“Give us our money,” demands a group of home buyers, standing on land that should by now be finished condominiums — one of many fictitious projects that together comprise what is described as Morocco’s biggest-ever property scam.
Advertisements on state television had promised dream homes at three for the price of two, while brochures boasted of ornately carved wood finishings and copious marble.
However, it was all a fantasy — more than 600 million dirhams (US$65 million) allegedly disappeared, leaving more than 1,000 buyers out-of-pocket, one of the lawyers representing them said.
In a country where corruption is endemic, the unprecedented scale of the alleged fraud has generated political waves.
Called upon by lawmakers to address the issue in parliament, Moroccan Prime Minister Saad Eddine el-Othmani said the government was absolved of any blame, provoking indignation among defrauded investors who have appealed to Moroccan King Mohammed VI.
The man accused of being at the forefront of the scheme, Bab Darna Group head Mohamed el-Ouardi, has been charged and is in detention awaiting trial, but the vast scam has prompted major questions about alleged negligence and complicity of some Moroccan institutions.
El-Ouardi allegedly received advances for apartments that never made it beyond the paper they were drawn on.
“The swimming pool would have been just over there,” said would-be apartment owner Soufiane as he pointed across a building site in Casablanca.
Bab Darna consists of a group of firms that cashed advances from “at least 1,000 victims” who invested in about 15 fictitious real-estate projects in and around Casablanca over a decade, said Mourad el-Ajouti, one of the lawyers for the investors.
The money was allegedly embezzled by cashing “advances ranging from 20 percent” to the full cost of the apartment, he said.
Houria, 49, an e-commerce worker, said that “highly persuasive sales agents” proffered a golden opportunity and swayed her into advancing 400,000 dirhams: 20 percent of the cost of a villa.
However, the vendor “had neither the title deed nor construction permit,” el-Ajouti said, basic requirements lacking in all contracts signed by the investors.
Such practices did not prevent Bab Darna from exhibiting with great fanfare at real-estate shows in Casablanca, Paris and Brussels.
“The authorities were not aware [of el-Ouardi’s activities]?” Houria asked. “Who protected him?”
She, like others who invested, did not want their full names published.
El-Ouardi is described as a smooth salesman who carved a path through the real-estate jungle.
In November last year, with nothing to show for their investments, customers went to his home.
When checks for reimbursements that they say he penned personally bounced, their patience finally ran out and they hauled him to the police station.
He is awaiting trial with six alleged accomplices — his finance manager, the notary and sales agents. A trial date has not yet been set, but the suspects face between 10 and 20 years in prison for fraud or complicity in fraud.
Many of the victims come from Morocco’s diaspora, who number several million and often invest in property at home.
Sifeddine, an entrepreneur living in Argentina, reserved an apartment thanks to a brochure promoting modern buildings covered in ivy, alongside elegant palm trees shading a turquoise pool.
The TV ads, broadcast during primetime hours and using famous actors, reassured him.
“El-Ouardi received me at his villa and was very persuasive, in front of a notary and agent,” he said. “It was 10pm, the sub-municipality’s office was opened specially at his request to sign the contract; he must have greased a lot of palms.”
Real estate is among the sectors most affected by corruption in Morocco, said Ahmed Bernoussi, the head of Transparency Maroc, a local anti-graft advocacy group.
The sector is “a hotbed of corruption, conflicts of interest and insider trading between landowners, local authorities and urban agencies,” Bernoussi said.
One Moroccan architect, who did not want to give his name, said “agents work hand-in-hand with elected officials, who often themselves become real-estate developers.”
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