Kerala’s golden web of crime: Smugglers, airports and unholy nexus

Customs officials say that the allure of gold is so powerful that it has turned smuggling into a highly profitable enterprise, albeit fraught with danger.

ByDileep V Kumar

Published Jun 11, 2024 | 9:00 AM Updated Jun 11, 2024 | 11:22 AM

Gold is smuggled into Kerala mostly from the Middle East. (Representative image/Creative Commons)

Kerala’s penchant for gold dates back several centuries when the region traded spices, especially pepper, in the yellow metal.

Today, gold glitters not only as intricate jewellery that people proudly display, but also in various forms, and unexpected places.

With four international airports – Thiruvananthapuram, Cochin, Kannur, and Calicut – acting as gateways, the state has become a lucrative hub for gold smuggling worth crores of rupees annually.

The recent arrest of two cabin crew members for allegedly smuggling gold has once again highlighted the persistent issue of gold smuggling in Kerala.

Also read: Shashi Tharoor’s former staff detained in gold smuggling case

Golden web

Gold smuggling has long been a significant problem in the state, driven by the high demand for the precious metal, often linked to cultural practices and economic behaviour.

An x-ray image of gold concealed in the rectum. (Supplied)

An x-ray image of gold concealed in the rectum. (Supplied)

The state’s substantial expatriate population in the Middle East also plays a role, as smugglers exploit their frequent travel between these regions to transport gold illegally.

A major portion of the gold smuggled by air originated from countries like the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Bahrain, while cases of gold smuggling from countries like Malaysia and Thailand have also been reported.

Enforcement agencies have seized gold worth crores from carriers each year, uncovering a vast and intricate smuggling network.

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Pawns in dangerous game

According to a Customs officer, these carriers, often ordinary individuals, are pawns in the hands of sophisticated syndicates that lure them with promises of easy money and innovative methods to evade detection.

“In most cases, the faces that stare back from mugshots of gold seizure press handouts are ordinary people,” he told South First on the condition of anonymity since he was not authorised to speak to the media.

“Enticed by the promise of quick money, they become the foot soldiers of the gold mafia. But they are mere pawns for these ruthless smuggling syndicates,” he added.

Customs officials said that the allure of gold was so powerful that it had turned smuggling into a highly profitable enterprise, albeit fraught with danger.

Also Read: CPI(M) mum as gold smuggling case accused Swapna Suresh keeps targeting Vijayan

Pottikkal gangs

However, the police pointed out that the underground world of gold smuggling was not just about the shimmering metal. It had led to violent clashes, kidnaps, and even murders.

Capsules swallowed by a passenger. (Supplied)

Capsules swallowed by a passenger. (Supplied)

“At one side there are the carriers appointed by the traffickers. Then some are assigned to protect/watch these carriers,” a police officer told South First.

“Then comes those who are known as ‘pottikkal’ (destruction) gangs who intercept and abduct the couriers,” said a police official to South First.

Instances of couriers themselves tipping off rival gangs for better returns, too, have been reported.

Though the tentacles of the network have spread across the state, the activities are majorly concentrated in the five northern districts – Malappuram, Kozhikode, Kannur, Wayanad, and Kasaragod.

“There was this ‘pottikkal’ gang whose job is to abduct the couriers and even carriers of the trafficking network. All those who are involved in these networks are criminals facing cases like murder, attempt to murder, and others,” the officer added.

Also Read: ED seizes ₹2.51 crore worth gold from alleged smuggling beneficiary

The northern belt

Past incidents and investigations revealed that a northern belt in the state was the nerve centre of the smuggling operation. Here, masterminds orchestrated schemes that fuel the gold market.


Click on the image to enlarge.

From small-time jewellers to big brands, the end-users were varied but complicit, and their businesses gleamed with smuggled gold.

“It is a known fact that only five to 10 percent of the smuggled gold is being seized. Enforcement agencies are often hamstrung by limited resources and the shrewd adaptability of smugglers,” another customs officer said.

“Airport security measures, though stringent, are frequently circumvented through bribery and corruption,” he further said.

The presence of organised transnational crime syndicates in smuggling gold using ingenious concealment techniques added to the woes, he added.

The surge in smuggling using couriers indicated that the syndicates were switching from the conventional mode of in-person smuggling of gold.

Declining trend?

However, Kerala witnessed a significant decline in seized gold over the past year.

According to data from the Customs Preventive Commissionerate, gold seized during the 2023-24 fiscal year dipped by 142.43 kg compared to the previous year.

A total of 487.57 kg of gold was seized in the financial year that ended on 31 March 2024, down 630 kg seized in 2022-23. The decrease pushed Kerala down to the third position behind Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu in terms of gold seizures.

The number of gold smuggling cases registered in Kerala has shown a downward trend. In 2023, there were 728 cases registered, compared to 1,035 cases in 2022.

While the reasons behind the decline remained unclear, it suggested that efforts by customs officials and stricter enforcement measures might be yielding results. The data indicated a potential shift in smuggling routes or tactics employed by smugglers.

Meanwhile, officials also observed that in recent times, there has been a shift in the quantity of gold carried, from large quantities to smaller quantities. However, a concurrent increase in the number of passengers carrying such contraband has been noted.

Also Read: Female crew member held in Kannur for smuggling gold in rectum


The ‘Smuggling in India Report 2020-21’, published by the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence, mentioned that many of the carriers caught were regular blue-collar workers in the Gulf countries, some of whom had lost their jobs to the pandemic.

“A popular mode of gold smuggling noticed in airports was the use of gold paste and powder. The gold would be converted to paste/ powder form and wrapped into small capsules,” the report said.

These would then be concealed in the rectum of the passenger. The passenger has to be x-rayed to identify the presence of gold globules in the rectum,” it added.

The crew member caught in Kannur on 28 May had concealed 960 grams of gold in her rectum. She had reached Kerala from Muscat.

“This mode of gold smuggling has been observed in airports along the western coast, particularly airports in Kerala. Each passenger typically carries 2-3 such capsules resulting in a total weight of approximately 750-900 grams, out of which solid gold is extracted, usually 90% of the powder/paste weight,” the report said.

Modes of smuggling

–       Gold in powder/ paste form being smuggled in clothing such as inner garments, jeans, etc
–       Concealment of gold in electrical/electronic appliances such as emergency lamps, toys, belt buckles, irons, etc
–       Gold concealed in cardboard boxes and covers meant to be used for chocolates, face creams, and even nuts and bolts
–       Using courier parcels for smuggling of gold, at times by using fake KYC documents.
–       Via diplomatic cargo (like the one that happened in Thiruvananthapuram where a consignment meant for one of the diplomatic missions located in Kerala was found to contain 30 kg of gold)
–       Concealment in machine parts, as it is hard to detect even with sophisticated x-ray equipment
–       Smuggling of gold in compound form, due to the ease of concealment in the body, deep concealment in various electronic devices, iron boxes, machine tools etc and in specially made cavities in vests, undergarments, and in specially made knee-caps.
–       Use of foreign nationals for smuggling gold.
–       Instances of concealing gold in aircraft and different places at the airport after arrival, for retrieval by staff or passengers.
–       Instances of handing over of gold by passengers in the transit area to airport staff have also been witnessed.
–       Gold smuggled in the form of machinery parts coated with nickel, essentially to hide the identity of gold
–       Gold concealed in high-pressure washers and compressor of a refrigerator was also found. Gold concealed in a metal structure makes x-ray screening inconclusive
–       Gold in the form of thin foils, beadings of suitcases also seized

The intricate network of smugglers, abetted by corrupt practices and systemic loopholes, highlights the need for comprehensive reforms.

Other than the financial implications, gold has proved to be an attractive vehicle for money laundering and is also susceptible to being used in funding terrorism.

(Edited by Majnu Babu)