathering facts on the fortifications in Ceuta. In a press conference downtown, the ambassador said she was impressed and hoped Hungary could create something similar.

“With the heart and the head, in cooperation with neighbors, it is an example Europe can learn from,” she said.

 

The day the judge’s decision came down, The Martian opened at the cineplex downtown. A line formed along the esplanade, which overlooks the terminal where the ferries leave for Europe. The Martian would become the top-grossing film in Spain before the end of the day. It would earn nearly a quarter-billion dollars worldwide in two months, enthralling audiences with its tale of a man trapped by accident and circumstance across a seemingly unbridgeable distance, kept alive for years by his own stamina and ingenuity, in the face of endless bad luck, eventually inspiring the entire world to come together and bring him, impossibly, home. Pacal, who does not have much spending money, said he hadn’t seen it.

A few blocks away, the front page of El Faro, Ceuta’s daily newspaper, was reporting reality: The judge had determined the case against the 16 Spanish border police at Tarajal had no merit. “Good news,” the Ceuta national guard tweeted.

The judge’s finding rested on two points. The forensic reports from the Moroccan autopsies had never been handed over to the Ceuta court’s investigators, making it impossible to determine the cause of death. Second, the court deemed that the recordings of interviews with the 28 survivors (gathered by Helena Maleno) had been edited after the fact by her group, and therefore ruled them inconclusive.

The Spanish Ministry of the Interior and the Embassy of Spain have not responded to multiple requests to describe their efforts to obtain the autopsy reports from Moroccan counterparts, and Morocco’s Ministry of Communications has not responded to questions asking why the reports were withheld. (This article will be updated if a response is received.)

The rest of the events of the night had not been considered sufficient cause to go to trial: the use of tear gas and rubber bullets, the abandonment of protocol in the chain of command (the commander taking an officer’s rifle), the summary returns, the failure to call the Red Cross ambulances, despite evidence of men drowning. Several Spanish NGOs immediately began filing appeals, but the case was an uphill battle. “We can only argue technical things now, procedure,” said Serra. It was a long shot, he said. The case was dead. The judge, to date, has not released the case files.

Spain’s interest in the incident faded as quickly as it developed, and the EU inquiry fizzled out. Ceuta has returned to obscurity, notable only for being mistaken for Quetta, a city in distant Pakistan.

 

On Nov. 12, a small inflatable boat with 55 people on board broke up in the Strait of Gibraltar off Morocco, drowning 39, including a pregnant woman and a baby. One of Pacal’s roommates said he knew the woman, and efforts to reach the family back in Cameroon would dominate the day in the shared flat in south Tangier.

On Dec. 1, Moroccan police in Fnideq acknowledged that two sub-Saharan men, 23 and 24 years old, had been burned to death after officers set fire to their encampment near the Ceuta fence.

In late November, a report in El Faro noted what it called an increase in movement of West African migrants away from Ceuta toward the east, across Algeria into Libya, where the crossing to Italy remained dangerous but no border fences existed. They would follow the hundreds of thousands who tried the central Mediterranean route, over 2012–2014, to Malta and the Italian island of Lampedusa. Spain’s apparent strategy of leveraging Morocco for harsh treatment of migrants was showing success.

A few days later, attempting to measure the shift, the Morocco chapter of the international migration watchdog NoBorder published an archive of press reports, most from newspapers in southern Spain, recording 125  sea crossings and attempts on the Ceuta fence in 60 days from September to November. It revealed a drop in runs at the fence but a sharp increase over the longer sea route, from south of Morocco to the Canary Islands—a route that had been quiet since 2008. Representatives of GADEM, the Moroccan migration assistance organization, told local reporters the group was recording more boat departures from Western Saharan shores, and sub-Saharan populations were increasing there. On Nov. 17, twenty-four people were lost 128 miles south of the Canaries after their small fishing boat broke apart, the worst loss of life on the Canaries route in several years. Attempts to cross from Morocco to Europe in boats rather than rushing the Ceuta fence also picked up. This photo, shot in the past week from a Spanish maritime rescue service plane, purportedly shows a boat with 52 aboard in waters near Ceuta.

On Nov. 30, Spanish press reported that the camp at Cassiago and others nearby had been abandoned. “The Moroccan police have evicted nearly entirely all sub-Saharan immigrants from the region around the Strait of Gibraltar, between the cities of Ceuta and Tangier,” reported El Faro.

Pacal, writing by instant message, was more succinct in confirming the report: “The police are enraged here.”

He was laying low, he wrote. He made his most recent attempt to enter Spain in late November. He failed. He continues to live in the flat in Tangier.

First published in Take Part.

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Marc Herman
Marc Herman is the author of Searching for El Dorado, an account of his travels with gold prospectors in the Amazon forest, and The Shores of Tripoli, a Kindle Single based on his reporting from the Libyan civil war. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Pacific Standard, Slate, Politico, Matter, the Believer, and GQ. A freelance reporter since 1993, he has lived in worked in Oakland, California, Georgetown, Guyana, Jakarta, Indonesia, and Barcelona, Spain, where he now lives with his family.