Officials say mafiosi in Pakistan's largest city are better equipped than police and strong enough to bring down governments.
Karachi crime gangs protected by politicians
KARACHI // Criminal gangs with links to key political parties are terrorising the residents of Karachi, Pakistan's largest city, according to officials and victims. The most powerful is the so-called "land mafia", who take over commercial plots, government land and even people's homes, the officials said. The land mafiosi, who work out of legal fronts such as building, contracting and real estate businesses, derive their strength from political parties with constituencies in Karachi and other parts of southern Sindh province such as the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), the Awami National Party (ANP) and the Quaid and Functional factions of the Muslim League. "The land mafia is so powerful that it can overthrow the government by buying politicians and officials," said a judge of the Sindh High Court, who has heard many land dispute cases, speaking on condition of anonymity. Usually the mafia's intention is to rob people of their property, a typical method being to establish a fake dispute in which the official land record is falsified so that the litigants - both members of the mafia - present fake documentary evidence of ownership of an empty residence they have paid shanty dwellers to occupy. "The real owner finds himself excluded from the litigation and unable to mount a serious legal challenge because it can only be heard after the fake dispute is resolved," the judge said, meaning that the real owners could wait for years before they get a chance to claim for their property. This unlawful occupation of homes has created a lucrative business for some sons of political families, who buy the property with its illegal tenants for a fraction of the home's value. One such budding politician, who asked not to be named, was recently on a job in Karachi's upmarket Defence Housing Society, managed by the military. An expatriate family based in the United States were being extorted by their "tenants" to part with their home for a quarter of its market value. After a meeting over tea, the young politician magnanimously turned down the desperate couple's offer of 30 per cent, saying it would be "unfair" to take any more than half the property's value. A deal having been struck, he jumped in his sport utility vehicle and drove home to pick up four private guards, each bearing an AK-47 assault rifle, and headed to the disputed property. After the land gangs, gun runners occupy the next rung on Karachi's criminal ladder. They differ from the land mafia in that most are allegedly ranking members of the city's dominant political parties, according to officials. "They are armed to the teeth and with far better weaponry than the police. That's why political violence flares up in a matter of minutes in Karachi," said another judge who also sought anonymity. Police officials said the most powerful gunrunners had access to specialised urban warfare weaponry, including rocket grenade launchers, laser-sighted automatic weapons with armour-piercing bullets and phosphorus grenades - the latter having notoriously been used two years ago in an attack on the Tahir Plaza, a building next to the city courts. While the phosphorus grenade attack of May 2007 was targeting lawyers protesting against the sacking of Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, the since-reinstated chief justice of Pakistan, the illegal weapons trade usually feeds ethnic tensions between Karachi's dominant "Mohajir" community of migrants from India represented by the MQM and the smaller Pukhtun and Baloch communities, represented respectively by the ANP and PPP. The almost unrestricted flow of weaponry has for three decades rendered many districts of the city no-go areas for the police, a senior officer in the police said. Arguably the most dangerous is Lyari, a Baloch-dominated, impoverished district that has been taken over by the narcotics mafia, allegedly led by Rehman "Dakait" whose assumed surname literally means "bandit". Having allegedly slain his way to the Lyari drugs throne, he has developed close relations with the PPP, which considers Lyari a safe parliamentary constituency that has in the past been represented by Asif Ali Zardari, now the president of Pakistan. Mr Rehman, who was last year acquitted on 28 murder charges after witnesses refused to testify, now sits on the district peace committee, which was involved in negotiating an end to recent outbreaks of violence. He operates independently of the land and gun mafias, but is often involved in conflicts with them, police said. They pointed to armed clashes in Lyari on April 28 as an example. An ethnic Mohajir builder had begun construction of a commercial building when gangsters alleged to be working for Mr Rehman turned up demanding "protection" money. Confident of protection from a powerful land mafia armed by gunrunners, he rejected their demands, according to police and residents in the area. "Ten minutes later, all the construction machinery and workers were gone - taken by Mr Rehman's people. Then land mafia people, announcing their MQM connections, arrived and all hell broke loose," said one resident, an ethnic Pukhtun who asked not be identified. Eleven people were killed and two-dozen wounded in the ensuing 24-hour gun battle, police said. With ethnic tensions sparking frequent outbursts of violence in Karachi, police and judicial officers said the provincial government was reluctant to take any action that could exacerbate the security situation. Police living in Lyari and other no-go areas said they travelled to and from their homes in civilian clothing to avoid being targeted by gunmen. "It is too dangerous for us to patrol the areas. We would only go into an area like Lyari in armoured personnel carriers and that too with support from the Rangers [a paramilitary force]," said one senior police officer. email@example.com