Social Icons

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Into the cobweb of gold rackets

Shariful Islam and Wasim Bin Habib

 It is like a cobweb -- extremely complex and intricately designed. The way gold is smuggled in from abroad is so ingeniously planned that it often outclasses Hollywood crime thrillers.
A consignment changes several hands in its journey from the source to the destination, but there are stages when a carrier doesn't even know who takes over from him. So, even if someone is caught with a shipment, most of the time it's impossible to trace back to the gang leaders.
To get the smuggled gold through the airport security and to its destination, the smuggling syndicates collude with unscrupulous staff of Biman Bangladesh Airlines, Civil Aviation Authority of Bangladesh (Caab) and intelligence and law enforcement agencies.
The extent of complicity of the government agencies is mind-boggling; so much so that the smuggling syndicates provide carriers with special identity cards which, upon being produced, help them avoid arrest even when they are caught red-handed.
Smuggling syndicates buy gold mostly from Dubai, Singapore and Malaysia, where purchasing the precious metal and shipping it out is legitimate.
Then they contact their gang members in Bangladesh to prepare the chain of activities to smuggle a consignment, said intelligence officials dealing with the gold smuggling cases.
The recent gold hauls at Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport show that the smugglers mostly use Biman flights to get gold into the country.
A carrier boards a Biman plane and with the help of aides among the flight crew gets the gold bullions hidden in secret places of the aircraft, like under the passenger seats and inside the toilet chambers and the cargo holds, said the officials.
"We seized 124 kilograms of gold from inside a cargo hold chamber of a Biman aircraft. The door of the chamber was badly scratched which suggests it was screwed open and shut numerous times," said Moinul Khan, director general of Customs Intelligence that alone seized around 712kg of gold and arrested 90 people in the last 18 months.
There are various ways to get the gold through the airport security after landing.
"The smugglers often provide the people assigned at the airports with codes and numbers to locate the gold hidden in the aircraft," said a DB official, preferring anonymity.
For example, if the bullions are hidden inside a Biman aircraft's toilet or cargo hold, the carrier hands over a chit with codes like "J20, left side 20kg" to an official of the Biman's engineering section, he said.
"With this, the carrier's job is done."
In return, the carrier gets Tk 50,000 to Tk 1,00,000 depending on the quantity, he added.
Sometimes the duty officials at airports are provided with the codes or the details of the consignment's location through text messages or phone calls, the intelligence officials said.
Then a section of Biman's engineering staff offloads the gold from the aircraft at a convenient time and get it through the airport by hiding it inside vehicles or garbage boxes.
"It is not possible to get a single gold bar out of the airport without the help of officials deployed at the airport," said an intelligence agency official, wishing anonymity. Some 26 agencies work at the airports, but seven to eight of them watch over the operational activities.
The strategy, however, is different if a carrier brings in gold by hiding it inside his clothing or belongings.
After landing, the carrier goes to a secluded place like toilet where there is no CCTV coverage, keeps the gold inside the commode's flush chamber and leaves the airport.
Then someone from among the airport officials collects the gold, gets it through the airport security and hands it over to the syndicate members waiting outside in cars, often in costly ones, said the investigators.
For this, the airport official gets between Tk 1,000 and Tk 1,200 for every 10-gram bullion.
Then the consignment is transported to a specified place in the capital. The carriers get Tk 150 to Tk 200 for each 10-gram bar.
Finally, another group of carriers, mostly from the bordering districts, collect the gold and take it to the borders where smugglers from India receive it from them. These carriers get Tk 10,000 each for carrying 15 to 20 bullions from Dhaka.
The Daily Star talked to one such carrier from Jhenidah. The young man of around 35 carried 20 consignments between 2011 and July 2014 usually from the capital's Uttara and Tantibazar.
"I used to carry the gold bars concealing them in packets of sweetmeats or breads," he said.
His employer gave him an ID card. If he landed in any trouble involving police, he would show the card and police would let him go, he said.
"Smugglers have secret deals with police and border guards. So, usually they do not disturb carriers," he added.
These carriers would strap the gold bars to their bodies and take buses, microbuses, motorcycles and even bicycles to transport them to bordering districts, mainly Satkhira, Jessore, Jhenidah, Kushtia and Chuadanga, the man said.
Sometimes, gold is smuggled through individual efforts as well.
Syndicate leaders arrange tourism or business visas for Dubai, Malaysia or Singapore for a carrier, detectives said, quoting detained carriers.
The carrier goes there, takes the gold bars and conceals it using techniques like "khata system" or "scale system" in which he flattens the bars into thin sheets. The gold sheets are then hidden inside shoes and specially designed belts, they said.
These individual smugglers sell the gold mostly at Tantibazar, according to them.
Investigators said except for the carriers' and airport agents' charge, no payment for syndicated gold smuggling is made in Bangladesh.
The payment is usually made through "hundi", an illegal system to transfer money without using the formal banking network.
Gold is also used as a substitute for currency. A portion of the smuggled gold is used for payments of drugs and arms smuggled into Bangladesh from India.
Gold and cattle smuggling go hand in hand in many cases.
An estimated six lakh cattle, mostly cows, are smuggled from India each year and payment for a large number of those is made in gold, said many of those involved in this business.
"We've information that the smuggled gold works like oxygen for illegal activities like arms and drug smuggling," said Moinul Khan of Customs Intelligence.
Many of the gold smugglers in Bangladesh are believed to be money exchangers with offices both in Dhaka and Dubai.
Under the guise of their business, they send money to Dubai, Singapore or Malaysia through their agents among the Biman crew to pay for the smuggled gold.
"The money exchange businesses would not even earn them 15 days' expenditure, but they are making crores of taka. It is possible only because they are involved in gold smuggling," said a detective, wishing anonymity.
"We have been able to seize a huge amount of gold in the last one year as we have increased our manpower and capacity, and provided training on intelligence activities to the airport staff," said Moinul Khan.
Assistant Superintendent Alamgir Hossain of Airport Armed Police Battalion suggested setting up scanners at all conveyer belts to check luggage and vehicle scanners at all the entrance and exit gates of the airports in Dhaka and Chittagong to curb the smuggling.

Another Customs official suggested increasing vigilance in the seaports and on sea routes.

Source:  The Daily Star, 27 February 2015

No comments: