Extortion rackets squeezing the trigger in target killings

Published: October 23, 2010
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The Shershah market remained closed for two days after the horrific attack on Tuesday. PHOTO: EXPRESS

The Shershah market remained closed for two days after the horrific attack on Tuesday. PHOTO: EXPRESS

KARACHI: After relying solely on conjecture and vague theories of ethno-political warring, the Shershah scrap market incident has provided pivotal insight into the phenomenon of target killings, which have claimed a staggering 1,043 lives from January to September this year. This number does not include the 80-odd deaths in October.

Background interviews with police and market officials by The Express Tribune suggest that the incident, in which a dozen gunmen launched a brazen attack that claimed the lives of 13 innocent men, took place after failed ‘negotiations’  between an extortion group and the Shershah market association.

The negotiations, which took place between a gang that reigns supreme in neighbouring Lyari and the market association’s president, were over the imposition of new extortion rates — which were rejected by the association that was reportedly already frustrated after paying enough to other quarters ruling over neighbouring Baldia.

The meeting ended, somewhat expectedly, with the gang issuing dire threats to the market association’s president. On Tuesday evening, a brazen attack was launched in the market, in which 13 people were killed.

Contrary to some reports, the killings were up close and specific — and not random. More tellingly, of the 13 victims, five were from one family — the family of the secretary-general of the same Shershah market association that had rejected demands for a new extortion regime in one of the biggest scrap markets in the region, with about 8,000 shops.

The secretary-general lost his brother-in-law, two nephews and two grandsons in what was initially called ‘random firing’ by a dozen or so attackers. The FIR lodged on Thursday nominates Lyari gang members led by Baba Ladla, who run their own crippling extortion racket in Lyari, further giving credence to this report.

All of the dead belonged to the Urdu-speaking Karachi-based community, contrary to initial reports that the ethnicities of the deceased were Pakhtun or Baloch.

However, more so than the ethnicity, the interviews suggested that the extortion factor is a defining one for the target killings.

Police officials say that the ethno-political colour given to the killing sprees can be misleading. “Most, if not all, of these hits are based on gang warfare. They revolve around extortion, which is a huge money-making source,” said one high-ranking police official.

The situation eventually boils over to an ethno-political feud, but the causal factors are very much monetary — a battle over extortion to be more precise. Elucidating this point, another officer likened the extortion regimes to “stock markets”. When there is more violence — and major incidents usually take place in and around major markets of the city — it automatically means that the extortion rate goes up manifold in the form of protection money in tense times.

This is more potent when traders are targeted in the garb of target killings, which is often the case when shops and commercial set-ups, such as tea stalls, are attacked. Hardly any of those men killed have proper political affiliations – so it cannot be described as political violence.

Take a case in point. If a single, small shop in, say, Shershah, which has 8,000 shops, pays even Rs100 a day, it amounts to about 800,000 a day — or Rs24 million a month.

In times of violence, where traders fear being targeted on the basis of their identity, the daily money can double, or even more — push the money total past Rs50 million a month.

And that’s from a single market.

There are dozens of such markets in Karachi, which means the stakes are huge, and to the extent to which turf wars can go, even higher.

Moreover, another senior police official argues that it is often in the interests of some smaller pressure groups, or mafias, to jump into, or even set off, ‘target killings.’ They can drive home their point, and then have the blame pinned on groups that are more easily associated with such incidents.

Many murders that are listed as target killings may not be a part of the larger battle that is perceived to be going on. But since the overall scenario provides perfect cover, the crimes go without punishment after political settlements are reached between the major players on the official stage.

In this vein, almost all police officials complain about political interference when it comes to dealing with the target-killing phenomenon. “There are a total of about 400 people that are involved in this,” said one official, adding that it would not even need a large-scale and long-term crackdown, but a swift and hard hit by law-enforcers. But, they simply do not have the go-ahead.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 23rd, 2010.

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Reader Comments (5)

  • Imran A Azeem
    Oct 24, 2010 - 12:03AM

    I am still not sure if Sher Shah event was caused by non settlement of extortion issue than What the hell our law enforcement agencies are doing in protecting civilians. Does extortion now become a legal issue in Karachi, like the Land Grabbing ?

    So the MQM’s claim that most of the people killed unidentified are in a way or other related to something mysterious ( either innocent like in the case of Sher Shah or guilty) and not political.

    & Target Killing is basically a word used to malign political parties of Karachi.

    Need of time is to de-patronize all such criminal elements involved in either land grabbing, drug peddling, arm dealing or extortion by all political sections. Recommend

  • Oct 24, 2010 - 2:18AM

    Why didn’t we see this kind of situation in the MQM’s time? Because the MQM gets votes from Karachi and it is a stakeholder in this city. The police was also under control.

    The PPP has no stake in the city except the loot and plunder until they are kicked out once again because of the corruption and law and order situation.

    This party just does not know what humanity is. This situation WILL NOT improve while the PPP is in government regardless of how may affirmation parroted by PPP’s President Zardari and Interior Minister Malik.Recommend

  • Oct 24, 2010 - 5:33PM

    no one is seriously interested in solving the isue , for obvious reasons. every one is aware of the culprits but nothing is being done to stop them.Recommend

  • Erum
    Oct 25, 2010 - 6:47PM

    excellent article, well researched. thank you!Recommend

  • Ali Khan
    Oct 26, 2010 - 12:14AM

    A very good article indeed.Extortion rackets and turf money is indeed a major part of the piechart denoting violence in Karachi.Obviously there are other factors as well,including political might and will as cited in the end,but all this is suggestive of the fact that these sort of activities are certainly not being dealt properly.The government is either supporting these acts in a cahoot with the likes of ANP,or is entirely incapable of doing anything about it.The facts and figures all point to the same mafia systems again and again,yet nothing is done.What happens in the end is just a show to malign MQM while the others watch and laugh.MQM may not be innocent,and they certainly are’nt,but then who would be if they are underplayed and misrepresented in everything that occurs?
    No wonder,many people have become rich and are bathing in dimes just via the same illegal land,drug,extortion and ransom money in a couple of months.It doesn’t take a genious to workout the equation and fill in the blanks regarding as to who patronizes these sort of pseudo-islamist,interest-heaping money crazed sadistic minds.But then denial has always been our problem backed with ethno-nationalism which always leads to misinterpretations.
    This was indeed a well researched piece of journalism,quite unlike the journalistic shows of anchors sitting in ‘isloo town’ and commenting on karachi target killings without any evidence and presence in midst at all.Target killings are a part of killings in karachi,and ‘target killings’ are a subset of KILLINGS in karachi.There is no denying that!But seriously some people need to learn maths urgently…Recommend

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