Calm has returned to Tsento gewog in Paro again. Law enforcement agents do not frequent the community much and there are no talks of arrests. This return to normalcy of some sorts is however, surreal.
Gossips abound. A series of arrests were made this year in connection to gold smuggling.
The Royal Bhutan Police (RBP) in Paro and Thimphu started cracking down on gold smugglers from May 1 this year and arrested more than 40 men, mostly from Tsento, to date. Of the 170kg gold reportedly smuggled, police has recovered 44kg. Most of the accused were detained since June 21.
Speculation over instant wealth accumulation and change in lifestyles of some of residents in the community are linked to the smuggling business.
Some local leaders shared that individuals who were initially involved in farming suddenly started owning expensive cars and constructing buildings in the heart of Paro town.
“We thought they were involved in some successful business. But we never knew they would be involved in smuggling gold,” a local leader said.
Change in lifestyle
Few decades ago, people of Tsento were involved in trade with people across the northern border. Goods such as refurbished clothes, wrist watches and electronic spare parts from India, red rice and zaw (parched rice) were exchanged for Chinese goods.
While the barter system continued, the commodity involved in the trade changed over the years. According to sources, since 2011, some people of Tsento had started to smuggle sandalwood from the southern plains to the northern border.
“We believe that after people started smuggling sandalwood, the change in their living standard and lifestyles was swift,” a former police officer said.
Sandalwood was smuggled from Paro and Haa to Phari in Tibet and this illicit racket grew into a lucrative business. However, demand for sandalwood across the border in the north declined and law enforcement agencies in Bhutan began cracking down on the illegal trade of wood, which was rampant between 2012 and 2014. Thousands of kilograms of sandalwood were seized in Paro, Haa, between Phuentsholing and Paro at the checkpoints and across the border in Phuentsholing and several smugglers detained and tried before the court.
Few instances of law enforcement agents and forest officials seizing sandalwood were reported from 2015 to 2018.
Gold had replaced sandalwood then given the convenience involved in smuggling it and the rising demand.
Tsento gewog officials attribute the rapid change in socio-economic and living standard of many farmers in Tsento in recent years due to sandalwood and gold smuggling.
Paro is one of the closest dzongkhags to the northern border and the proximity gave many farmers and businessmen an advantage in entering the gold smuggling business, known to the community as the shortest and the quickest way to earn money.
The modus operandi
The gold smuggling racket involves people from the north to the south. The seller is based in Tibet and the buyer in India. Bhutanese play the role of the middlemen and comprise of the local owner or the dealer, the carrier, the planners and the robbers.
Kuensel learnt that the gold seller in Tibet contacts dealer or the local owner in Bhutan through WeChat about the consignment to be delivered to India. The dealer hires people to carry the gold, paying Nu 11,000 to 50,000 a kilogramme as carrying charges. He or she then sends about three to four people, five at the most to walk to Tibet with information on where and what time to meet the seller.
Under the cover of darkness, the carrier walk for two nights through the several secret trails or illegal trade routes like Thangthangkha, Yurja, Domona, Jatsholum, Sidulum, Togola, Gyepthongchey, Haap Dagay and Chunjeyphug.
Transactions occur at different locations in Bhutan and Tibetan borders – Kerila, Jidola and Trimola. Some travel further up to Phari, across the Tibetan border. Smugglers bring in gold mostly from Kerila and Jidola.
Among the hired people are the planners who prepare a plan to either rob the carriers or the sellers. This usually happens before the time of the deal. The planners often send the robbers ahead of the carriers or wait to ambush them on their way back.
In one case, one dealer from Tsento had conspired to smuggle 52kg of gold from the Tibetan boarder of Jidola after a Tibetan contacted him, through WeChat. He allegedly hired five men for Nu 30,000 each to Jidola to collect the gold.
Two others who were also involved in the racket had however hatched a plan to rob the gold from the source, the Tibetan. The duo and an accomplice went ahead of the five men and allegedly robbed the 52kg gold from the two Tibetans and hid the gold at a place above the Tsekha army base camp.
The five carriers returned empty-handed saying the Tibetans never showed up.
Among the robbers, some of them are reportedly disguised as armed force personnel and seize the gold. Sometimes, the carriers flee the scene leaving behind some gold, often fake. The disguised robbers take pictures of the gold claiming that the army patrolling team seized the consignment and send the pictures through WeChat to the buyer in India. Often, the dealer in Bhutan also travels to Siliguri, India to inform the buyer about the seizure. At times, a portion of the gold is delivered to the buyer but some kilograms remain hidden in the woods.
The hidden gold however, does not remain hidden. The robbers return to the site, take some portion of it or the whole of it and hide it at another place. The gold is then sold in the market.
Gold importers from India and Nepal trade with the Tibetans and are believed to make the payment through Bitcoin, which is a clyptocurrency (digital currency) without a central bank or a single administrator that can be sent from user to user on the peer-to-peer bitcoin network without the need for intermediaries. Gold sellers then contact dealers in Bhutan to transship the gold from the northern border to the southern border.
While this smuggling occurs in the woods, along the trails less trodden, there is another modus operandi that happens through air transport, often from Bangkok to Paro.
Here, it involves the delivery of cash to Bangkok first. A luggage loader or an airline technician is hired to take the cash and load it onto the overhead cabin baggage above the passenger’s seat.
Often, it involved two persons, one who carry the cash and the other who buys the gold. When more than one person is involved, the carrier is paid a carrying charge of Nu 50,000 but if it involves only one person, he or she earns around Nu 300,000 per consignment. Some carry 2-4kgs of gold per trip in the pouch that is strapped around their waists. Others carry the gold biscuits in the luggage, pockets and under garments.
Buying gold in Bangkok requires the buyer to have cash, passport with visa and the flight tickets. The deal is done through a counter where the face of the seller remains hidden behind the counter and the hands are wearing gloves.
At the airport, the bought gold is declared and it is not an issue when the buyer carries it as hand luggage. When the flight lands at Paro airport, the gold is then carried out.
The arrests made so far at the airport have happened when a third party comes to know about the deal and tips off the customs officials at the airport.
The number of smugglers arrested and total quantity of gold seized has increased significantly over the past four years. Records show that the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) charged and prosecuted two cases involving 1.48kg gold in 2016, three cases involving 21.25kg gold in 2017 and four cases of 77kg gold smuggled in 2018.
OAG has registered six cases involving 20 people in the alleged gold smuggling of 106.174kg gold from January to mid June this year alone at Paro dzongkhag court. Of the 106.174kg of gold, 50kg has not been recovered.
In a separate case, the OAG is yet to charge 11 people in connection with smuggling of 19kg of gold into the country. Police recovered only 3kg of gold from three suspects.
Police also seized 2kg of fake gold, Nu 15.077 million and impounded eight cars, including a Toyota Prado, three Hilux, a Creta, a Bolero Pickup, a Suzuki car and Maruti Van and a Pulsar bike. OAG charged 16 people, mostly from Tsento, at the Paro court last month in two separate smuggling cases involving 52kg and 31kg of gold.
Until another arrest is made, the calm that has returned to Tsento gewog in Paro will stay.
By Rinzin Wangchuk