ORAN — On May 29th, Algerian authorities discovered 701 kilograms of cocaine hidden inside a meat container on a merchant ship in the port of Oran. The bust was one of the largest operations in Algerian history, leading to a police investigation that has identified Kamel Chikhi, an influential Algiers real estate mogul, as the ringleader of a drug trafficking network that distributes cocaine from Brazil to Spain by way of the ports on Algeria's long Mediterranean coastline.

According to Algiers-based daily El Watan, drug traffickers in Algeria have a long history of using their political connections to evade arrest and expand their operations. Several powerful criminals — including Ahmed Yousfi Saïd "the emigrant" and Ahmed Zendjabil, aka "the Pablo Escobar of Oran" — dominated the drug trade in the 1990s and 2000s, acting with impunity thanks to their notable ties to the country's political elites.

Cocaine shipment busted by police in Algeria — Photo: U.S. Southern Command

Before arriving in the northwestern port of Oran on May 29th, the Vega Mercury transported frozen meat from Brazil to Barcelona in early May and then transited in Oran and Valencia later in the month. The Algerian Coast Guard and Gendarmes were tipped off by the Spanish Guardia Civil about the drug load before the ship's arrival, and a thorough search revealed the cocaine inside the containers.

Chikhi is nicknamed "the butcher" in his neighborhood of Kouba for owning a butchery that offers low-priced meat. He is also well-known for his many real estate investments across the Algerian capital, cultivating an image of a nouveau riche businessman by building expensive skyscrapers and luxury properties.

The strategic location and corruptible customs agents make it an attractive transit point.

His freewheeling spending began to attract the attention of Algerian authorities in 2015, and has now been named a suspect in the Oran cocaine case along with his two brothers, an associate, and two of his employees.

As a major port located close to Morocco — the largest producer of cannabis in the world — Oran has become the hub for drug trafficking and money laundering in Algeria. While Algeria has a very small domestic drug market, the country's strategic location and corruptible customs agents make it an attractive transit point for narcotics headed to Europe and the Middle East.

The criminal organizations led by Saïd and Zendjabil took years to bring down, requiring numerous international arrest warrants and the dismissal of several military and local government officials implicated in the drug trade. As the man behind the largest cocaine shipment ever smuggled into Algeria, it is unlikely that Chikhi was acting alone.

See more from World Affairs here