In countries bordering the Saharan desert, ethnic nomad Tuareg have turned their desert expertise into a money maker through tourism and smuggling. Phuong Tran recently traveled with an Algerian gasoline smuggler and has this report from Ingkaka, Niger for VOA.
The 24-year-old Tuareg gas smuggler drives in the opposite direction of where he wants to go. He wants to leave false tracks in the sand to throw off any law enforcement that may follow him.
The smuggler does not want to be identified. After nearly 30 minutes of creating a deceptive trail, he continues to his real destination to meet his smuggler partner, Abdas Salam.
Throughout the Saharan region, smugglers and military patrols recognize each other’s tracks.
Salam and his driver both live in fear these trails will meet. "We are always scared of running into Algerian or Nigerien authorities," he says. "Or bandits who try to steal the gasoline. But we learn to live with this fear, to pay off the officials, and to drive faster than the bandits."
Salam says he spends about $50 per trip in bribes on his route from Algeria to Niger.
Salam sells 10 barrels to Nigerien rebels fighting against the government for more control in northern Niger.
Niger's President Mamadou Tandja has said the rebels are trying to control the desert to get their share from smuggling operations like this one.
But Salam says he does not pay anything to the rebels. He says the rebels and farmers are his biggest customers in the Air Mountains.
He brings gasoline. Clients bring their own containers. But lately, he says it has been tougher because he has more competition from other smugglers.
Salam has smuggled for five years. He started as an assistant driver. Then, he says he invested $6,000 to buy his own truck. He hired an assistant driver. Salam makes the trip about four times a month, selling each barrel for about $300.
"I make good money,” Salam said. “I do not know what else I would do because as soon as I could walk and run, I herded camels. Then I became an assistant driver. And now, I have this. How else do I make my living in the desert?"
Ten barrels later, Salam is paid about $2,800, half of which goes to his boss in Algeria. After taking out his expenses, he says he makes about $1,000 a month.
He says it is not such a bad job -- if you can live with the fear.