Letter from Pakistan — From the September 2015 issue

Gangs of Karachi

Meet the mobsters who run the show in one of the world’s deadliest cities

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On May 11, 2013, the day of the general election, I paid a visit to Uzair in Lyari. Like most Westerners in Karachi, I was staying in Defence, the wealthiest and most secure part of the city, which got its name because its housing developments are operated by a military-owned authority. It occupies a peninsula on the southeastern end of the city, which can be sealed off from the rest of Karachi in times of civil unrest or, on New Year’s Eve, to prevent the city’s poor from mingling with the crowd that watches the fireworks on Clifton Beach.

My taxi drove past high walls that hid manicured gardens and multistory, air-conditioned homes. We were heading north — downtown — toward the bank towers and high-rise offices that lined I. I. Chundrigar Road. To the west, I could see the cranes that served the container ships; Karachi’s ports account for 95 percent of Pakistan’s international trade by volume. The car slowed and we turned onto a narrow, curving road surrounded by stone buildings and shops with their rusted, graffitied shutters pulled down.

The funeral procession for a man killed in a gun battle between rival gangs, Agra Taj

The funeral procession for a man killed in a gun battle between rival gangs, Agra Taj

For the past two months, election posters had made Karachi’s convoluted political geography legible even to an outsider. I had learned to recognize the major players: the arrow symbol and the green, black, and red banners for the incumbent P.P.P., and the image of a kite in red, white, and green for the M.Q.M.

Much of central Karachi is M.Q.M. territory. The posters there showed the broad face and bristly mustache of the party’s leader, Altaf Hussain. But as we came down Napier Road and entered Lea Market — normally overflowing with people, now practically deserted because of security fears — the kites petered out. We passed a small island of Awami National Party flags in leftist red that marked a cluster of Pashtun shops, and then the green, black, and red banners of the P.P.P. began.

Lyari’s entrance was marked by a double arch with welcome lyari town painted on it in English and Urdu. Atop the left pillar was a photo of Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister, who was assassinated in 2007; atop the right was her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the founder of the P.P.P., who was hanged by a military dictatorship in 1979. The Bhuttos are revered in Lyari. Their photos — Benazir’s especially — could be seen on most of the political posters found there. So, however, could the image of a third figure, who was neither a candidate for the election nor a Bhutto: Uzair Baloch. A fair-skinned man with a symmetrical, pleasant face, he was in his late thirties, with a trim black beard and mustache. His eyes crinkled warmly when he smiled — as he did in most portraits — and his slightly elfin ears stuck out a little on each side.

On one set of posters, Uzair appeared with several of his fallen lieutenants. Here was Rashid Bengali, slain by a fellow gangster in an internecine dispute. There, in wraparound sunglasses, was young Fahim Badshah Khan, killed by the Rangers. Khan, like many of the martyrs, as they are called, had been photoshopped onto a Swiss-looking meadow along with a luxury SUV. In Lyari, all gangsters go to heaven.

The deeper we went into the slum, the busier the streets became. It was safer there, in territory that belonged indisputably to Uzair. People were out walking around, some of them heading toward polling stations. Others were watching us, a car with strangers, very carefully. We turned into a side alley and drove up to a group of young men sitting on plastic lawn furniture. They wore loud dress shirts, knockoff designer jeans, and ball caps. Many of them had pistols concealed in their waistbands, and nearby, I was certain, there would be men with assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, and belt-fed machine guns — ready to wage war at a moment’s notice. There were pickets like this all over Lyari, but the men I saw were especially attentive, because they were guarding the alley that led to Uzair’s house. They peered into the taxi and, recognizing my face, nodded for us to pass.

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is the Schell Fellow at The Nation Institute and the recipient of a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. His article “Kabubble” appeared in the February 2013 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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