A 'busting' bid that almost sparked gang war at Karipur airport

Gold smuggling carrier. Graphic: Manorama
Gold smuggling carrier. Graphic: Manorama

(Manorama correspondents expose the network and modus operandi of gold smugglers in Kerala in an investigative series. This is the second part. Read first part Greed, revenge & blood: A peek into world of gold smugglers here.)

Carriers double-crossing smugglers is not new. Despite smugglers adopting several methods to weed out betrayers, some carriers still manage to give them the slip for more profit.

Such acts, in smugglers' parlance, is "pottikkal" or "busting." A carrier took the act so far that it almost led to a gang war involving about 100 men in 60 vehicles at the Karipur International Airport on June 21, 2021, though it did not attract much attention.

All the men were at the airport waiting for Moorkanad-resident Mohammad Shafeeq, a carrier bringing in 2.33 kilograms of gold. It was not normal for such a large number of people to arrive at the airport to receive that much of the yellow metal. Their presence later revealed several twists, which could have put a crime thriller scenarist to shame.

Smugglers had arranged men in more than 50 cars to ensure the gold reached the destination safely. Such a huge security arrangement was unprecedented.

The move was not without reason. Smugglers had information that Shafeeq would ditch and hand the contraband to another party. Apart from the smugglers' henchmen, Arjun Ayanki, with whom Shafeeq had struck a deal, and his gang too, were at the airport.

Unknown to Ayanki, the carrier had also entered into a deal with another man, Yousuf, of Kannur. His men, too, were at the airport to receive the gold.

The situation did not lead to an all-out gang war since Shafeeq landed in the custom's net before he could implement his plan.

Six gangs in Kozhikode had invested in the gold which Shafeeq had brought into the country. A man, later identified as Sufiyan, coordinated the entire operation. The gold was hidden in a coffee-maker. 

Arjun Ayanki's gang had already entered into a deal with Shafeeq to buy the gold for Rs 15 lakh. The Kozhikode-based smugglers were unaware of the secret deal.

On boarding the aircraft, Shafeeq changed his shirt, clicked a selfie and forwarded the photograph to Ayanki over WhatsApp. He once again changed into another shirt before takeoff from Dubai, took another selfie and sent the picture to Yousuf with whom he had agreed to equally divide the gold. In short, Shafeeq had struck deals with two gold "busting" gangs. He wore the third shirt he had changed into, while travelling to India.

Gold smuggling
Whatsapp chat of the gold smugglers' gang.

Twist No 1

Everything was going according to Shafeeq's plan — or so it seemed to him. He was unaware of another smuggler on the same plane, watching his costume-changes. "Busting possible. One guy had changed shirts on board the aircraft," he sent a message, along with the flight number, to the "Covid-19" WhatsApp group. Smugglers had created the group when such ditching became too frequent.

Sufiyan and the Kozhikode gangs were smarting from two bustings the same airport in which had lost their gold a day ago, when they received the message of yet another possible cheating. Sufiyan acted fast, arranged several vehicles, mobilised their goons and rushed to Karipur. En route, they even picked up more people in a bid to launch a fool-proof operation. By the time their motorcade of over 50 vehicles had reached the airport, the gang was more than 100-people strong.

Sufiyan created a WhatsApp group, "Today", to pass instructions and information. He had made up his mind to catch Shafeeq and Ayanki red-handed. Meanwhile, Ayanki and his gang were waiting at the airport in three cars. A little away, six men, including Yusuf, sat in another three vehicles.

The Kozhikode gangs spotted Ayanki, and his photograph was posted in the "Today" group for easy identification. They kept Ayanki and the men under surveillance. Before long, the flight from Dubai landed at the airport with Shafeeq and the now precious coffee-maker. The climax seemed to be near.

Arjun Ayanki
Arjun Ayanki. Photo credit: Manorama

Twist No 2

Shafeeq exited the aircraft, and unknown to everyone, Customs officials inside the airport were expecting him based on a tip-off. The carrier was picked up, and Ayanki received the information of the detention. He was also alerted that the Kozhikode gangs had marked him.

Ayanki and his gang lost no time in speeding towards Kannur. The smugglers thought Shafeeq had boarded Ayanki's car and they gave chase. Unconfirmed reports said Ayanki's car was even shot at. The smugglers realised that Shafeeq was not in the car only after reaching Kozhikode.

They sped back towards the airport, but one of the vehicles met with an accident at Ramanattukara, killing five of its passengers.

Who alerted Ayanki about Shafeeq's detention and the smugglers' presence at the airport? There were rumours that he was informed by one of the members in the smugglers' WhatsApp group.

Gold smuggling Ramnattukara accident
The car that met with an accident in Ramanattukara on June 2021. Photo: Manorama

Pan-Kerala operation 

The Karipur incident pointed to the fact that smugglers double-cross each other. Busting gangs have now stopped abducting carriers, but strike deals with them, and get away with the gold. At times, the busting gangs provide carriers to smugglers. Such gangs have contacts in the UAE and Saudi Arabia who carry out "operations" on their behalf.

Police investigations have revealed that the  busting  gangs are active across the State, though the major three are based in Kannur and Kozhikode. Similar gangs operate from Palakkad, Thrissur and Perumbavoor. Though gangs are present in the south up to Neyyattinkara, their major operations are in the Malabar region.

Besides gold, they target money being brought in through hawala routes as well. Busting, though frequent, becomes news when the carrier gets killed or seriously injured. Otherwise, such incidents are swept under the carpet and no police case would be registered.

Malappuram district has posted a 50 per cent increase in busting cases in the past 10 years. The spurt in such cases prompted the Malappuram police to act. With the police becoming active, busting cases have significantly come down, according to the district Superintendent of Police S Sujith Das.

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