A mule told TNM how a gang followed her home and threatened her family, when she could not deliver the contraband on time. “Maybe because I was a woman, they did not harm me. I gave the gold to them later.”

Irshad, Jaleel and Siddhique stylised imageIrshad, Jaleel and Siddhique
news Crime Wednesday, October 05, 2022 - 16:18

The last call that Asiya received from her 42-year-old son Abdul Jaleel was on May 13, 2022. Jaleel, who worked as a driver in Saudi Arabia called his mother back in Attapadi in Palakkad district of Kerala and said he wanted her to keep pathiri (a thin rice bread made in Kerala) and mutton curry ready for him. It had been nearly two and half years since Asiya had seen Jaleel. She along with Jaleel's wife were on their way to the Nedumbassery airport in Kochi on May 15 to pick him up, when Jaleel called them saying a few friends had come to the airport and he had already left with them. Over the next few days, the family received a few video calls from Jaleel, and he told them that he was with friends. But Jaleel wasn't with his friends. He had been abducted from the airport by a gang of gold smugglers. On May 20, 2022, the family was informed that he was admitted to a hospital in Perinthalmanna, and he was battling for his life.

Jaleel died on May 22, 2022, but as if that shock wasn't enough, his mother Asiya was informed by the police that he was a gold kuruvi or a carrier (mule). Carriers or mules are people who smuggle goods across national borders. Smuggling gold into India is a very profitable venture and these mules carry it by land, air or sea. According to statistics compiled by the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI), around 120-150 tonnes of gold was smuggled into the country in 2019-2020, but less than 10% was seized. While smuggling gold into the country was a long time practice, instances of carriers being killed are now emerging routinely from Kerala.

Twenty-six-year-old Irshad, a native of Perambra, went missing on July 6, 2022. Two months earlier, he had arrived from Dubai at the Kozhikode airport, carrying smuggled gold on him.

His troubles began when he handed over contraband he brought from Dubai to the wrong person. When he went missing, Irshad's family was terrified and did not complain to the police as some of the relatives knew Irshad was a carrier. They filed a complaint only on July 28. But days before that, Irshad's body had washed ashore near Koyilandy, but his identity was established much later. Police investigating his murder, said that Irshad brought gold worth Rs 60 lakh into the country. “He handed over the stuff to the wrong gang. I am sure he was not aware of it. There are gangs who pretend to be the assigned group to collect smuggled gold, but they will have no connection with whoever sent it. The carrier will have no clue about whom to hand it over to and who sent it,” a relative of Irshad told TNM.

In 1989, Shahnaz Hamsa, a native of Pallikkara in Kasaragod was shot dead by a Dubai based gang, as they suspected he had leaked information to the DRI about gold smuggling. Hamsa was a carrier, who had to take gold worth Rs six crore to Mumbai from Kasaragod. That was probably the first case in Kerala where a person was shot dead for leaking information on smuggling.

A network of people who don’t know each other

Carriers also have to contend with threats and abduction. On June 26, 2022, 32-year old Aboobacker Siddhique from Kasaragod district was abducted and killed by a 10-member gang. The gang abducted his brother and a friend to force Siddhique to come back to Kerala from Dubai. As soon as he arrived in Kerala, others were released. “Many youngsters from Kasaragod who work in Gulf countries become agents and carriers for gold smuggling rackets. Often, this is also connected to hawala dealings. Hence, money disputes have been a common affair here for years, and they often result in abduction, assault, and sometimes even murder. But we are not sure if Siddhique was involved in all this. The police say the gang wanted him back in Kerala due to a disagreement over Rs 50 lakh,” one of his relatives told TNM.

Around 65 percent of the gold smuggled to India comes through airports, mainly from Middle Eastern countries. DRI officials say that the profit margin for smuggling one kg of gold exceeds Rs 3 lakh and hence it continues to be a lucrative business. While Kerala stood third in the country for gold smuggling cases registered from 2012 to the first half of 2022, the state has topped in the number of gold smuggling cases registered in the country from 2020. Though the risk is huge, many young people agree to become mules as it is lucrative and the chances of getting caught are not too high.

Many of the carriers and agents whom TNM spoke to said that cheating was not tolerated in the business. The ones who carried out the killings and abductions were specifically assigned and paid for these jobs, and they had little connection to the actual gold smugglers. “There are several reasons for these abductions and killings. If the smuggled gold was given to the wrong person or if the gold was given to some others for more money or if the contraband did not reach where it had to reach, then the carriers could land in trouble. Sometimes if the person has tipped off officials, then they too become the target. As much of the gold smuggled here also are about hawala payments, money disputes also can create problems,” a 28-year-old woman from Kasaragod, who had been a carrier for a couple of times told TNM. She recalled how a gang followed her home and threatened her family, when she could not deliver the contraband on time. “Maybe because I was a woman, they did not harm me. I gave the gold to them later,” she added.

She said that neither carriers nor those who are in charge of transporting the gold, know who has sent the gold or who will collect it. “There are middle agents and we are not supposed to know who sent it or who is buying it. But like others, we believe that the gold goes to jewellers here,” she added. She said she got a remuneration of Rs 50,000 to Rs 75,000 per delivery.

Another agent from Kasaragod who works in Dubai said, “Gold is usually powdered, mixed with maida, made into capsules and carried. It is upto agents to decide how to carry them. The smugglers won’t know how the agents are planning to carry them. Most of the time, the gold will be carried attached to the body, which is safe. In that case, the carriers get caught only if officials are tipped off by someone.” Despite powdered gold being the most preferred way to smuggle gold, Customs officials are not always able to detect it. In 2018-19, a mere four tonnes of gold was seized out of an estimated 100-120 tonnes of gold that was smuggled into the country. On an average, DRI officials estimate that they are able to detect roughly about 5-10 percent of gold that is being smuggled into the country.

Those who arrange for the delivery get 10 to 12 percent by weight, usually 250 gm of gold for every 2.5 kg delivered. This amount is inclusive of all expenses, including the carrier's charge, their tickets and other charges to make gold into a capsule or any other form. A Kasaragod based business man who also has business in UAE, told TNM that there are groups in Dubai who smuggle gold on a daily basis to India. “They have various mechanisms to conceal gold in human bodies as well as in any other goods. Capsules are easy, but people also make gold into paste or liquid form using different chemicals. Even if they get caught, the officials will not get any more information about where it is to be delivered or who gave them the gold, since even the carriers are not aware of this,” he added. Some smugglers have been found concealing gold in the wheel of luggage trolleys and even in the metal coil inside a food mixer.

According to Customs officials, smugglers also make sure that they do not carry enough to warrant an arrest. “If the gold being carried is less than 1 kg, then we merely confiscate the gold and we cannot arrest the person. We can arrest them only if they are carrying gold worth more than Rs 50 lakh. Knowing this, smugglers are also very careful, and they make sure they carry less than that,” an official said. Customs officials are also aware that due to the variety of methods that are adapted to carry gold, it cannot always be detected by a physical check and travellers will have to be subjected to x-rays to confirm they are carrying gold. “So many people go to Dubai to purchase gold legitimately without any intention of smuggling. We cannot subject every person to detailed security checks. This is why many smugglers are able to escape our checks,” the official commented. 

Edited by Nandini Chandrashekar

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