From a new Carnegie paper by Wolfram Lacher:
The Sahel and Sahara region is far from a pivotal area for transnational organized crime. The importance of organized criminal activity there stems from the fact that there are few alternative activities that produce similar profits and rapid enrichment. This particularly applies to three undertakings that have expanded significantly since around 2003: smuggling of Moroccan cannabis resin, cocaine smuggling, and kidnapping for ransom. Individuals and networks involved in these activities have converted their wealth into political influence and military power. Contraband trade in licit goods, which had developed across the region in previous decades, laid the institutional basis for the development of these high-profit activities.
This kind of drug networks have their origins in cigarette trafficking that took off in the 1980s and were instrumental in financing Algeria's jihadists in the 1990s.
Cigarette smuggling in particular has greatly contributed to the emergence of the practices and networks that have allowed drug trafficking to grow. The smuggling of cigarettes to North African markets began to thrive in the early 1980s, and it developed into a large-scale business controlled by a few major players. Cigarettes, imported through Mauritania, supplied a large portion of the Algerian and Moroccan markets, while those imported through Cotonou in Benin and Lome in Togo were routed through Niger and Burkina Faso to Libya and Algeria. In 2009, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimated cigarettes smuggled along these routes accounted for around 60 percent of the Libyan tobacco market (or $240 million in proceeds at the retail level) and 18 percent of the Algerian market (or $228 million).
The key actors in this trade are legal cigarette importers and distributors, who import their merchandise from free trade zones such as Dubai. The trade is therefore best interpreted as a deliberate strategy by tobacco companies to circumvent tax regimes or break North African state monopolies on cigarette distribution.
Funny to think that something as technocratically banal as a Maghreb customs unions would have discouraged such things.