Two years ago, officials of the Customs Air Intelligence Unit (AIU) at Karipur airport noticed a slightly nervous passenger. There was nothing suspicious in the x-ray, but officers decided to follow their intuition. The search ended with an odd wig, fitted over a freshly tonsured head. A layer of 907 gram gold compound foil was placed under the wig of the native of Malappuram who arrived from Abu Dhabi.
The ingenious manners of the smugglers are bewildering. The “conduits”, the “carriers” and their operators test the prowess of the official machinery with their methods.
Agents often get into trouble as they trust their “gut” and search for “goods” that seem harmless. There was one case of customs officers disembarking in soup after forcibly opening a microwave oven, suspecting the owner of hiding gold in it. Many officers take such risks, earning them bouquets and brigbats.
Just as we know, Kerala’s love for the yellow metal is famous and it peaked after 2012. Smuggling, which was rampant until the 1970s and 1980s, slowed for almost 20 years afterward. the economic liberalization of 1991, which allowed people to bring in gold at minimal cost.
Smuggling picked up again after 2012, when the government suddenly increased import tariffs to 10 percent to control the growing current account deficit.
The most common method used by smugglers now is to conceal capsule-shaped gold compounds, wrapped in condoms, in the rectum. “In 90% of cases, we act on the basis of specific denunciations. Gold concealed inside the body goes unnoticed in metal detection, ”said a customs official.
Methods of concealing gold in luggage range from the use of chemicals like Aqua Regia, a solution of nitrochloric acid. “Because Aqua Regia can dissolve gold, a bottle of the solution may go unnoticed during baggage inspections. As passengers returning from foreign countries carry alcohol bottles, Aqua Regia bottles also pass. Since gold is a high density metal, it will be visible as a thick dark image in the scanner in the form of ingots. That’s why smugglers try to make a compound by pulverizing it and also mixing it with powdered milk, ”said an officer.
Officers said it was now common practice to hide it in electronic devices like microwaves, music systems or blenders.
Now, “the freedom of lightness” offered by “gold compounds” offers new avenues for smugglers. Last month, the IAU team at Kannur Airport seized 302 grams of gold worth in the form of a thin paste concealed in double-layered pants worn by the passenger. In July, AIU Kozhikode seized 1.3 kg of gold which was similarly concealed by mixing the gold compound with an adhesive and pasted in layers of cotton pants. Gold also takes curious forms like the push button of a cute baby dress, the battery case of an emergency lamp (both seized by Kozhikode AIU in June), the inner layer of a grinder-mixer. (seized by Kannur AIU in June), etc.
There are at least one or two seizures at one of Kerala’s four airports. Officers say the most common method is “body cover-up”. “As transporting gold in the body is difficult and the value is often less than 1 crore rupees, the accused, after his arrest, is often released on bail. Smuggling gold worth more than 2 crore rupees is an unlawful offense and COFEPOSA is charged with preventive detention for repeat offenders, ”the officer said.
So what can customs officials do if they suspect the passenger has hidden gold inside the body? “We’re going to ask them to jump. Normally, the passengers themselves would take it off and put it back on. Some might resist and then we will have to take them to the hospital for an x-ray, ”the official said.
Male and female passengers, returning from abroad after a stay of six months or more, are allowed to bring gold worth Rs 50,000 and Rs 1 lakh respectively. Gold above this permitted quantity will be charged at an import duty of 12.5%.
Smuggling also takes place with the support of other airport staff. “Sometimes contraband goods are hidden inside the toilets, which will be removed with the support of airport staff,” said an officer.
The largest transport ever was 30 kg of gold smuggled under the label “diplomatic cargo”. It had sparked a political storm in Kerala. The second largest was the seizure of 25 kg of gold in Thiruvananthapuram in 2019, where some customs officials were also included in the list of defendants.
The India Gold Policy Center at the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad has estimated that around 300 tonnes of gold reaches the country each year through the black market supply chain. “Most of this volume goes through four major airports in Kerala and the state’s 589 km coastline. However, customs and police catch only a few. According to our assessment, each flight has at least four carriers. What makes it attractive is that smugglers will get a profit of Rs 5.20 lakh by brining 1 kg of gold. With so much gold smuggled in, it is high time the government removed import duties or reduced them to at least 2%, ”said S Abdul Nazar, Treasurer of the All Kerala Gold and Silver Merchants Association. .
Nazar said most of the smuggled gold is transported to neighboring states.