Diary of a Gold Smuggler

True Crime

Diary of a Gold Smuggler

Illustration: Saachi Mehta

T

he offer was too good to refuse. Prasad had to say yes. As soon as he did, the man with the smooth voice took out his phone and clicked a picture of him. The image would be circulated to 35 people around the world, he was told. It was a reassurance and a warning: He would be taken care of by the wide nexus, but there was no getting away once he was in.

₹30,000 was the money on offer and all he had to do was take a trip to Dubai. He would have to carry cash, American dollars, and while flying out return with gold. It was that simple. Plus, he would finally get to sit on an airplane.

When the day came, the man arrived on time. He knocked on the door of Prasad’s room in a busy chawl of Ulhasnagar, one of the last and poorest frontiers of suburban Mumbai. The man came carrying a suitcase; inside were big, fat rolls of cash. The currency was wrapped tightly into cylinders and held together with rubber bands.

Prasad had never seen so much money in his life. Once he got over the shock, the worry set in. How would he carry so much cash? “Don’t worry, it’s very simple,” the man said, but something in the easy way the assurance rolled off his tongue told Prasad that it would not be simple. But he had no choice. His life as a gold mule had begun.

***

Gold mules are the foot soldiers of a nexus that costs the government billions in revenue. This intimidating network involves passengers, customs officers, the cleaning staff at airports, and the security forces who man the checkpoints. Often, the network spreads through the ranks, reaching the very top.

A single gold-smuggling operation involves up to 12 people. The lowest, common denominator is the gold mule. They are men and women, mostly between the age of 25 and 45, literate but undereducated and unemployed, desperate but aspiring. They are ready to take the chances for a few quick bucks.

Mules like Prasad, often do not know the whereabouts or the identity of the higher-ups in the chain. The recruiter is the last contact they have. He too deals with just one contact person, who in turn receives directions over the phone from another. All of this, makes the mule expendable. If he gets caught, nobody gets into trouble.

Prasad’s initiation into the trade was a painful one. The man with the smooth voice had shown him how to stuff his rectal passages with currency. He’d have to smuggle back the gold in the same way. Fear and shame gripped him.

If Prasad had been lucky, he would have been given the “popat pass” – simply walking through the green channel, accompanied by a bribed official. No forms filled, no questions asked. These are the big consignments called jackets – where up to 10 kilos of gold bars are sewn onto a coat.

But Prasad wasn’t given any such jacket. Instead a bagful of cash was just dumped on him. He left his house reluctantly, his gut stuffed with American dollars, and boarded his first international flight to Dubai. He’d be back mid-May with the secret cargo.

***

While Prasad’s life depended on making this escape, Mohan’s depended on apprehending violators like Prasad.

Mohan had spent his early years dreaming of stethoscopes. But he soon gave up hospital wards for a world which offered a lot more intrigue. The 28-year-old now spends his days at Mumbai’s Terminal 2, keeping an eye out for “suspicious characters”.

One hot summer night in May, Mohan was waiting patiently for the arrival of “the golden trio” – the three flights that land at the Mumbai airport a little after 2.30 am – Jet Airways 9W 543 and Emirates EK 500 from Dubai, and a Qatar Airways Flight 556 from Doha. These are the favourite transport options for every gold smuggler from the Middle East.

India is the biggest consumer of gold in the world and the yellow metal reportedly accounts for daily sales of ₹6,000 crore. A significant percentage of this staggering amount comes from the sale of smuggled gold. That alternate market has its own supply channels; it’s a long chain and the lowest, yet the most vital link is the carrier, the gold mule. And Mohan’s job was to catch some of these carriers with their precious cargo intact.

The gentlemen with conspicuous clothing waddled like penguins; they walked without waiting to look at signboards or seek directions.

It was a job he loved despite the fact that beyond a haul and an arrested mule these operations didn’t yield much. Phones are tapped, arrests are made, but these trails soon turn cold. Until there are some “dukhi aatmas” as the custom sleuths call them, the weak links in the chain. They are lured by officials with the promise of a 20 per cent cut of the captured consignment.

And that eventful night one such dukhi aatma had promised Mohan a big haul. The Emirates flight was the first to land and Mohan walked toward the customs control. He had to cross three toilets before he landed in the customs area. The officer accompanying him was asked to guard the second toilet, while the third one was closed temporarily. Mohan walked toward the toilet closest to the aerobridge and recced it.

He had been tipped off about a new modus operandi. A smuggler would walk in with gold coins stuffed up his rectal cavity. He would either deposit the gold in one of these toilets or walk out through the green channel with the precious metal stuffed up his body. In case, the smuggler drops off the gold in the toilet, an airport employee, who was part of the nexus, would later walk out with it, taking advantage of the fact that staff members were rarely checked. Even if the gold mule was apprehended and frisked then, nothing would ever be recovered.

In his faded jeans and casual shirt, Mohan looked like any other passenger hanging around the toilet. This time it wasn’t one of the seasoned smugglers, who had made up to 20 trips a month to Dubai and Sharjah; otherwise his picture would have already been circulated.

Emirates EK500, the flight that Mohan had christened Dhanalakshmi, had landed. The business-class passengers alighted first, the rest followed. Gujarati families yelled out instructions across the hall, foreigners in colourful robes walked around with confusion writ large on their faces, the Marathi manoos looked jubilant to be back home. And then came the suspects. The gentlemen with conspicuous clothing waddled like penguins; they walked without waiting to look at signboards or seek directions. But there was one thing that usually gave them away – the weight of the hidden cargo changed their gait.

Mohan spotted Prasad who looked around nervously at the signboards and then disappeared into the bathroom. Mohan followed him, but Prasad was quick to enter one of the cubicles. Over the din of rolling zippers, splashing faucets, and running flushes, Mohan cast his eye over everyone and waited for this suspicious man to emerge, but he didn’t. But another young man walked out of the next cubicle. Dressed in a white shirt and black trousers, the violet identification tag that hung from his neck announced that he belonged to one of the airline service providers. As the young man walked to the exit, something struck Mohan. The airline staffer hadn’t stopped to wash his hands.

“Hey, you. White shirt! Come here,” Mohan yelled, as he ran out of the toilet. The man stopped short.

“Where are you posted,” Mohan asked, accosting him outside the toilet.

“Departures, sir,” replied the staffer.

“Then what are you doing here?”

“Emirates ka arrival tha. So they called me… shortage of staff.”

“Do you know me?”

“Yes sir. You are customs,” said the young man.

Mohan stepped closer toward him, but hesitated. Every seizure under the Customs Act needed a panchnama, or the account of two independent eyewitnesses. That was standard procedure.

“Oye, housekeeping,” he hollered in the narrow hallway outside the toilet. Two housekeeping staff appeared in less than a minute. They had no idea they were being summoned as witnesses.

“What’s in this pocket,” Mohan asked the staffer. He was handed over a phone.

His other pocket too was bulging out. “And what’s that?”

“Nothing sir. Just another phone,” the young man answered, his voice quivering.

“Yaar, time waste math karo. Baahar Abu Dhabi aagaya hoga,” said Mohan.

The staffer took out a velvet phone pouch and handed it over. And Mohan knew his case was made. As he grabbed the pouch, his hand dropped under its weight. The goddamn pouch didn’t contain a phone. It contained a kilo of gold in coins.

Prasad slipped out of the bathroom cubicle, just in time to see his contact being summoned by an official. He understood that the gold had been caught and that he had escaped within an inch of his life. With a hammering heart, he merged with a group of Gujarati businessmen and made his way to immigration and from there, out of the airport into the teeming city.

Next week, Prasad would be back again. And he can only hope that this time his arse is spared.

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