Nowadays M.R. has moved up the Murder Inc. corporate ladder. He
subcontracts his work out to a stable of killers, dozens of younger men
who prefer a handgun to M.R.'s more intimate way of death by close
embrace. He drags on a cigarette, and explains that some of his boys
will offer a prayer for their victim, while others try to erase the
murders from their conscience with hashish or sex. "Nobody is a born
killer," he says.
Karachi, a port city of 14 million on the Pakistani coast, where the Pab mountain range and the Sindh Desert gather into a brick-and dust-hued urban sprawl before tumbling into the Arabian Sea, is the battlefield in which an assassin like M.R. thrives. In Karachi you have ethnic feuds: gangs of Indian migrants versus the Pathans, Baluchis and Sindhis; you have extremists from rival Sunni and Shi'ite sects battling each other (lately, radical Sunnis are gunning down Shi'ite doctors and lawyers at random); and, of course, there are the radical Islamic groups that shelter al-Qaeda fugitives and are, according to Karachi police officers, helping them plan their next terrorist strikes. In April, a Yemeni national Waleed Mohammed bin Attash and several Pakistanis were caught during various raids in Karachi with more than 600 kilos of explosives. "This place is under siege," says Anwer Mooraj, a Pakistani writer.
Breaking that siege is almost impossible in the face of endemic and systemic corruption. A few sordid examples: in certain colleges, teachers demand payoffs from students wanting to pass exams; some cops earn extra money by selling their bullets; and gangs, operating under the auspices of crooked bureaucrats, police and army-ranger elements, siphon off water before it reaches the taps of most Karachi apartment buildings and sell it in the city from tanker trucks, according to municipal workers. An industrialist who says he refused to bribe health inspectors saw his tiremaking plant shut down when they invoked a little-observed 19th century British law requiring factory walls to be whitewashed. On the Karachi Stock Exchange, insider trading is commonplace and conflict of interest is rife. Some of the exchange's board members are also leading brokers, and they are able to change regulations overnight to bankrupt an outsider trying to deal in a company's shares. Brokers sometimes vanish with their investors' portfolios, and no investor has ever won a case against a crooked dealer.
In the courts, it is common for a defense lawyer to pay off witnesses, the judge and even the prosecutor to obtain a favorable verdict for his client. In the end, some would-be litigants find it is cheaper, and more effective, simply to hire a hit man. "Karachi today," says Tariq Amin, a fashion stylist and prominent social commentator, "is like Chicago in the days of Al Capone mixed in with the Middle Ages."
In other words, it's a dangerous mess. And with terrorism breeding in enclaves across the city, Karachi has the potential to spread its menace not only throughout Pakistan but far beyond its frontiers. Several of the top al-Qaeda agents captured by Pakistani officials and the FBI had holed up in Karachi, and many—maybe even Osama bin Laden himself—may still be lurking there, officials say.
How did Karachi become a megalopolis of mayhem? In 1947, when Britain spilt the Raj into India and Pakistan, modern Karachi, more than any other city, was a by-product of this upheaval. Before partition, its inhabitants included Hindus, Parsis, Muslim traders, Goans, and Sheedis, descendants of African slaves shipped over in chains during the 18th century. An illustration of Karachi's surviving cultural diversity: at a one-room shrine that has more to do with African tribalism than Islam, women flock to see Mushkan, a male Sheedi medium in white, womanly robes. When he goes into a trance, he says he communicates with his jinni in Arabic, Urdu and Swahili. Karachi's demons, it seems, are cosmopolitan.
At partition, most of Karachi's 440,000 population of Hindus had left and were replaced by 1.2 million Mohajirs, or Indian migrants. They had followed the dream of Pakistan's founding father, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, to create a nation for Muslims. But the Mohajirs were in for a rude shock. Many of the local Punjabis, Sindhis and Pathans regarded them as unwanted trespassers. They still do, except nowadays the Mohajirs have earned wary respect by carrying out vicious ethnic warfare in Karachi throughout the early 1990s. The Pathans and the Sindhis retaliated but the Mohajirs matched them murder for murder, operating torture cells. Today Karachi is in the grips of the Mohajir godfather, Altaf Hussain, a fugitive in Britain charged with more than 100 counts of murder, sabotage and arson, who continues to rule the city from afar.
Like so much of Central Asia, contemporary Karachi is also a product of the Soviet Union's 1979 invasion of Afghanistan and the jihad declared by much of the Muslim world in response. To fund their campaign against the Russian occupiers, Afghan warlords used Pakistan as a transshipment point for heroin and Karachi as a major point of export. Paid for in part by those narco-dollars were the vast shipments of small arms and Stinger missiles passing the other way through Karachi before being loaded onto trucks bound for Peshawar and eventually camels headed for Afghanistan's interior. Those drugs and the guns left a toxic residue that would become, for Karachi, a permanent blight.