Smugglers are devising ingenious methods to avoid checks at airports

On August 26, Customs and Central Excise Department enforcers at the Cochin airport at Nedumbassery found contraband gold bars, weighing 5 kg in all, packed “casually in a newspaper” and left “ownerless” underneath a passenger seat of an aircraft. The occupant of the seat, a resident of Tamil Nadu, told Assistant Commissioner Anil Kumar that he had “forgotten” the packet in his hurry to disembark. The police officer did not take his “admission” at face value. The international flight had just landed from Sharjah and was bound for Chennai.

Investigators said they suspected that some other person was scheduled to board the flight from Kochi, collect the packet, and deliver it to his handlers in Chennai.

The enforcers had thwarted a clever method of smuggling intended to circumvent the mandatory customs check of passengers at the port of entry, in this case Nedumbassery, for those arriving there from foreign countries.

The investigators described the technique as a classic “dead letter box drop (DLB)” gold smuggling operation. (A DLB is an inconspicuous spot where objects are deliberately hidden by one person for his or her collaborator to collect without either of them having to establish direct contact with each other in a manner that might compromise their secrecy.)

Customs enforcers had anticipated an increase in gold smuggling with the Central government hiking the excise duty on the precious metal in March to reduce the country’s worrying current account deficit. The domestic demand for gold in the country, chiefly Kerala, continued to peak and the State’s airports soon emerged as some of the main smuggling conduits.

Troublingly for the enforcers, their standard pattern of “predictive profiling” of air passengers to spot professional carriers among them yielded little result. Soon, they realised that gold smugglers were increasingly recruiting a “wholly different set of passengers as carriers,” chiefly families returning home from the Gulf, to carry the contraband for them into the country.

Additional Commissioner, Customs Preventive Unit, Sofia M. Joy said the current profit for smuggling gold was estimated between Rs.2.8 and Rs.3.5 lakh a kg.

(Last week, her team had confiscated 20 gold bars, each weighing one kg, from two homemakers who arrived at the Cochin airport from the Gulf.)

This year, between March and September, the Customs had seized 59.25 kg of contraband gold from air passengers inbound from the Gulf, an all-time high. However, the enforcers said the seizures, perhaps, accounted only for a fraction of the actual quantity of gold smuggled into the State from the Gulf.