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Probe: British Drug Gangs’ Cash Reportedly Converted to Solid Gold in Dubai

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A European probe uncovers the covert transformation of British drug gangs’ funds into gold in Dubai, exposing a sophisticated money laundering scheme leveraging the UAE’s global reputation as a haven.

Detailed in a major British media expose, the investigation traces a web of shell companies funneling drug proceeds from British streets to Dubai-based money launderers and large-scale gold mining operations across Africa.

The Times and Sunday Times, in collaboration with News Corp Australia, have launched a groundbreaking international investigation into the global cocaine trade, highlighted in an ambitious eight-part podcast, video, and editorial series titled ‘Cocaine Inc.'”

Over the past year, journalists from The Times, The Sunday Times, and News Corp Australia have been uncovering the inner workings of the global cocaine trade for their new podcast, Cocaine Podcast.

In Dubai’s Gold Souk, two British drug traffickers navigate the winding alleys. The air is humid, and the streets are busy with cars and motorcycles competing for space, overseen by vigilant private security personnel.

Storefronts showcase gold necklaces shaped like olive leaves, bracelets adorned with names in Arabic script, 24-karat gold bracelets embedded with rubies, sapphires, and emeralds, alongside pure gold bars available for purchase in half-kilogram or kilogram increments.

This market, situated in Dubai’s Deira area since the early 1900s, experienced significant growth in the 1940s with the influx of merchants from Iran and India. According to local tour guides, it typically houses approximately ten tons of gold at any given time, valued at around £600 million.

Dressed in designer T-shirts and sunglasses, the two drug traffickers enter a climate-controlled store. Inside, a group of men are seated, diligently crafting pieces while a television displays the day’s gold prices.

A large picture of Sheikh Mohammed Al Maktoum, ruler of Dubai, hangs on the wall. One of the gold merchants, in his early thirties, with thick black hair and an easy smile, seems a little friendlier than the rest. For his safety, his name was changed to Rashid.

 “Okay boss, how are you?” Rashid says. He reaches into a safe and shows them a 0.5kg gold nugget, smaller than a mobile phone and deceptively heavy, worth around £30,000. Eager to make a sale, he hands over his business card.

After a few days, the British return to contact by phone. They tell him they have money to spend, but they have a confession: the money may have been made from drug dealing in the UK. They are concerned about the tests that the authorities will conduct in the UAE.

Rashid considers the offer carefully. He wants the men to bring him money in the local currency, the dirham, rather than pounds sterling.

He mentions that a single transaction could involve up to 3kg of gold, valued at £180,000, without requiring verification of the money’s origin: “For amounts up to three kilograms, totaling less than £180,000, there are no inquiries into the source of the funds. However, transactions involving four to five kilograms or more would prompt inquiries into the source of the funds. This is something I can guarantee.”

In contrast, consider Hatton Garden, London’s renowned jewelry district, where two gold trading firms indicate they can only accept cash up to £10,000 along with two forms of identification. Additionally, a major gold trading company reports ceasing cash transactions entirely last year.

Rashid says he has a workshop that can shape gold into jewellery, such as a necklace, which can be worn under clothes to take it through customs in the UK.

“I have one or two British clients,” he adds. “They usually buy the 24-carat chain.” They say that if you take a gold bar there will be trouble at the airport. So they usually wear a chain and there is no problem with that.”

Drug dealers ask how much can be spent on the gold chain. “There is no limit, brother,” Rashid says. All he needs for the transaction is a passport.

The two drug dealers are in fact undercover reporters from The Times and Sunday Times. They explain that they are following leads from the National Crime Agency (NCA), which suggests that organized crime groups in the UK are smuggling millions of pounds of drug proceeds through British airports to Dubai. There, they launder the money by investing in gold trading.

According to the NCA, there is evidence that smuggled cash is being used by criminals to purchase gold bullion either in Dubai’s markets or in Africa. In these operations, illegal gold mining operations readily accept cash without scrutinizing its source.

The Significance of Gold

Gold’s enduring value and malleability make it particularly appealing to money launderers. Its ability to be melted and reformed helps in obscuring its origin.

“Gold is universally recognized for its high value and its historical role as a reliable store of wealth,” states Sal Melki, head of the illicit finance threat at the National Crime Agency (NCA).

The NCA reports that criminals often smuggle gold into the UK disguised as jewelry or keep it in safes in Dubai, ready for future sale or trade. This practice is one of the various methods employed by British criminals to launder money, primarily by lower-tier fraudsters.

In the podcast series Cocaien Inc, produced by The Times, Sunday Times, and News Corp Australia to delve into the global drug trade, we uncover a network of enterprises and front organizations that funnel drug profits from UK streets to money launderers in Dubai and extensive gold mining ventures throughout Africa. Our investigation meticulously traces the financial route of the largest cash smuggling operation in the UK.

High-level drug dealers don’t smuggle the cash themselves. Organized crime gangs are recruiting “money mules” – airline passengers willing to smuggle cash in suitcases from UK airports – to move hundreds of millions of pounds out of the country.

The mules, lured by the promise of business class flights, a free luxury holiday and a cash payment of around £3,000 at the end of the trip, were found carrying up to half a million pounds in cash in each suitcase.

There are no restrictions on the amount of cash that can be brought into the UAE but any amount over AED 60,000 (about £13,000) must be declared at customs.

These rules are similar to those in Britain and the European Union. The difference, according to British-based law enforcement officials, is the precision applied in the UAE to determine the source of cash.

Over the past five years in the UK, 34 individuals, including Jo Emma Larvin, 45, a former model who previously dated Welsh boxing champion Joe Calzaghe, have been convicted in connection with three separate criminal operations.

This group includes make-up artists, Instagram influencers, west London gangsters, and even a Czech taxi driver. Together, they smuggled £200 million in cash into Dubai. However, according to investigators and a former mule who bravely shared her story with us, these convictions only scratch the surface of a much larger problem.

Francesca the Cash Holder

In a hotel in northern England, a woman with coiffed hair and painted nails looks nervous. We have been exchanging WhatsApp messages with her for months. She is concerned for her safety and is concerned about the potential for violent repercussions. That’s why her name here was changed to Francesca.

Francesca, a beautician, acted as a money courier for the group known as the Sunshine and Lollipop gang, using a WhatsApp group to coordinate their flights and cash transportations.

This group smuggled up to £110 million from UK airports to Dubai between November 2019 and October 2020.

The mastermind of the operation was Abdullah Muhammad Ali bin Bayat Al Falasi, an Emirati citizen whose wife is from a wealthy Emirati family.

Al Falasi, currently serving a nine-year prison sentence in the UK for involvement in a money laundering operation, enlisted several young British women with clean records to avoid suspicion at UK airports.

Francesca, in her 40s with an adult son, was among them. As of 2019, just before becoming involved with the gang, her life was stable.

“I had just left a bad relationship and moved into a lovely new home.” Francesca ran her own business as a beautician, earning between £4,000 and £6,000 monthly. She was single and law-abiding at the time.

“My career was exactly where I wanted it to be,” she said. “I was in great shape, had a great group of friends and was very, very happy.”

Then in March 2020, the UK entered lockdown as Covid cases stabilized. “Lockdown completely turned my life upside down,” recalls Francesca, whose livelihood depended on face-to-face client interactions. “I lost my job, so all my income just stopped.” “I had to rely on my parents’ bank account, and they didn’t have much money.” With debts mounting to £20,000 and rent arrears piling up, she worried, “Am I going to lose my home?”

There was buzz in the beauty industry about an opportunity to make fast money by transporting suitcases to Dubai. “I heard from someone in a similar line of work, so we shared our experiences.” Then she mentioned, “Actually, I have this Dubai job offer… you fly first class and earn X amount.” My first question was, “Is it drugs?” because I knew I wouldn’t transport drugs. It turned out to involve transporting cash instead.

Her friend connected her with a “recruiter,” a woman involved in organizing the mules. “She asked me to transport bags filled with money.” “The exact amount wasn’t disclosed, but I knew it exceeded the legal limit.”

In the UK, travelers must declare amounts of £10,000 or more to customs when leaving the country, and Francesca knew she was violating this law. “I was assured that once we were on the flight, everything would be fine because Dubai welcomes money into their country.”

“We simply declare it upon arrival, and there’s no problem.”She says she was unaware at the time that the money came from selling drugs. The NCA says the bags contained street profits from a number of gangs selling drugs in British towns and cities.

The National Crime Agency (NCA) has not yet identified these gangs. However, recent evidence reviewed by The Sunday Times indicates that one of the primary beneficiaries was likely the Kinahan Cartel, an international criminal organization led by Christy Kinahan, reportedly residing in Dubai.

Dubai Cash Race

Francesca’s initial task came during the summer of 2020. On the day of the journey, she traveled with her “mentor,” another woman, by train to London. Francesca had hardly slept the night before, mentally rehearsing every aspect of the plan.

Instructions came through WhatsApp, directing them to meet at a specific café in London at a designated time. “As far as I knew, everyone was supposed to gather at Starbucks,” she recalls. “Starbucks stood out in a unique way.”

They waited for several hours. According to her mentor, such delays were typical as the gang frequently altered plans unexpectedly. Eventually, a driver arrived—a luxurious, dark vehicle, ideal for transporting individuals.

The driver took them to the West End and stopped outside a large house. Francesca watched as two people walked out with seven black hard-shell suitcases — “I thought, ‘Damn, that’s a lot of money’ — and put them in the trunk.”

They obtained a letter from a Dubai-based registered company called Omnivest Gold Trading, owned by Alfalasi.

These letters provided the mules with an explanation for the cash in the bags that would satisfy Emirati customs officials: the letter said proceeds from international gold sales being remitted from London to Dubai. The letters were signed by Al-Falasi.

The driver dropped Francesca and her mentor at Heathrow with little time to check in. “This is for a reason, because they [airline and airport staff] are rushing you because you don’t have much time to get to the flight.” Francesca was told to “dress up” and look “a little nice.”

“As Francesca placed bags on the conveyor belt at Emirates check-in, her mind and heart raced. She recalled, ‘Initially, it was a whirlwind of thoughts like, ‘What if they inspect the case?’ Yet, I also found myself smiling and effortlessly playing the role of a refined lady. In business class, the treatment is akin to royalty, with minimal scrutiny.'”

I passed. Within an hour, the women were walked to the plane and served champagne by a flight attendant. But Francesca couldn’t relax.

She imagined herself “sitting on the plane, a little smug, thinking you’ve done it, and then you look up and there’s security, police, pulling you out of your seat with everyone else looking.” It didn’t happen.

“As soon as the flight left the tarmac, and you were in the air and you had a glass of champagne in your hand, the feeling of relief — I can’t explain it to you.”

Seven hours later, the plane landed in Dubai, the city of gold. Upon arrival, a WhatsApp message was sent to the two women with number codes to open the locks on their bags.

Francesca entered the customs office at Dubai International Airport – a small room with tinted glass and a number of border officers inside. Cases opened to uncover millions of pounds. She couldn’t believe her eyes.

“The first time I saw money it felt like I was in a movie or it wasn’t real.” I couldn’t believe how much it was. I didn’t really think it would be in the millions. And I thought, what the hell have I gotten myself into?

The women presented their Omnivest cover letter to the officials. “They didn’t even blink,” she remarked. She was given a cash declaration form, a requirement for making a deposit in Dubai’s banks.

After clearing customs, Francesca’s final stop was the arrivals hall, where a man awaited to escort the women to two luxury cars. “Then they just said, ‘Thank you,'” Francesca recalled.

One car transported the bags full of cash, while the other took the women to a five-star hotel, where they enjoyed three days of sunning by the pool.

On the last day, £3,000 in cash was delivered to their hotel, but only the guide received the payment. Francesca, a “buddy” in training for future solo cash runs, also received seven empty bags for reuse.

 She completed the trip three times in 2019 and 2020, earning £6,000, which helped her pay off some debts. For her, it was mission accomplished.

Emirati Mastermind

In October 2020, at an office in Heathrow Airport, Ian Truby, a senior NCA investigator, received a call about the arrest of Tara Hanlon, a 30-year-old former recruitment consultant. She had attempted to board a flight to Dubai with £1.9 million in cash in her luggage. The money was vacuum-packed and covered in coffee, likely to deter sniffer dogs.

Hanlon, who resembled reality TV star Kim Kardashian, had five suitcases for her weekend trip, which caught the attention of an observant border official.

“She had no criminal record,” Truby noted. “By her own account, she was unable to work due to Covid.” There was no evidence linking her to the crime. She appeared to have led a clean life until somehow becoming involved in this situation.

Like Francesca, Hanlon possessed a letter from Omnivest Gold Trading, connected to Al Falasi. This gave Truby a critical lead. His team started investigating and found that Al Falasi, an Emirati citizen, divided his time between Dubai and the UK.

His wife’s family owned an apartment in Belgravia, London. In December 2021, NCA officers arrested him there, seizing his mobile phone before he could get rid of it. This revealed the details and scale of his smuggling operation.

 The £1.9 million found in Hanlon’s luggage resulted in her receiving nearly a three-year prison sentence in 2021.

They found a trove of hundreds of WhatsApp threads, showing Al Falasi booking travel tickets, receiving photos of cash mule passports, and providing details of flights, who they were with, who they traveled with, and what luggage they took.

“It was an oh my gosh moment,” Truby says. “There’s a lot of data on that phone… I think he got away with it for a long time and it might have been Reza.”

They have built a picture of Al Falasi’s lifestyle. Expensive watches, luxury apartment in London, Mercedes cars. He had no criminal record and was not known to law enforcement anywhere in the world.

The money is collected at the “counting house”, which acts like a bank for the criminals, pooled, a register of the deposits is kept and mules are used to transport the cash to Dubai.

One by one, Truby’s team arrested the smugglers, each of their phones yielding more evidence. It was only a matter of time before they came knocking on Francesca’s door.

Justice is served.

In late 2020, Francesca read in the newspapers about Hanlon’s arrest at Heathrow. Though she didn’t know Hanlon personally, she recognized their stories were remarkably similar. “That was the final blow,” Francesca recalls. “I thought I had put all of this behind me.”

Francesca believes the group’s downfall was due to their overconfidence. “They kept doing it repeatedly, thinking it was easy,” she explains. “They got cocky.”

Months passed after Hanlon’s arrest with no consequences for Francesca. “So I buried it in my mind—I thought I had gotten away with it,” she says. “It was a chapter of my life I had closed and moved on from.”

Then one morning at 6 am, Francesca heard a loud noise at her door. “I was alone in bed,” she remembers. “I quickly threw on a bra, thinking it was the mailman. As I walked downstairs, my heart sank.” She opened the door to find 12 NCA officers entering her home.

In her bedroom, Francesca got dressed with the assistance of a female officer. They confiscated her phone, tablet, and laptop. “They read me my rights and told me I was arrested for money laundering and involvement in an international crime ring—I was stunned,” she recalls. “I broke down in tears, grateful for the comforting words of one of the officers amidst the turmoil.”

Francesca, who had just begun a new relationship two weeks prior, was taken to the police station and placed in a cell. “I wondered how on earth I would explain this to him,” she says. “He would question who I really am.”

Later convicted for her role in the smuggling operation, Francesca describes the experience as “horrific,” leaving her with severe anxiety. “It took a toll on my health—I looked at a video of myself from a year ago and barely recognized the person burdened with the weight of the world,” she laments.

 

Africa Connection

In March this year, Al Falasi was subject to a £3.4 million confiscation order. He faces an additional ten years in prison if he fails to pay.

Among the assets seized were his savings and investments in UAE banks, his share of UAE real estate, cryptocurrency funds in a Binance account, vehicles including a Mercedes G63, a Ford minivan, and a Toyota Yaris, along with three Rolex watches and a Patek Philippe watch. However, the true extent of Al Falasi’s criminal empire remains uncertain.

In 2018, a United Nations report found that large amounts of gold mined in Africa were being smuggled into Dubai. The NCA has evidence that Al Falasi was investing in African gold. An alleged gang member was caught carrying gold in Tanzania.

It is suspected the gang would smuggle the metal to Dubai, where the bars could be melted down and rebranded, making them untraceable. The gold can then be kept in a vault or sold for “clean money” to be used in investments such as property.

In the heart of Dubai’s financial district stands Prime Tower, a 36-story glass skyscraper filled with cameras and security guards.

According to documents obtained by this newspaper and News Movement, a news and investigative outlet, Prime Tower was the registered address of Omnivest Gold Trading.

They show that Al Falasi was managing director and general manager of Omnivest, which was liquidated in November 2021, days before his arrest. When we visit there is no sign of the door to her former office at the top of the building. A woman comes out and denies that she is part of Omnivest. “I’m not sure,” she says. “We are completely different.”

UAE company records reveal that, besides Omnivest, Al Falasi owns a diverse array of businesses. These include construction companies, a real estate agency, a building materials firm, a yacht charter service, a door and window manufacturing plant, a flower business, a secretarial services company, and marble, ceramic, and metal trading companies.

But Al Falasi’s reach went beyond the UAE and extended to Ghana, West Africa, where he was CEO of Atlantic Holdings, a large parent company that owns steel manufacturing, mining, and gold trading companies.

According to Atlantic Holdings’ website, which is no longer online, Omnivest was just one part of its business. “Omnivest Gold Trading LLC is our trading arm in Dubai that specializes in trading gold and rough diamonds,” the website says. “We import raw gold, refine it and sell it to financial institutions within the UAE.”

The website claims that Omnivest was a member of the UAE’s Kimberley Process certification scheme – an initiative to stop the trade in conflict diamonds.

Also part of Atlantic Holdings was My Gold, a mining company with land in Brofoyedru, Ashanti Region, Ghana. On its website, the name Al-Falasi is given to Abdullah bin Bayat.

His photo shows him in the white Emirati robes and headdress, and he looks slightly younger than the police shot. He describes him as having “extensive experience” in the real estate industry, with a master’s degree “from Dubai Police College” and a degree in business administration from York University. He is reported to be the director of Omnivest Gold Trading and Atlantic Investment Holdings Limited in Ghana.

Several companies previously managed by Atlantic Holdings are now overseen by another umbrella organization called Atlantic Trust Holdings, which has interests in steel manufacturing, banking, mining, and real estate development.

We contacted its founder and chairman, Alex Asiedu, for whom there is no suggestion of wrongdoing, who says: “Atlantic Trust Holdings has been around for almost 20 years now and has never had dealings with Atlantic Trust Holdings in Dubai.”

He adds: “The Atlantic Holdings of Dubai website was controlled by Al Falasi and his business partner. We had nothing to do with any of his activities. In fact, I have not had any contact with Abdullah [Al-Falasi] for about eight years now. “If anything at all, I would be a cheerful person because Abdullah used his influence to literally bully people.” He says his company has never been investigated by any law enforcement agency.

At this point the track becomes cold. What happened to £110 million of Al Falasi smuggled from the UK remains a mystery. Once cash enters the global gold trade, it becomes almost impossible to trace.

Last month, a study by SwissAid found that around 435 tonnes of undeclared gold worth around $31 billion were exported from Africa in 2022 – 93 per cent of which was smuggled into the UAE.

“This is a significant amount of money leaving Africa linked to money laundering, conflicts and human rights issues,” said Mark Omel, one of the report’s authors.

He added that the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the international body that tackles money laundering, should reconsider the removal of the UAE in February from the “grey list” of countries with weak countermeasures.

The FATF was satisfied that the UAE had improved its cooperation in international money laundering investigations and conducted further investigations and prosecutions within its borders.

But the European Parliament voted against his proposals, meaning the UAE remains on the EU’s high-risk list.

Tighten the network

Meanwhile, Truby is still investigating the Sunshine and Lollipops gang. Some suspected members are still at large. He says it’s difficult to estimate how many gangs use cash mules.

 “I have no doubt that there are a number of other groups that have done exactly the same thing and may continue to do the same thing,” he adds.

Due to the current scanning technology used at UK airports, which primarily focuses on counter-terrorism rather than detecting large amounts of cash, criminals are evading detection.

“We have an ongoing conversation with various authorities to try to do more about the technology and tactics of cash scanning at the UK border,” says NCA’s Melki. “What people don’t want is to wait hours to board their plane as a result of enhanced screening.”

Francesca believes the problem is much bigger than the UK authorities realize. “I think it’s the tip of the iceberg,” she says. “Most of the people in my group have never done anything wrong before.” But I think Covid had a lot to do with that. “It was the despair of that time.”

She mentioned she never perceived herself as causing harm to anyone. “I understand now that being involved in organized crime affects people,” she reflected, citing issues like laundering drug money. “At the time, though, I didn’t see it. If I could go back, I would cut ties with the person who introduced me to this.”

After we revealed our identity to Rasheed, the gold market trader, over the phone, he said that his business would actually require proof of the source of funds to buy gold worth 50,000 dirhams (about £10,600). He said he didn’t know anything about criminals buying gold in Dubai.

We conclude our journey with a visit to the observation deck of Palm Jumeirah, an artificial island resembling a palm tree, offering a stunning view of the city’s glittering skyscraper-filled skyline. Beneath the prosperous facade of commerce and tourism lies an emerging haven for organized crime.