Firstly, this is a little belated, but thanks for reading and subscribing to the Election Watch newsletter earlier this year. And now that the dust has settled, the issues that dominated the election – and those that lurked in the background – have exploded again, from the security situation in Karachi, to the rise of militant networks countrywide, and the threat to internet freedom in Pakistan. While I’ve been reporting for the past few months on these, am incredibly excited to be joining Beacon, a great new venture that supports journalists. I hope you’ll consider supporting my work – and you’ll also get access to the entire roster of great writers who are on board.
My first story on Beacon is on the gang violence in Lyari, one of Karachi’s oldest districts, and the death of Zafar Baloch, the political head of the area’s most powerful criminal syndicate. Here’s an excerpt, and to read the full story – and access to my future work, which will include longer reportage pieces and asides from Pakistan – do consider contributing.
Karachi: The Mafioso on Speed Dial
Losing contacts to violence is a part of life as a journalist covering crime in Karachi. Zafar Baloch was the political head of Karachi’s most prominent criminal syndicate but couldn’t escape death, despite heavy protection.
I get a lot of news alerts on my cell phone. Hospital staffers complaining the electricity supply has been turned off. Police officers complaining about corruption. Fifteen people dead at the end of the day, nameless, faceless victims. As the death toll from the violence in Karachi – ethnic, sectarian, political, religious, gang rivalries, you name it, this city has it – has killed thousands, I’ve ended up losing a third of the contacts in my phone book.
Last month, I was leaving a dinner and checked my phone. Zafar Baloch, the self-styled political head of Karachi’s most prominent criminal syndicate, the Peoples Amn Committee (People’s Peace Committee), had been killed. After an hour of frantic phone calls, someone finally confirmed that he was dead. The next day, there were a handful of hastily written obituaries in the newspaper. I was surprised, initially, that there were so few. After all, so many Karachi-based journalists – including myself – had covered the criminal syndicate extensively. We all knew Zafar, had had tea with Zafar, and perhaps received a veiled – or not-so-veiled threat – about our reportage. We had all, at some point, taken a foreign journalist to see Zafar and waited patiently as Zafar bemusedly answered their questions about crime in the city.
It wasn’t like I set out to have a mafia representative on my list of contacts. Getting to know Zafar Baloch wasn’t an option. It was kind of a necessity. To get into the syndicate’s turf of Lyari - one of the city’s oldest districts crammed with crumbling houses and badly planned apartment buildings – one didn’t need a gun, a disguise, a bulletproof car or a fixer. Getting into Lyari required street cred: someone from the syndicate to recognize your name...