The arrest of an employee at a shop inside Chennai International Airport has blown the lid off a sophisticated gold smuggling racket, as part of which 267 kg of gold worth Rs 167 crore was allegedly moved in just two months.

Investigators have so far arrested nine people and conducted searches at the home of Gavarapet Ashok Prithvi, a BJP youth wing leader in Tamil Nadu.

R Srinivasa Naik, principal commissioner of Customs at Chennai airport, said a probe is underway. “Many crucial aspects such as who is the beneficiary remain unclear. We searched for Prithvi as he was a partner of the company (a third-party agency engaged by Airports Authority India) that handled retail businesses at the airport. We are probing if they were merely facilitators of businesses or if they have their own shares in the businesses run by others,” said Naik, adding that they are yet to issue summons to Prithvi, who is in the US.

At the center of the investigation is an innocuous souvenir shop at the airport’s departure terminal. Over two months, an eight-member team allegedly used the shop to smuggle 267 kg of gold worth Rs 167 crore. Customs officials busted the operation last Thursday, arresting nine people, including a YouTuber, Sabir Ali, who owned the shop, its employees, and two transit passengers.

Talking to The Indian Express, Naik said the shop came into existence in February. “The information about the smuggling of 267 kg of gold is from the evidence we collected from seven employees at Ali’s shop. WhatsApp messages and phone transactions revealed the amount of gold. They have also admitted this before a magistrate. The probe is still on,” he said.

Festive offer

Customs launched a probe on the shop when their air intelligence unit detained an employee. He had 1 kg of gold powder hidden in his rectum, allegedly received from a transit passenger. This was initially thought to be a one-off incident involving low-level workers. However, upon interrogation, a more elaborate operation emerged. Ali had rented the shop from a third-party agency, employed seven young men to run it and allegedly smuggled gold brought by Sri Lanka-bound transit passengers.

The employees, who carried identity cards provided by the Bureau of Civil Aviation Security (BCAS), were rarely subjected to searches. The gold would change hands in the toilets before being taken out of the airport. The probe found that the gold was coming from Gulf countries and Singapore.

While Ali and his employees were all trained to hide gold in powder form in their rectums to avoid detection by scanners, the Customs probe reveals that the gang’s efficiency and the seamless execution of their plan pointed to a well-oiled network.

What led to a deeper investigation was the humble background of Ali, a 29-year-old YouTuber from Chennai, who lacked the financial means to pay the Rs 70 lakh deposit for the shop lease. Investigation revealed that he was allegedly funded by a syndicate member in Abu Dhabi. Ali’s YouTube channel, shoppingboyz, had attracted the syndicate’s attention, leading to his recruitment.

The Customs department is also probing the suspected role of a Joint General Manager of AAI in Chennai and has conducted searches at his residence.

A top Customs official said they are probing allegations that the AAI official recommended Ali’s name for shop allotment.

Customs suspect that the syndicate, with operations in Chennai, Sri Lanka, and other countries, allegedly funded Ali to rent the shop inside the airport to facilitate gold smuggling. The shop’s deposit was channeled through various accounts by an Abu Dhabi-based Sri Lankan national, officials said.

While Prithvi could not be reached for a comment, a senior BJP leader known to him said they have launched an internal probe. “His company pays rent to the AAI for managing commercial outlets in the airport, and he has businesses in at least nine airports in the country. We do not think he has a role in the smuggling,” the BJP leader said.