Gangsters and 'mafia' groups add to political and ethnic violence in Karachi - Pakistan's most affluent city

2012 was one of the city’s bloodiest ever, with nearly 2,000 lives lost

Samira Shackle
Thursday 31 January 2013 14:04
A Pakistani Muslim demonstrator brandishes a stick near burning police vehicles during a protest against an anti-Islam film in Karachi
A Pakistani Muslim demonstrator brandishes a stick near burning police vehicles during a protest against an anti-Islam film in Karachi

On a hot Karachi day in October, Amina’s husband Khaled went to work and didn’t come back. Two days later, she was identifying his body in a morgue.

He had been shot in the head on his journey home from the factory where he worked. “He was killed because we are Pashtun-speaking people and they don’t want us here,” she says, sitting in the house where she lives with three children she must now support alone. Visibly uncomfortable, she will not name the “they” who she holds responsible.

Like many others, Khaled’s death has not been investigated and no-one has been arrested or charged with his murder. In a city where people die every day in targeted killings, his is simply another name on the list. The impoverished area where Amina lives is inhabited mainly by members of the Pashtun ethnic group, who have moved in large numbers to Karachi from northern Pakistan.

The following week, Fatima tells a similar story. Her son, Omar, was 24 when he died, shot in the chest. It is unclear whether he was targeted or caught in the crossfire. Just like Amina, Fatima has been given no answers. Just like Amina, she blames ethnic tension. “I don’t know when the killing of innocents will end,” she says.

Political and ethnic violence in Karachi has a long history, and it is getting worse. Last year was one of the city’s bloodiest ever, with nearly 2,000 lives lost, an increase of a few hundred on 2011. The cabinet is considering a military operation to restore order. As Pakistan gears up for a general election later this year, many are questioning whether it will be safe to hold polls in Karachi.

The Taliban take advantage of the chaos to create a stronghold here, in the economic epicentre of Pakistan. In late December, nine health officials carrying out a polio immunisation campaign were killed by Taliban militants who accuse them of working as spies for the US government – four of them were killed in Karachi.

However a report by the United States Institute of Peace last year found that the main perpetrators of urban violence in Karachi are the armed wings of the political parties, who clash over control of city resources.

“It is the most affluent city in Pakistan,” says Huma Yusuf, the author of the report. “There is a lot more up for grabs here than elsewhere in terms of political power, due to the city’s size and its industrial and commercial interest.”

Political parties in Pakistan are broadly formed along ethnic lines. Historically, the city’s main tension has been between the Pashtun Awami National Party (ANP), and, the Urdu-speaking people who migrated to Pakistan from India at the time of Partition in 1947. They are represented by the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM). In recent years, this has been further complicated by tension between the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) – the ruling party with no particular tie to an ethnic grouping — and the MQM.

With a population of at least 18 million, Karachi has grown at an exponential rate since 1947, when it had just 435,000 residents. This rapid growth was not matched by town planning or the building of infrastructure. As Pakistan’s financial and economic hub, it attracts migrants from all over the country. Conflict in the Taliban-plagued northern regions has caused a spike in the number of Pashtuns seeking refuge, while floods in Sindh have forced people out of their villages and into the city.

In addition to ethnic tension, sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shia is a long-standing problem that has worsened as extremist militancy rises. Criminal gangs such as land and water mafias are prominent, and an estimated one billion rupee is extracted in extortion money every day.

All political parties deny the existence of militant wings, and downplay their role in the violence. “It’s a perception that has been built,” says MQM spokesman Wasay Jalil. “The main cause of violence is mafias fighting amongst themselves.” But while the higher levels of political parties speak of cooperation with each other – indeed, both the ANP and the MQM are part of the PPP-led governing coalition– there is little doubt that violence continues at a local level. The water is further muddied by the interaction between political actors and criminal gangs.

“We have lots of these nebulous groups who maintain relationships with political parties and help serve their interests while also profiting from criminal activities,” explains Mrs Yusuf.

In return for a cut of the profits, preferential treatment from those running land or extortion rackets, and perhaps the odd targeted killing, political parties provide a level of protection to criminal gangs.

A notorious example of this collusion happened in Lyari. One of Karachi’s most dangerous areas, it is a centre for drugs and arms trafficking, dominated by local gangsters. One of these gangsters, Rehman Dakait, formed the People’s Aman Committee (PAC) in 2008. It has been widely alleged that in their efforts to fight the MQM for control of Karachi, the PPP became very close to this group. For some years, the group was viewed as a subset of the PPP, who were in power at the time. Tens of thousands of weapons licences were given out in Lyari. Many blame this alliance for the sharp increase in the violence that has seen 7,000 lives lost since 2008: with the PPP entering the game alongside the ANP and the MQM, there were now three actors in the war for Karachi instead of two.

In 2011, with changes of policy and personnel in the PPP, the relationship soured and the PAC was banned as a terrorist organisation. However, it is still effectively functioning, under the leadership of Dakait’s cousin, Uzair Baloch. The group provides local services such as water, and Mr Baloch is wildly popular in Lyari.

“Uzair Bhai [brother] listens to what we want. He looks after us,” says Imran, 19. “Nabeel Gabol [the PPP representative] never visits Lyari. He doesn’t care what happens here.”

As security concerns mean that parliamentarians are increasingly reluctant to wander around their constituencies and connect with voters, these local gangsters can fill the void. Indeed, now that his relationship with the PPP has ended, Mr Baloch harbours political ambitions

Across Karachi, the law and order situation is at breaking point. While targeted killings tend to happen in rundown areas such as Lyari and Orangi Town, violence is by no means restricted to these slums. It happens everywhere, and it is spreading. Most people do not travel alone at night. The upmarket areas inhabited by the super-wealthy are dotted with bakeries, beauticians, and restaurants, but most come with heavy security.

Karachi generates more than 25 per cent of GDP. What happens here matters for Pakistan, which is why the law and order situation is being discussed at the highest levels of government. But with a woefully under-sized and under-funded police force, it is difficult to see how the violence will be stemmed – or how it will be controlled during election season. There are only 40,000 police officers – or one for every 600 people.

“There has to be more local, neutral policing, and some kind of witness protection programme,” says Ali Chishti, journalist and author of a forthcoming book on Karachi. “And there has to be a very strong prosecution system. Those who have been caught have been released, because of our weak criminal justice system.”

These ground level changes do not seem to be forthcoming. Fatima, Amina, and the countless other families burying their sons, husbands, and brothers, will not be getting the answers they so desperately need anytime soon.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments