There was nothing unusual about the thrice-weekly Biman Bangladesh Airlines flight BG048 from Dubai via the Bangladeshi port of Chittagong which landed in the capital, Dhaka, at 8.30am on the morning of February 2. Except for the fact that it arrived two hours ahead of schedule — and that it carried a secret cargo: 485 gold bars stashed in compartments throughout the plane, in its toilets and life jacket cabinets.
The seizure, totaling 135 pounds (61 kilograms) worth nearly $4 million, was the latest in a string of illegal gold shipments intercepted by police and customs at Bangladesh's airports. Authorities say that gold smuggling has spiked over the past two years — and that officials from Biman Bangladesh, the country's national carrier — are often involved.
Eleven local and international syndicates are said to be trafficking the precious metal from Middle Eastern countries into Bangladesh, much of which is later channeled overland to neighboring India, one of the world's top gold importers.
After the haul at Dhaka's Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport, Nojibur Rahman, chairman of the National Board of Revenue, told the media that a smuggling ring had brought in the stash and "the arrival of the aircraft two hours ahead of schedule was their tactic to dodge the intelligence agencies at the airport."
Dr. Moinul Khan, director general of Customs Intelligence and Investigations Directorate (CIID) of Bangladesh, suggested that Biman officials were involved in the smuggling as the gold was recovered from areas of the plane about which only its crew and other airline workers would be aware of. No arrests were made, however.
On January 14, two Biman staff members were detained after customs officials in Dhaka recovered nearly 14 kilograms of gold from the panel of a cargo hold on another flight from Dubai.
Between July 2013 and December 2014, more than 1,667 pounds (756 kg) of gold was seized from planes and passengers at Bangladesh's airports, worth a total of $36 million.
That represents a sharp uptick in illegal gold trafficking — or at least in seizures — with just 33 pounds (15kg) confiscated over the previous five years, according to customs sources.
Over the past four years, 160 cases have been filed against 200 individuals, mostly couriers, for smuggling. But, a senior police official told VICE News, "The ring leaders behind these carriers always manage to stay out of the reach of the law."
At least 18 Biman staff members including a deputy general manager were arrested last year in relation to gold smuggling. Ten of them were accused of involvement in the biggest gold haul ever seized by Bangladeshi airport officials, in July 2013, when 273 pounds (125kg) of gold were recovered by customs officials from the cargo hold of a Biman aircraft. Four others arrested in that case included a Nepalese and an Indian citizen.
Police have already traced at least 11 syndicates smuggling gold into the country. The senior officer told VICE News: "Officials of Biman are usually contacted by the syndicates to ensure a safe route for smuggling."
The involvement of Biman staff in smuggling has further damaged the national air carrier's image at a time when its financial losses were already making headlines. Despite being heavily subsidized, the carrier has closed down several routes over the past few years.
Khan Musharraf Hussein, a general manager in the public relations department of Biman Bangladesh Airlines, told VICE News: "We have seen an escalation of such incidents recently involving several foreign airlines, in addition to ourselves. This has been focused on aircraft coming from the Gulf to Dhaka, notably from Dubai."
He added: "We will take every possible legal option open to us to take action against those proved to be involved. At present Biman is discussing the matter with other foreign carriers from the Gulf to consider a joint coordinated approach to tackle the problem and also help in investigations by authorities in (Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport) in Dhaka."
VICE News has learned from customs and police officials that gold smuggling to India via Bangladesh and other South Asian countries, including Nepal, Pakistan and Bhutan, increased after August 2013 when the Indian government raised the tariff on gold imports to 10 percent. That marked a painful increase from the 2 percent tariff in place until 2012, when the government began a series of hikes in a bid to curb gold imports during a severe current account deficit in 2012.
With India's annual demand of 1,500 metric tons persisting, smugglers saw their chance for huge profits.
Mohammed Akhtaruzzaman Tara, treasurer of the Bangladesh Jewellers Association, told VICE News: "Smuggling rings make a profit of $ 4,220 to $ 2,600 per kilogram of gold smuggled into India."
A senior customs official noted to VICE News that in one recent case, a senior figure in a political party in West Bengal was arrested for gold smuggling.
In March 2014, India's Directorate of Revenue Intelligence arrested West Bengal's Trinamool Congress leader Abdul Barik Biswas and his driver for possession of 99 pounds (45kg) of gold in the form of bars and biscuits in their car, near Kolkata. DRI sources had claimed that the gold was smuggled from Bangladesh.
In June, five Indian nationals were arrested on a bus in Jessore by Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) officials for concealing 36 gold bars, weighing 9.7 pounds (4.4kg) in total, in their rectums. The five had flown into Dhaka from Dubai four days earlier.
In September last year, the Hindustan Times reported that about 50 tons of gold had been smuggled into India in just 10 days, to cater to a surge in demand during the festival of Dushhera. The report said that the gold was trafficked overland via Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, in order to avoid a crackdown by airport customs officials which had seen 1166 pounds (529kg) of gold seized between April and August 2014.
"Besides India, there is a domestic demand in Bangladesh where gold is used for financing crimes," the senior customs official added. "Also some local jewellers may be involved in smuggling as there is a persistent demand for gold jewellery in Bangladesh," he said, explaining that gold is not commercially imported into Bangladesh.
But Akhtaruzzaman of the Bangladesh Jewellers Association vehemently denied that claim. He told VICE News: "The jewellers in Bangladesh have always survived by recycling old ornaments and by buying gold brought into the country by expatriates under permitted baggage rules."
He suggested that smuggling had intensified since the announcement of the beginning of Bangladesh's 2014-2015 fiscal year, when "the government raised duty to Tk 3,000 ($39) for 11.66 grams of gold from an earlier duty of Tk 150 ($2) for the same amount."
"Also, the ceiling of non-taxable ornaments has been cut from 200 to 100 grams," added Akhtaruzzaman. Such measures had all but blocked legal import channels, making conditions unbearable for the country's jewellers, he said.
But he insisted that despite such pressures, "even then, jewellers are not involved," suggesting Bangladesh was rarely the endpoint for such shipments. "Rather, taking advantage of the 4,000 kilometer border that the two neighboring countries share, smuggling rings are using the land routes from Bangladesh to smuggle gold into India."
In August, Bangladesh's Customs Intelligence and Investigation Directorate announced that with smuggling at "an all-time high," the Brussels-based World Customs Organisation has agreed to help efforts against identified local and international gold smugglers' syndicates operating in the country. The Dhaka Metropolitan Police said that as well as airline workers, customs and other security officials were also involved in the racket.