At the border

Observations on Lebanon

"Every system can be penetrated." In Majdal Anjar, a village at the foot of the mountains dividing Lebanon from its Syrian neighbour, a former smuggler produces a live Israeli C4 bomb to make his point. "This came from the [Israeli-occupied] Golan Heights. They were bribed with Lebanese hashish."

Because the boundaries between Syria and Lebanon have never been officially agreed on, smuggling fiefdoms - cooperating with different militant groups inside Lebanon - rule the border. Shia clans associated with Hezbollah control the Beqaa Valley area and the north, with Palestinian parties, Salafists (Sunni fundamentalists) and others taking small slices.

But in historic talks in Damascus, Syria and Lebanon have agreed for the first time to discuss the demarcation of the 320km-long border. Lebanon's new president, Michel Suleiman, is under pressure to extend state authority over the lawless region, not least from the UN Security Council, who called in 2006 for the government to stop arms coming in from Syria.

The Lebanese state feels far from Majdal Anjar, though. Locals say police cannot enter without the permission of the mayor. It is a Salafist village: in one window, there is a poster of Saddam Hussein. On almost every street, a Mercedes-Benz is parked, clearly not paid for by the pistachio orchard on the village's outskirts.

The local man, who spent ten years smuggling everything from linen to military-grade explosives, estimates that 75 per cent of the local population is involved in the trade. In his opulently decorated house, where gold-leaf verses from the Qur'an vie for space with Kalashnikovs, he explains that "every political branch in Lebanon has its own area for smuggling". He would not say on whose behalf Majdal Anjar smuggles weapons, but security experts say it's likely to be Sunni militants clashing with their Alawite neighbours in Tripoli.

Fuel, food and electrical goods are taken over the mountain dust-tracks by donkeys; trucks might carry higher-value goods, small arms and drugs. Important deliveries such as cash and missiles often go directly through the official crossing point at Masnaa, where, according to the Majdal Anjar smugglers, different groups pay "their" customs officials a monthly retainer. Syrian officials are also taken care of; I am assured that "everyone is getting paid".

Opinion is divided as to whether the Lebanese government can ever control what comes through its border from Syria. Alistair Harris, a Beirut-based border security expert, says that demarcation would be an "important step" in controlling arms smuggling, as it would enable Syrian and Lebanese border authorities to start coordination. But he believes a confrontation with the smaller smuggling groups, like those in Majdal Anjar, is "inevitable".

As Timur Goksel, a local security expert, says:"These clans have been there for longer than the state. Sure, you can draw a line on the ground, but who's going to take them on?"