Violent skirmishes in the name of gold thefts are now not new for Kerala. The smuggling gangs, which suffered losses tuning to crores after carriers deceived them and made off with the yellow metal many times, have hardened their stance. They are determined to retrieve the precious metal, even if that means snuffing out lives.
Carriers, referred to as 'Kuruvis’ (sparrows) in the local language, are a crucial part of the gold smuggling chain. The reports of gold smuggling gangs tracing ‘Kuruvis,' attempting to flee with the contraband, at Kozhikode and Malappuram, among other places, and subjecting them to physical torture before murdering them, have shocked Kerala.
This is even as Keralites are yet to forget the incident in which over 100 members of “quotation-smuggling gangs” lay in wait with their vehicles outside the Kozhikode airport to 'trap' a carrier and his friend.
A cinema-style attack ensued, and in the end, five persons were killed in a vehicle mishap.
Gold smuggling, “snatching” acts, and clashes between two gangs have all become commonplace in public life here.
When multiple incidents of a gang forcefully snatching smuggled gold belonging to another team happened in Kerala, the representative of gold smuggling gangs held a meeting in Dubai.
A decision was taken to give "maximum punishment" to the cheaters in the gold smuggling business and those who forcefully take the smuggled gold of another gang.
(The smugglers had even started a WhatsApp group titled ‘Covid-19’ for the purpose. Later the group was disbanded.)
If a carrier goes missing with the gold, the person who introduced him to the gold smuggling gang will also be in trouble. This happened in the case of Jaseel, a native of Mattanoor in Kannur. The gang held him in custody in Dubai for introducing a carrier who fled with the smuggled gold. The carrier was later found dead. The smuggling gangs, which suffered massive losses due to the carriers cheating them, have taken a hard stance –the smuggled gold should be recovered at any cost, even if that means murdering persons.
In search of a carrier
I arrived at the Dubai International city along with the gold smuggling gang leader in search of a carrier. The room has ample facilities. Three persons are residing in it. The stay and cooking are all done in a single room. Two of the residents, natives of Malappuram, are unemployed. Only the third, hailing from Tamil Nadu, has a job. One of the two Malappuram natives is an Engineering graduate and also married. He had earlier worked in a company in Dubai but quit the same. Now, he returned to Dubai on a visiting visa in search of a good job. He couldn't find a job, despite months passing away and desperately wants to return to his homeland. This helplessness is the weapon of the smuggling gangs. "This (the first meeting) is only a start. Things will work out when he meets him a few more times. Now we have to meet one more person," Mr. M said on the way back.
We met the second carrier in a famous restaurant in Karama -- a Kozhikode native working in a pharmacy in Dubai. He had smuggled gold three to four times earlier through the Kozhikode airport. He is a specialist in 'Dikki' smuggling, where the gold is concealed in the body. He is working in Dubai but flies home in between taking leave. And he would sneak in gold during such trips.
The youth became suspicious upon seeing me, a complete stranger to him. He then spoke in a low voice. He was ready for the 'assignment' on any day and had only one condition. "Your people should not call me frequently in between. Customs officials will get suspicious. I will contact them upon reaching a safe place. Once, I landed in trouble with the incoming calls coming one after the other. That mistake shouldn’t be repeated." Given that he was an experienced carrier, we fixed Rs 50,000 plus the ticket as his reward.
But he was unwilling to smuggle gold even after two to three days. "He has turned suspicious after seeing you. That's why he has not turned up. But I'm sure he will come," Mr. M said confidently.
Kasargod native Majeed (not the real name) is the main agent who helps the gold smuggling gangs based in Dubai. Majeed’s responsibility is to prepare a safe smuggling channel comprising officials and staff ready for the 'setting.'
Majeed takes up only major gold smuggling assignments. Majeed neither invests capital nor reaps profit. As a middleman, he takes home massive commissions at high rates.
Majeed, who was in Merchant Navy, is close to captains of various ships. He started smuggling using friendly captains.
Later, he gave up the job in Merchant Navy and became a full-timer in gold smuggling. He nets the airport officers and the airline staff for 'setting' using the captains, who are his friends. He facilitated smuggling through Pune airport using a friendly officer.
This was before the Covid-19 crisis. Not only in Mumbai and Delhi airports but Kannur also, there are officers who keep in contact with Majeed. It is learned that recently Majeed started gold smuggling through Delhi also.
Gold smugglers reap rich dividends by misusing Dubai's trade-friendly policies and transparent laws. The Dubai Government has taken stringent measures to prevent gold smuggling and put an end to black money deals. However, the high import duty in India is a lure for the smugglers.
The Customs officials at airports in Kerala are helpless in the absence of sufficient staff. Currently, there is not even one-fourth of the required staff in the four airports. Hence the Customs officials do not check the passengers going abroad. The latest order of the Union Finance Ministry that prosecution proceedings need be initiated only in smuggling cases above Rs 50 lakh will also lead to more smuggling.
‘Tourists’ in smuggling
There was a time when people resorted to being carriers due to sheer helplessness. But that phase is over. There are now professional carriers on the scene. Most of the people are engaged in the trade to extract additional revenue apart from their regular income from their jobs back in Dubai. They can get Rs 40,000 to 50,000 as a reward, besides a free air ticket to the motherland. With the Customs nabbing carriers frequenting Dubai on visiting visas after analysing data pertaining to them, the demand is for people with job visas in Dubai. The smuggling racket reveals that women have outsmarted men in this area.
There is a practice of sending foreigners as tourists cum carriers to smuggle gold to Kerala. For this, foreigners who work in Dubai for lower salaries are sent out on tourist visas. The reason is the special consideration they get at airports by not being subjected to thorough body checks. Most of them want air tickets and limited remuneration.
Earlier, 40-50 carriers were taken together to Dubai and were locked up in a dingy room. One or two of them were picked to dispatch gold to Kerala. They were not allowed to familiarise themselves with each other. That was the case some five years ago. They spent days in a house arrest-like condition. But now things have changed. They need to join the gang only in the days closer to smuggling. They will have to surrender passports till they reach the airport. With agents coming forward to supply carriers, the gangs don't have to run their own 'carrier camps.'
In the case of remuneration, Kerala carriers have the edge. While the North Indians are content with Rs 20,000-25,000, Keralites bag double the amount. Women who have low-income jobs in Dubai have become large-scale carriers. The calculation is that they will not be subjected to thorough checking as in the case of men. There is no discrimination in remuneration as regards males and females.
The Malayala Manorama investigation revealed that some families who arrive for sightseeing in Dubai resort to gold smuggling to raise money to meet travel expenses. Even if large-scale smuggling is not possible, they are content with smuggling 200-300 gm of gold. They are assured of air tickets and pocket money. "If you dare to smuggle one kilogram of gold, we will give it to you," I was shocked when gold smuggling kingpin Mr. M uttered these words to me. I got out of that knot saying, “it’s not right for someone who has come to become a smuggling lord to be just a carrier.”