The predominantly rural and relatively less inhabited Wayanad has emerged as a safe haven for fugitives fleeing the law from urbanised areas of the State, according to police investigators.

They have identified at least two city-based alleged gang leaders and their henchmen who have invested in arable land in the hilly district. One of them, ‘Karate’ Suresh, was arrested from his property there on Wednesday.

The other one was ‘Attingal’ Ayyappan, against whom several arrest warrants were pending in city courts since 2000. Investigators said Ayyappan, believed to be operating a lucrative waste disposal contract in the Gulf, had hosted his friends, including a politician, in properties believed to be his in Wayanad and Goa.

The police said they also had information that Ayyappan often visited the city under different aliases and that he had purchased land here in the name of his frontmen.

Investigators said they had identified another gang leader who recently purchased land in Idukki. They said they were in touch with their counterparts in these districts to get as much details as possible on such suspicious investments.

Senior officials said they suspected that at least 32 underworld-linked criminals in the city had fled to the Gulf or destinations in South East Asia in the past eight years.

One of them, ‘Blackie’ Shibu, was arrested early this month when he arrived here from Singapore to sell his property near Kazhakuttam.

The police said the few who were arrested had stated that they had procured their passports by diluting the police verification process by influencing corrupt officers. Others had procured their passports from a Gulf-based racket.

Underworld-linked moneylenders, most of them frontmen of gangsters in the district, had also extended their illegal trade to the Gulf after the recent crackdown on illegal moneylending here.

These loan sharks had transferred huge amounts of money to their Gulf-based agents through illegal non-banking channels (hawala). Much of it was extended as short-term, high-interest loans to low-paid Malayali migrant workers living in labour camps there.

They often collected the passport of the borrower, their employment contract, and a signed ‘blank’ agreement paper as guarantee. The gangsters used their local men to bully families of defaulters and settle Gulf-based disputes in Kerala.

Gang leaders have invested in arable land in that district, the police say.