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Undercover operation helps Customs strike gold

A protracted undercover operation that spanned international borders led to the seizure of 30 kg of contraband gold from an air cargo shipment addressed to the consulate of the UAE here.

The consulate has denied any wrongdoing even as the fast-unfolding investigation focussed on at least two former employees of the diplomatic mission and also laid bare a hitherto undetected method of gold smuggling.

Commissioner of Customs Sumit Kumar who led the operation told The Hindu that enforcers had noticed a surge in the availability of smuggled gold in trade quantities in the domestic market. However, they could not pinpoint the source or conduit for the precious metal.

Tapping networks

Investigators tapped their networks and rumours started trickling in of the existence of a well-entrenched UAE-headquartered racket that sends gold to India concealed in air cargo shipments addressed to diplomatic missions.

To ferret out actionable intelligence about future consignments, enforcers monitored the UAE market for suspicious bulk purchases of the metal.

They used secret surveillance, informants and plainclothes officers to gather evidence through unorthodox means that went beyond the range of standard Customs enforcement protocol at air and seaports.

The law enforcers struck gold when they learned in June that an incoming consignment addressed to the consulate contained the contraband.

National security

They apprised the Central government of the underlying threat to national security posed by an international racket that used diplomatic goodwill as a cover for gold smuggling.

The Union Ministry of External Affairs sought the permission of the UAE government to inspect the shipment. Enforcers found the gold concealed in imported piping in the presence of UAE officials.

The Customs have not charged the former consulate officials, both Keralites. It was treating them as witnesses for now. Enforcers were investigating the UAE end of the racket. They said they had no evidence so far to suggest that embassy officials were in the know.

Investigators want to find out who processed the paperwork for the shipment and the identity of the persons who funded the multi-crore operation and their local collaborators.

The Customs suspect that the racketeers could have used the same route to import gold into India in bulk illegally before. The recent detection was just the tip of the iceberg, an official said.

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