Relaxing in his luxurious four-storey home, Uzair Baloch has high hopes of breaking into politics despite the 63 warrants out for his arrest.
Murder, torture and extortion allegations would bar most people around the world from seeking public office. Not in Karachi, where men like Baloch thrive amid gang wars and ethnic, sectarian and political violence. He’s confident of winning a legislative seat in a general election due early next year. In some ways, instability in the city of 18 million poses a graver security threat to the country than the headline-grabbing Taliban insurgency in the north.
The police say Baloch, whose father was kidnapped and killed by gangsters, has spent years building a business empire through extortion, kidnapping and drugs. He also made powerful friends in political parties in a city long split along sectarian and ethnic lines.
The country’s ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) is the smallest player in Karachi. Despite arrest warrants for Baloch dating back to 2009, he’s held news conferences and repeatedly appeared at PPP rallies. That all changed in recent months after Baloch publicly criticised the PPP. He believes that prompted police to go after him. But the operation proved disastrous.
Last month, thousands of officers attempted to seize control of his stronghold in Lyari but were ambushed by gunmen with grenades and bullets. But no one was arrested.
Chaudhry Aslam, a chain-smoking, pistol-packing bearded policeman journalists have dubbed “Pakistan’s toughest cop,” is charged with going after figures like Baloch. He denies the arrest attempt was politically motivated, and says Baloch’s tactics made it impossible to nab him.
Although, Baloch denies any link to violence, the residents disagree.
This week, two brothers were shot in broad daylight less than 50 meters from a police post in the yard. Now, the police are stationed just outside the office of market association president Malik Dehelvi. “I am afraid,” Dehelvi said, his meaty hand touching the loaded pistol kept on his desk. “The groups who ask for extortion, they can’t run it on their own. Obviously there’s a party behind it.”
Some areas, like much of Baloch’s stronghold of Lyari, are a no-go zone even for the police.
Baloch blames his former PPP allies for failing to tackle Lyari’s hardships, and portrays himself as a Robin Hood figure. Muhammad Rafique, who represents Lyari in the provincial assembly on behalf of the PPP, has appeared with Baloch at several rallies.
He is careful not to criticise his former supporter but insists Baloch had no formal position in the party. “If criminals have taken over politics, how can gentlemen survive?” he said.
It’s easy to see why Rafique is so concerned about Karachi’s violence.
At the police headquarters, officers drag out a sweating, manacled prisoner with a black bag over his head. Kaleem Siddiqui is a confessed killer – $750 a hit.
“We charged more if they wanted us to mutilate the bodies in a certain way,” he said. “I killed for the money … (but) I know a lot of people who kill others for politics.” He added that sometimes politicians hired gunmen like himself, other times they used their own.
The police, underfunded, out gunned and widely seen as corrupt, can do little. Karachi only has 30,000 officers.
They’re not properly trained to gather evidence or prepare cases, said regional prosecutor general Shahadat Arwan. The lack of a witness protection programme means few will testify.
Baloch, who says all cases against him are politically motivated, is confident he will never end up behind bars.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 22nd, 2012.