A free trip to Singapore and Kuala Lumpur with an added cash incentive on return spelt trouble for 56 people when they landed at Visakhapatnam International Airport late on Sunday.
The passengers were used as “couriers” by a gold smuggling cartel based in Tamil Nadu to bring the yellow metal into the country from Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) stated.
In all, the 56 passengers were carrying 63 kg of gold, valued at Rs 16.85 crore, which was concealed inside the walls of microwave ovens, mini-washing machines, induction stoves, laptops and sound systems.
They arrived at the airport by three different flights – Air Asia 83 and Malindo 251, both from Kuala Lumpur, and Silk Air MI442 from Singapore – between 9:10 pm and 11:00 pm.
Most of the passengers are from Madurai, Chennai, Puducherry, Coimbatore and Tiruchirapalli. They are not frequent fliers. Some are also school teachers and employees of various organisations.
The passengers were carrying gold in various shapes resembling parts of electronic goods such as magnets in amplifiers, speaker stand, central pulley of washing machine and trolley rods to conceal the precious metal in a meticulous manner so that it can escape physical and X-ray detection by Customs officials at the airport, the DRI stated.
The cartel shifted the landing airport to Visakhapatnam from major airports like the Shamshabad airport here after the Customs department tightened vigil.
Unluckily for these passengers, the DRI Chennai unit had tipped-off Visakhapatnam airport Customs officials about the smuggling.
As Air Asia flight landed at 9:10 pm, Silk Air at 10:05 pm and Malindo flight at 11 pm on Sunday, Customs officials were ready for a thorough search.
Suspects were identified and their baggage was segregated for detailed examination. Almost everyone was carrying some electronic item or a consumer durable.
The gold concealed in their baggage in various forms and shapes were identified and confiscated and all 56 of them were detained, according to Customs officials.
They will be shifted to Chennai where the DRI will subject them to further interrogation, the officials added.
Earlier, most of the gold was smuggled from Dubai through popular carriers known as “Kasargod electricians.”
The Customs department at Shamshabad airport had detected gold smuggled in the form of suitcase hand grips metal wheels and also by women in their clothing.
The couriers, instead of landing at Mumbai, often came to Hyderabad, Visakhapatnam and Pune, and went back by road or rail.
The couriers are paid Rs 10,000 for every 500 grams of gold they bring in plus the day’s expenses and return journey tickets, said a senior customs officer at Shamshabad airport.
“The catch is a result of increased international flight connectivity at the Visakhapatnam airport,” said Principal Commissioner of Customs C Rajendiran.
Before Andhra Pradesh was bifurcated, there were hardly 50 international passengers form Dubai travelling to Visakhapatnam via Shamshabad airport.
According to Customs officials in Visakhapatnam, the numbers have gone up to 1,683 and the number of outgoing passengers shot up to 1,963.
Similarly, there is a spurt in the quantity of the precious metal seized at Visakhapatnam International Airport.
In 2013-14, Customs officials confiscated 6.67 kg of gold worth Rs 2.01 crore, in 2014-15, 7.62 kg gold worth Rs 2.04 crore was seized and until this operation in 2015, 11.06 kg of gold worth Rs 3.06 crore has been confiscated.