NEW DELHI: Gold smugglers are resorting to increasingly desperate measures to get the metal past customs, Indian officials say, after nearly a dozen people were caught with bullion stashed in their rectums.
India is the world's second-largest consumer of gold and smuggling has been increasing since duties were raised on the precious metal, an essential part of religious festivals and weddings.
Customs officials acting on a tip-off Sunday (Oct 8) detained a group of crafty gold mules as their plane from Sri Lanka touched down in the southern city of Madurai.
"Eleven passengers had concealed some 32 to 50 grams (1.1 to 1.8 ounces) each in their rectums. Another 17 had hidden gold in their luggage," a senior Directorate of Revenue Intelligence official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
The value of the haul was more than 30 million rupees (US$500,000), he added.
Demand for gold peaks in the final months of the year as the wedding season gets going and preparations are made for the major Hindu festivals of Diwali and Dussehra.
There has been a rise in smuggling since duties on gold were raised in 2013. But secreting the valuable metal inside a body cavity has really only caught on recently, officials say.
"It seems to be a new trend that has caught up in the last 7 to 8 months. Since the amounts of gold are not huge, it is easier for them to escape detection," the customs official said.
The bars are usually wrapped in plastic and shaped like a battery to ease insertion and removal, he said.
"They stuff it in on boarding, and then take it out so it is not uncomfortable during the flight. Just before disembarking the plane, they put it back there again," he said.
"All this is done meticulously so as not to cause any bruise or injury."
The World Gold Council estimates smuggling networks imported up to 120 tonnes of gold into India in 2016.
Bangladesh has emerged as a major route for smuggled bullion into neighbouring India, with authorities seizing a record 1.5 tonnes at airports in the past three years and arresting more than 100 people.
Smugglers have become more creative as their schemes have been uncovered, with authorities discovering gold bars sewn in clothes or hidden inside traffickers' bodies and some using wheelchairs to conceal their illicit cargo.