Lorry number KL-01-N-9327 rarely ferried any cargo. However, it regularly travelled back and forth between Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
Border check-post officials rarely challenged the vehicle because its crew, on the face of it, had nothing to declare.
These routine and apparently purposeless trips aroused the suspicion of Excise Commissioner Anil Xavier’s special team, which is primarily tasked to intercept illicit spirit consignments smuggled into the State from distilleries in sugarcane growing regions in the country.
He ordered Excise Inspector T. Anikumar and preventive officer K. Abhilash to follow up the ‘strange case’ of the lorry.
They shadowed the lorry in unmarked vehicles. They found the driver had on Monday parked the lorry at a particular locality in Madurai and walked away.
Another man picked the vehicle from there and drove it to an unknown destination. Hours later, he delivered the vehicle back to the spot from where it was driven back to Kerala. The Excise team found the cargo hold to be empty, but still tailed the vehicle to find out its destination.
They sensed the vehicle was carrying something contraband. At Pallipuram, the driver abruptly stopped the vehicle and attempted to decamp. (Investigators would later learn that the driver had received a message on his mobile phone to abort the mission and flee).
They checked the vehicle and found nearly 800 litres of spirit, contained in 35-litre plastic cans, concealed in a false cavity in the cargo hold.
The driver told investigators that he had been promised Rs.5,000 to deliver the vehicle to Karunagapally and was innocent of its cargo.
Excise officials said that large-scale smuggling of spirit into the State was under way well ahead of Onam when liquor consumption peaked in the State. Spirit smugglers now used certain industrial areas in Madurai as a staging point for their operations. (This year they had seized 4,000 litres of contraband spirit in the district alone, which accounted for only a mere fraction of the illicit stuff smuggled into the State).
They said the inter-State spirit smugglers used cleverly altered ‘system vehicles,’ the Excise Department’s phraseology for latest vehicles equipped with secret chambers to conceal contraband spirit, for their operations. There are 12 key border check-posts in Kerala. More than 10,000 cargo vehicles enter the State daily through these. Most of these check-posts are located near areas that have several unmanned byroads. Hundred per cent checking of vehicles entering the State is impossible and detection of contraband spirit consignments is next to impossible in the absence of specific information, sources say.