KARACHI, Pakistan: Days before he was killed in a drive-by shooting in Karachi, one of Pakistan’s most feared men said he would rather see the city in ruin than give up control over his turf in the country’s volatile commercial capital.
Zafar Baloch, a notorious figure wielding enormous power in Karachi, was killed by a group of gunmen on motorbikes overnight in an attack that sent shock waves through the sprawling port city that represents a quarter of Pakistan’s economy.
In a rare interview on Sept. 5, Baloch, 46, spoke extensively about the psychology of gangland violence, offering a rare glimpse into the dark world of turf wars and extortion in Pakistan’s troubled and ethnically diverse second city.
Speaking to Reuters in Lyari, one of Karachi’s most dangerous neighborhoods, he said he would not leave his turf despite continuous raids by police and attacks by rival gangs.
“I once had 13 police raids in one day. I have bullet and grenade wounds in my leg,” he said. “Thieves run away. I’ll never run away from Lyari.”
A city of 18 million people, Karachi is home to Pakistan’s main port, stock exchange and central bank. And yet it is one of the most violent places in the South Asian nation, torn apart by ethnic, political and sectarian tensions and gangland rivalries.
Explosions and killings occur daily as political and militant groups battle for control with the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, the city’s dominant political party.
Karachi makes up 25 percent of Pakistan’s economy and presents a major challenge to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif as he tries to bring law and order to the chaotic financial hub.
In Lyari, a dense network of slums housing over a million people, criminal gangs operate freely, exerting total control over businesses and residents. Police almost never enter the neighborhood without permission from Baloch’s men.
Streets are busy, teeming with people and cars. Buildings and lampposts are adorned with posters of Baloch and his allies.
Speaking to Reuters at a local football club, Baloch compared Karachi to a cake which attracted too many takers.
“Right now we are sitting across the table watching the MQM eat the whole cake,” Baloch said. “If this goes on, we will either ruin the cake for everyone or get our slice.”
A large and burly man, Baloch narrowly survived a grenade attack in 2011 and still had a cast on one leg when Reuters saw him. He walked with a walking cane until the day he was killed.
Lyari’s economically strategic location – enclosed on one side by the port and on the other by the city’s biggest industrial area – has made it a hub for drug barons, extortion and violent crime.
As many as 1,726 people were killed in Karachi in the first six months of this year, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.
Mainstream political parties are accused of running armed groups that have carved up the city along ethnic lines into spheres of influence – a charge politicians deny.
Baloch saw the MQM, backed by Karachi’s Urdu-speaking community that returned after partition from India, as his main rival.
“The problem is that the MQM thinks it has the biggest stake in Karachi,” Baloch told Reuters. “Until the MQM learns to share, there will always be chaos.”
And yet he spoke passionately about Karachi, a city where had earned both fear and respect.
“ Karachi was born out of Lyari. It comes from right here. The people of Lyari gave birth to this city. How can we let it die?” he said. “Lyari is just a good town with a bad reputation. But its people will never let Karachi die.”