A window of opportunity is all the Mumbai underworld needs to thrive and flourish. And the competitive international gold price has offered offered smugglers of days gone by to revert to the trade they knew best.
According to the World Gold Council, the market for gold in India accounts for 32% of global demand, making it the largest consumer of gold in the world.
And this has encouraged the city’s infamous mafia to re-enter the smuggling market. Even so, police insiders have noticed a subtle change in the manner in which the Mumbai underworld now approaches smuggling.
In the 1980s, if a carrier was caught, their identity could lead investigators to the top bosses of smuggling.
Today, the scenario is different. The bigger gangs have outsourced their dirty work to smaller gangs to escape the legal net.
Even the smaller gangs operate in closely guarded and secretive environments.
They employ ‘carriers’ – essentially daily wage workers and even staff members of firms operating at the airport. However, these carriers seldom know the identity of the facilitator, said police sources.
“Smugglers who operate on a large scale send 50-100 people to Dubai a day. Only a few return to Mumbai. Others are given return tickets to different airports across the country,” said a senior police officer, requesting anonymity. “Even if one person gets caught at the airport, the smuggler does not suffer a big loss.”
Carriers are easily lured with money. There are carriers, police sources said, who are paid as high as 10% of the value of the gold they carry. There are also desperate cases who settle for a smaller margin. Their tickets are sponsored along with their stay.
But what really worries the Air Intelligence Unit of the Mumbai Customs Department is the involvement of staffers who work within the airport premises.
“We have held loaders, cleaners, trolley-handlers and staffers of other agencies operating within the airport premises,” said Milind Lanjewar, additional commissioner of customs (airport). The passes given to staffers permit them to freely move around within the airport and they do not need to go through a customs checkpoint, added Lanjewar.
Staffers use various methods to smuggle gold out of the airport. There have been instances when a flyer would stick a bar of gold beneath the seat. Later, an aircraft cleaner would put in the dustbin. Once out of the airport premises, the gold bar would be retrieved.
"We have found instances where flyers try to keep the gold bar in the toilet which is then taken away by an employee who has a valid pass,” said Lanjewar.
Another popular modus operandi is to hand the gold bar to a domestic passenger to dodge the customs check.
Other methods include concealing the precious metal in footwear, mobile phones, DVD players, suitcases, undergarments and clothes.
Lanjewar said, “There is no direct involvement of any major gang. But we believe it is the smaller ones which operate."