Bootlegging business: 111-want-booze

Published: May 15, 2011
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Most bootleggers say business seems to be expanding due to a relatively new breed of customers — the youth.

Most bootleggers say business seems to be expanding due to a relatively new breed of customers — the youth.

It was the fall of 2007 in Lahore. Seven college boys sat in two cars and took off. The drive from Defence to the railway station takes around 45 minutes, given the usual traffic. When they were almost at their destination, one of the boys got a call.

“Imran just got shot. I think it was a police raid. A crackdown.”

The boys were disappointed.

We need the booze — there will be around 60 people coming!” they insisted.

One of them dialled another number in desperation.

“Salu, is your brother okay? We are here. We ordered 12 bottles. What now?”

The boys were pretty sure they wouldn’t be getting their delivery, given the circumstances.

But Salu said, “I’ll call you back.”

Fifteen minutes later, the boys were heading back to their party, bearing the bounty they came looking for.

The story didn’t end the way you thought it would, did it? A bootlegger makes a commitment, and then he gets shot. What are the chances that his previous commitment on the transaction will come through? Bootlegging isn’t an organised business, after all.

But you’ll be surprised at how organised the system of bootlegging is at times. Bootleggers always make use of backups, alternatives and Plan Bs, just like in this case, where the bootleggers didn’t disappoint, and the show went on in full swing.

With the population of Pakistan’s major cities swelling year after year, and coupled with the wealth accumulated in these urban areas, the demand for high-end foreign alcohol is very much in the increase.

And while the consumption of alcohol is by no means restricted to the ‘elite,’ this class finds a way to enjoy the same liquor they can buy abroad, with a little help from their friendly neighbourhood bootleggers.

Pakistan, more specifically the urban centres of Lahore and Karachi, now experience one of the most organised forms of buying and selling alcohol that the country has witnessed in decades. Bootlegging has become a well-structured and lucrative business, drawing more customers in the last couple of years than ever before.

“This profession used to be dangerous and extremely risky. No one wanted to do this for a living. But now it’s good money. And it’s safe,” says Shatir Sikander, a bootlegger in Karachi’s Defence area.

“We have the ‘khancha’ (setting) with the authorities in many areas. As more and more people demand alcohol, the industry automatically finds loopholes in the system,” he continues.

According to some bootleggers, increased demand for alcohol in the last couple of years has enabled the business to withstand crackdowns better, as this underground economy, through the simple methodology of trial and error, has reached a very stable and organised stage.

There are multiple reasons for the controlled and well-thought out spread of this underground industry, which is, of course, illegal in Pakistan.

The business remains lucrative for new entrants, who continue to join the bootlegging profession, because competition is very high. The illegal nature of the business means that it is almost impossible to assume the existence of a formal union or other kind of barrier to entry.

It is also easier to join the field as a ‘small fish’ because that is essentially what everyone is — bootleggers, because of the nature of the business, cannot take advantage of ‘economies of scale’ and grow beyond a certain point. Businesses tend to make profits and reduce costs as they grow in size, but with bootlegging, these basic principles of economics don’t apply. Any increase in the activity of any one bootlegger poses a great threat to his own survival because the industry as a whole still remains candidly vulnerable to crackdowns.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that bootleggers don’t benefit from increased demand.

“First, I used to own a bike. Two years ago I bought a rickshaw. Now I have this Bolan,” says a Lahore-based bootlegger, pointing at his white, second-hand mini van.

Most bootleggers agree that one of the main reasons why business seems to be expanding is due to a relatively new breed of customers — the youth. Previously, consuming alcohol largely remained the domain of the relatively older business class in Pakistan but now young people — perhaps as many foreign graduates return home — are seeking to get their hands on more alcohol, more frequently.

This is something that bootleggers in both Lahore and Karachi have brought up. The common theme that surfaces when I contact both the cities’ bootlegging businesses is the fact that an influx of customers aged between 18 to 25 has increased over the last decade, which has, more or less, transformed a few transactions into an effective business. Most bootleggers agree that in order to cater to the increasing demand, many of them have had to expand their businesses in the most unconventional ways.

In fact, bootleggers have to be more innovative in Lahore, because while wine shops throughout Karachi offer beer, vodka and whiskey produced in local breweries, the bootlegging profession in this city is quite different from the one in Lahore, where all types of alcohol, local or foreign, must be bought through bootleggers.

For this reason, bootleggers have started relying more heavily on technology to help get in touch with customers. Latest additions that cement the network and make it more effective include the use of SMS, Blackberry services and emails to inform clients of the latest prices, brands of alcohol available and any discount offerings.

Organising illegal activities poses many threats though — the first is anonymity. For this purpose, bootlegging still remains a predominantly social activity, closely knit through an intimate network of familiar people. It is unlikely for a bootlegger to cater to your demands if you call him up without a reference or a common friend who introduces you two.

One major change that has brought about a revolution in the alcohol industry and made life easier for bootleggers though, according to Sikander, is bulk buying.

“People in Karachi don’t like to go score one bottle and come back again and buy another one three days later,” he says. “Customers seek convenience and in the last couple of years people have started a new culture of buying in bulk.”

“This makes life easier for both parties involved. Selling in bulk is good for business and buying in bulk is good for the customers. Its saves money on transaction costs and security issues, to levels we had not imagined.”

Bulk buying, for customers and bootleggers alike, has transformed the industry. Bootleggers have started buying vehicles in order to transport the contraband to the houses of customers for safety, and customers enjoy discounts for buying in bulk.

One bootlegger moonlights as a worker in a consulate in Karachi. He tells me that embassies have made buying and selling alcohol relatively simple in recent times.

“Much of the alcohol you see in the city comes from the port under the name of embassies, and from here we can leak it into the city for profit. It is a very organised supply chain management system in progress.”

While multiple reasons may exist, bootlegging continues to be an industry that is becoming more widespread and organised as years go by. A friend tells me about how his bootlegger once came over to deliver the goods to his house in a brand new Range Rover.

He says with a smirk, “You can get anything and everything done here as long as you know the right, or the wrong, people.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, May 15th, 2011.

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Reader Comments (22)

  • usman
    May 16, 2011 - 9:41AM

    why not legalize alchol we will earn revenue as well which is much neededRecommend

  • Bighead
    May 16, 2011 - 8:37PM

    Wow.. People asking for legalizing it. Whered the ‘Islamic republic of Pakistan’ go?Recommend

  • Nadeem Chaudhry
    May 16, 2011 - 8:42PM

    @usman I agree it should be legalized and revenue could be generated and people should be given this choice rather than the state making this decision for the people…..Recommend

  • Zai
    May 16, 2011 - 8:45PM

    why dont we legalise drugs and prostitution as well then?Recommend

  • CB Guy
    May 16, 2011 - 11:17PM

    Is this an article on the industry or an advertisement for bootlegging? It really sounds interesting to an upcoming entrepreneur i ma sure after reading is piece. And those calling for legality should also support legalizing all narcotic drugs since they all kill. otherwise SHOVE IT. Recommend

  • ali
    May 17, 2011 - 2:30AM

    Alcohol is a poison..thats a medical fact..shame on our youth for drinking posion!Recommend

  • Saleem
    May 17, 2011 - 2:45AM

    @zai, not a bad idea, it will help control the crime, earlier prostitution was restricted to the known areas only, e.g Heera mandi, now its every where in every single street.Recommend

  • the Truth
    May 17, 2011 - 8:34AM

    first of all CB Gay, check your facts before you run your fingers. Alcohol is legal in every civilized country and is not the same as narcotics. Secondly, it really is time for the Mullahs to step aside and let Pakistan legalize alcohol and tax it. Religion has no place in government. Pakistan has not found a way to make work in 60 plus years of existence and should probably try it for that reason alone. the Truth hurtsRecommend

  • Ahmad Ali
    May 17, 2011 - 9:09AM

    I fail to understand why can’t we comment with open minds. Legalizing or not legalizing a substance will mostly depend on its demand.
    If alcohol is imported and is even freely open in our parliamentarian’s premises, I honestly do not understand the reason why we cant earn duty from it.
    As for those who simply get “cocky” by the term “legalizing alcohol” fail to understand that it is ALREADY legal to buy and sell alcohol in Pakistan based on your Passport/NIC stating you are a non-muslim.
    Alcohol is imported and duties are paid on shipments, except for those smuggled in for selling to Muslims.
    If you remember the hippie era, alcohol was legal and was abundant in Karachi. Recommend

  • Mir
    May 17, 2011 - 9:29AM

    I think they should legalize everything. Always think would you be sitting at home stuck with a needle full of Heroine? Majority of the people who are useful to the society would not. I do not care about the rest and neither does the productive world. Recommend

  • waqqas iftikhar
    May 17, 2011 - 10:30AM

    Prohibition in the united states essentially ‘created’ the mafia (italian american bootleggers, capone etc)…prohibition never ever works….it was legal to drink in this country in the 60s….since when did people start policing social mores?Recommend

  • aly
    May 17, 2011 - 10:35AM

    you cant compare drugs and prostitution to alcohol thats just being stupid…theyre completely different things! it makes more sense to legalize alcohol…tax it and leave it up to the masses. Dubai and Malaysia are the perfect examples. People will drink if they want…weather it be through a bootlegger or a bar.
    you really cant say pakistan is an Islamic country so no booze…malaysia and dubai are muslim countries as well. and they are doing way better than pak is! so get real and legalize it!Recommend

  • Zulfiqar Haider
    May 17, 2011 - 11:27AM

    Well….legalizing it in Pakistan would be a mess….People here are totally uncivilized…..so combine this with alcohol and you will see worse things on your roads….So it would certainly be a bad idea to legalize this thing….Drugs are different than alcohol……so there is no question in legalizing them….I don’t believe in Pakistan as an Islamic republic…It didn’t have the Islamic word when it was created…Recommend

  • Ihk
    May 17, 2011 - 12:30PM

    I can’t believe you poeple are actually saying this!!! Where have your values gone??
    There is absolutely nothing left for teaching moral values to our younger generation. Shame on all of you.Recommend

  • Disgusted
    May 17, 2011 - 12:46PM

    Totally agree with @usman and @aly. Excellent point both of you.
    Oh and @CB Guy if you are talking about things that kill than why don’t you go around banning the use of cars. If driven irresponsibly don’t they kill as well?
    If you set out rules regarding consumption of alcohol and enforce them there is no reason, as you have put it, “Kill”.
    Also you should know that Pakistan has not always been a dry country. It allowed for the sale and consumption of alcohol for 3 decades after Partition. As far as i can tell Pakistan was perfectly fine during that time.
    As @aly so eloquently put it, stop being stupid.Recommend

  • Fahad Raza
    May 17, 2011 - 2:05PM

    Elite and there lavishness holds no bounds, allow them booze, babes and drugs. We need to get rid of these parasitic rich bugs. Darin them dry of their pleasures and treasures. Booze should be allowed in give Quantity to NON MUSLIMS ONLY. Recommend

  • SAM
    May 17, 2011 - 3:04PM

    Say no to BUDWEISER!Recommend

  • Hmmm
    May 17, 2011 - 3:31PM

    What’s your point dude?Recommend

  • Naveed
    May 17, 2011 - 4:59PM

    the outright ban has saved our society of so many evils which one can only witness in a foreign country. regardless of ours being an Islamic republic or not, we remain a predominantly Muslim nation and our laws should reflect our values. having said that, tourists and foreigners should be allowed to bring controlled amount of liquor inside the country for their personnel use. our tourism badly needs the help.Recommend

  • Ahmad Ali
    May 17, 2011 - 5:18PM

    You know what Naveed, your comment totally disagrees with your own comment.
    First you comment on the evils of alcohol and then you yourself are encouraging it to be available/allowable in the country just so that tourism can be helped.
    So to sum up what you said, it sounds like; “Alcohol is evil for a Muslim country, however, tourist should bring it in”
    If you are using Muslim state as your basis, do you think a Muslim state should allow alcohol even if it is for tourists.
    I wonder why so many of us are hypocrites.Recommend

  • WiZeGuy
    May 17, 2011 - 9:05PM

    @Bighead:
    Wow even more… no body wanted to like your thought!Recommend

  • Zain
    May 28, 2011 - 2:54PM

    Alcohol, and even hashish should be legalized in Pakistan. I know that many would not agree with legalizing the latter substance, but lets take an example of the Netherlands. Both substances are legal there, and it is a peaceful, prosperous country.

    Alcohol can be enjoyed responsibly. If the police is trained to arrest those driving under the influence. Currently, if the police pulls you over, and finds alcohol/drugs in your car, they simply take bribes and let you go. So the government might as well legalize and tax it. Questions of morality and religion should be kept out of issues which are best solved through applying logic.Recommend

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