Notorious serial killer and fraudster Charles Sobhraj once said he could smuggle an elephant through Nepal’s customs. Even after a hundred-million-dollar makeover and a Nepali life sentence later, the quote still proves relevant for Tribhuvan International Airport (TIA).
Ashish Khatri (name changed) operates a store at the arrivals section of the Tribhuvan International Airport. Every day, many passengers share their experience of returning home, of which at least a few share their stories of unjust harassment by the customs officers for trivial things. He feels sorry for them – but there isn’t much he can do. When he heard about the latest “kanda” (gold smuggling racket) at the airport, he highlighted the strict hassling of travelers and its contradiction to the loose oversight of customs personnel that resulted in the corruption of this scale. He goes on to question the morality of customs officers at the TIA.
Over the past few days, many questions have been raised regarding the more than one quintal of gold seized after it had somehow passed through TIA customs. The Customs Department claims they had no idea, but are we supposed to believe more than 100 kilograms of gold was smuggled under the entirety of TIA’s nose, and they had no whiff of it? After all, this is not the first time such an incident has happened, although it may be the largest single seizure of gold.
After the infamous case of Chudamani Upreti’s 2018 smuggling of 33kgs of gold, a comprehensive investigation revealed that the group had smuggled approximately 38 quintals (3.8 tons) of gold over four years. This case exposed the involvement of police officers, customs staff, and a massive smuggling racket.
However, following this incident, the airport’s gold recovery rate decreased sharply until now. This begs the question of survivorship bias. Just because the customs did not catch gold smuggling, would that really mean that no gold had been smuggled through? According to former Additional Inspector General of Nepal Police, Rajendra Bhandari, “We cannot claim that if we are not confiscating gold, the smuggling has stopped.”
Apart from gold, the airport has seen many drug hauls being caught. Although credit would be due to the airport for catching a lot of these cases, it still does not answer why criminal organizations would dare to use TIA to smuggle large quantities of substances in the first place. This would naturally result from a reputation of lousy security which allows the groups to take calculated risks. Would it be safe to say that the TIA customs only catch a small percentage of what is smuggled through? Would it be accurate to say that both the head and body of the golden elephants usually go through, and all they catch is its tail?
While criminals constantly change and adapt their methods to bypass airport security, the ability to keep up and determine these methods are signs of a competent customs department. According to Niraj Singh, an experienced cyber-physical security professional and Ph.D. candidate, airports need multiple layers of security and checks and balances for those security systems.
“Every system has weaknesses,” says Singh. “However, figuring out the loopholes and maintaining additional precautions are necessary. Human resources are a big risk, and due to human corruption, no system can be secure.”
He suggests “Red Team exercises” – an exercise reflecting real-world conditions that is conducted as simulated adversarial attempts to assess security capability. Red team exercises contain an expert group hired to pretend to be an enemy, and they attempt a physical or digital intrusion against an organization, then report back so that the organization can improve its defenses. “Red Team exercises are rarely conducted in Nepal,” says Singh. “They can provide valuable insight into the specific weaknesses of an organization’s human resource, working process, and the technology used.”
Most of the time, the human risk factor is blatantly revealed in the Red Team exercises. Singh emphasizes that the customs officers and other staff are often the most significant weaknesses in airports. Even if the latest technology to detect illicit material is installed and operating, the people running them are still responsible for them.
According to Glenn Carter from Qatar Aeronautical College, in a comment to Aviator Magazine Middle-East, “The biggest weakness right now is ‘untrained’ personnel who do not understand the security methodology of observation, challenging, and reporting. Having the latest and greatest technology in the world does not mean anything if it is not used correctly and not being proactive every day in the Aviation Security environment.”
After Naya Patrika reported businessman Deepak Malhotra’s possible involvement in this smuggling case, Malhotra organized a press conference and stated that he was ready to face all legal punishments if his involvement was proven. He said he was never involved in any illegal business. However, this is not the first time his name was brought up in a gold smuggling case.
Bimal Poddar, a long-known Hawala trade mastermind, named Malhotra’s involvement in the 2018 case mentioned above as well. Interestingly, according to Setopati, the government hid the report recommending an investigation into Malhotra’s involvement.
Considering this history of high-level involvement in gold smuggling, it is reasonable to assume that 100 kilograms of gold to be brought without detection from the airport would mean a network involving customs staff and influential businessmen. Experts have stated that human weakness, rather than a technological flaw, is more likely in a security system. It, therefore, is not expected to be “gold-blindness” as in a genuine case of undetected gold but rather a result of greed that infiltrated the biggest airport in the country. Whether this case would end in impunity or justice being delivered will be seen in the coming weeks.