How Mumbai is back as the hub for gold smugglers
Mumbai: The customs department of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport has seized approximately 1029 kg gold valued at ₹511 crore over the last three years, in an uncanny throwback to the decades between the ’60s and ’80s, when gold smuggling was the big lure in the underworld, helmed by Karim Lala and the D-Gang
Mumbai: The customs department of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport has seized approximately 1029 kg gold valued at ₹511 crore over the last three years, in an uncanny throwback to the decades between the ’60s and ’80s, when gold smuggling was the big lure in the underworld, helmed by Karim Lala and the D-Gang.
In the past dhows, dinghies and fishing boats along Mumbai’s coasts were used for the operation. The method of transport may have changed today but the profile of willing carriers remain the same – the unemployed who fearlessly transport the precious metal on behalf of smugglers. Officials say the upswing in the illicit trade is due to the big difference in the price of gold in India and foreign countries especially the Middle East.
The discovery and seizure do not act as a deterrent for the carriers as there is no law to seize those who smuggle consignment under ₹50 lakh. Once they are caught, the consignment is extracted from them and they are set free, whereupon they return to the ring to take up more jobs and recover their losses. According to investigating officers, the culprits find newer ways to smuggle the gold into the country.
The customs department’s Air Intelligence Unit (AIU) and Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) have been arresting Indian citizens as well as foreign passengers at Mumbai airport. They claimed that unless there is specific input or details of the particular passenger they cannot search people arriving from the foreign country.
“To curb gold smuggling racket in the city, the agency has started issuing look out circulars (LOC) against each and every passenger involved in the crime, including the first timer, to prevent them from flying again to the same foreign country,” said customs commissioner Manish Mani Tiwari.
Tiwari underscored how detection is a challenge in the absence of a specific mechanism, leaving the officials to act only on tip-offs. However, soon authorities are expected to get an equipment called the Millimetre Wave Scanner, used to detect objects concealed underneath a person’s clothing using a form of electromagnetic radiation. This will help to curb gold and drug smuggling. “We have written to the central government and the device is expected soon,” said Tiwari.
There has been an increase in the number of smugglers carrying gold in paste form from the UAE, which cannot be detected by the scanning machines. This, Tiwari is hopeful, will be exposed once the new device is brought in use.
Mumbai is a major hub for the smugglers as it consumes more gold compared to other cities across the country, said an official from DRI. Additionally, maximum number of international flights land here compared to other cities. Buyers from different states throng Zaveri Bazar to make quality purchases of contemporary designs. Investigations have revealed a link between workers of jewellery units and the smuggling cartel, the official added.
In many cases, the mastermind is often a jeweller. In April, the DRI arrested a Kerala based father and son involved in a smuggling racket. They employed foreign nationals to do the job for them. The agency busted the network and arrested 18 Sudanese nationals at the airport and seized 16 kg gold worth ₹10 crore. The accused -- Mohammad Ali and his son Shabeeb Ali – own a jewellery shop in Dubai. They have been in the business of smuggling for many years, said an official.
The seized gold was in paste form, gold-cut pieces and jewellery, concealed in the bodies of the suspects, making it difficult to detect. The Sudanese were operating with an Indian national, Suhail Poonawala, the key coordinator from India who tracked the movement of passengers. He was also arrested. Further probe led the officials to one Govind Rajput who owns a jewellery shop in Zaveri Bazar. Poonawala would collect the smuggled consignment from the foreign nationals and give it to another accused Yunus Shaikh who works in a jewellery unit. Yunus would melt the gold and give it to Rajput who sold it in the market; the duo would then split the earning between themselves.
The agency raided Rajput’s jewellery shop in Zaveri Bazar and seized ₹88 lakh, added officials. Twenty-five people have been arrested in the case so far.
There is a 15% difference in the price of gold between UAE and India. The kingpin nets a profit of ₹8 to 9 lakh in per kilogram, as he mostly targets the unemployed and impoverished in the city. They are asked to make a two-day trip to the UAE and bring half to one kilogram of gold, and paid ₹10, 000 to ₹15,000 for the job, exclusive of the cost of airfare.
An inside job
In the first week of May, the DRI arrested 11 gold smugglers who were carrying gold paste in capsules in their rectum and a few members of the airport staff who were suspected to be hand-in-glove with them. Around three-and-a-half kilograms of gold paste were seized. During interrogation, the officials learnt that the accused were a part of a larger syndicate of at least 20 passengers who take turns to smuggle gold.
The culprits take the help of staff of firms operating inside the airport, such as employees at duty-free shops, food stores and airline staff.
On May 8, AIU arrested a 30-year-old passenger who had ingested eight gold biscuits weighing 250 gm. He was admitted to JJ Hospital after being caught. While body packing is a known means of smuggling across the globe, it was a first for the hospital. The accused was put on a high fibre diet and made to drink three litres of water. Doctor monitored him 24x7 for symptoms of abdominal pain, vomiting and abdominal distension, till he purged the eight gold bars.
Cases of culprits carrying gold paste in cylindrical capsules in their rectum is common. These carriers commonly fly in from Dubai or Bangkok. The accused are known to carry around half kilogram of gold in a capsule, each passenger carrying two to three capsules.
Often, gold is also smuggled in the form of dust mixed with wax and stuffed in the capsules. Also, gold pieces are embedded in the false cavity of slippers, shoes, bags, underwear and belts.
The agencies monitor the passengers and in cases of suspicion, the travellers’ background, financial status and frequency of travels are studied. An unemployed traveller with multiple visits to a country is checked on arrival. “We keep analysing and upgrading our techniques to identify the culprits based on their modus operandi,” said an official.