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No rest for wicked in lawless Karachi

By Graham Cooke - posted Monday, 9 September 2013

The 'pop, pop, pop' could clearly be heard inside the hotel lobby. "Is that fireworks?"

The concierge shrugged - "Maybe, but maybe guns…anyway, a long way from here," he said and went back to his work.

It was just after breakfast, not the most likely time to be letting off fireworks, but in Karachi, gunfire occurs around the clock: Not constantly, but like the wailing of emergency vehicles rushing from one incident to another, often enough to remind nervous visitors that this vast, sprawling megacity of some 21 million people is one of the most lawless places on earth.


It wasn't always like this. In past years Karachi, the capital of Sindh Province, was better known as a seaport and the country's financial hub, home to large national and international corporations and a centre for entertainment and the arts.

However, migration on an unprecedented scale has changed the city's character. In just 10 years the population has grown by 80 per cent as people fled the fighting between the army and various terrorist groups in the north of the country. They came to be safe, but the very fact of this vast movement of people brought misery, deprivation and anger and, with so many from different tribes and backgrounds clustered together, soaring ethnic tensions.

I was told of an attack at a market where 13 people died as gunmen walked through the area, shooting at everyone in sight. The reason was that the market had employed new migrants over local people. The outcome went far beyond the killings – literally thousands of employees were summarily sacked by their bosses who feared similar reprisals.

But where were the police? The answer was always the same. "The police are never there, they are useless. There is no law in this city save the law of the gun."

Gang warfare, extortion rackets, targeted killings and the occasional suicide bomber have sent the annual murder rate soaring to more than 2000 and if that were not bad enough, Karachi is also acquiring a reputation as the country's drug capital with the recent discovery of several methamphetamine laboratories.

Officials fear this may just be scraping the surface. Karachi has a sophisticated pharmaceutical industry and there are suggestions that both manpower and materials are being diverted into the manufacture of illegal substances


So bad has the whole criminal mess become that the head of the largest political grouping in the city, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, Altar Hussain, took the step of asking for the Pakistani Army to take over the running of the city in an effort to address the law and order situation – in effect placing the country's largest metropolis under martial law.

The call was rejected by Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who has good reason not to want the Pakistani military involved in politics. Instead Sharif and his entire Cabinet rushed to the city to hold urgent discussions with local leaders.

The result was a compromise, with the deployment of the Pakistan Rangers, a paramilitary force containing some elements of the army but under the direct control of the Ministry of the Interior. Along with that Sharif promised legislative changes, making it easier for the city and provincial governments to prosecute the criminal gangs, while the hapless police force would be revamped.

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About the Author

Graham Cooke has been a journalist for more than four decades, having lived in England, Northern Ireland, New Zealand and Australia, for a lengthy period covering the diplomatic round for The Canberra Times.

He has travelled to and reported on events in more than 20 countries, including an extended stay in the Middle East. Based in Canberra, where he obtains casual employment as a speech writer in the Australian Public Service, he continues to find occasional assignments overseas, supporting the coverage of international news organisations.

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