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In Pakistan underworld, a cop is said to be a king

Saturday - 3/30/2013, 10:42am  ET

In this Wednesday, March 20, 2013, photo, Pakistani men play cards in a field in a neighborhood on the outskirts of Islamabad, Pakistan. For months, the Supreme Court's Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry has been leading special hearings on Karachi's crime, berating the city's top police officers for failing to act. The past week, he demanded they move in to clean up so-called “no-go” areas _ entire neighborhoods where police fear to tread _ according to local press reports. (AP Photo/Nathalie Bardou)

SEBASTIAN ABBOT
Associated Press

KARACHI, Pakistan (AP) -- A corrupt, low-level cop with a healthy dose of street smarts rises to control hundreds of illegal gambling dens in Pakistan's largest city. By doling out millions of dollars in illicit proceeds, he protects his empire and becomes one of the most powerful people in Karachi.

The allegations against Mohammed Waseem Ahmed -- or Waseem "Beater" as he is more commonly known -- emerged recently from surprise testimony by a top police commander before a crusading anti-crime Supreme Court judge. The story has given a rare and colorful glimpse into the vast underworld in Karachi, a chaotic metropolis of 18 million people on Pakistan's southern coast.

The sprawling city has become notorious for violence, from gangland-style killings and kidnappings to militant bombings and sectarian slayings. Further worrying authorities have been signs that the Pakistani Taliban are using the chaos to gain a greater foothold in the city.

For months, the Supreme Court's Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry has been leading special hearings on Karachi's crime, berating the city's top police officers for failing to act. This past week, he demanded they move in to clean up so-called "no-go" areas -- entire neighborhoods where police fear to tread -- according to local press reports.

Further fueling the problem is rampant police corruption, undermining efforts to combat the city's violent gangs and extremists. Among the public, the police nationwide are seen as the country's most crooked public sector organization, a high bar given claims of pervasive corruption throughout the government.

The allegations surrounding Ahmed further fuel questions about the overlap between Karachi's underworld and its police forces. After the testimony to the Supreme Court earlier this year, police officials in Karachi provided The Associated Press with additional details over his reported rise.

The AP made repeated attempts to contact Ahmed, who has been removed from the force and fled to Dubai, but was not successful.

Ahmed came from a poor family in Karachi's old city and joined the police force in the 1990s. He soon started working as a "beater," a low-level thug who works for more senior cops to collect a cut from illegal activities in their area, such as gambling, prostitution and drug dealing, said half a dozen police officers who knew him personally at the time. They all spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.

Ahmed, who sports a bushy black mustache and usually dresses in a simple, white shalwar kameez, earned a reputation for carrying out his illicit work efficiently, said two police officers who have known him ever since he joined the force. That reputation helped him forge relationships with more senior figures, and eventually he was collecting money for some of the top police officers and civilian security officials in Karachi, they said.

The heavyset 40-year-old also attracted the attention of a local boss who controlled the largest concentration of illegal gambling dens in Karachi, located in the city's rough and tumble Ghas Mandi area, where Ahmed worked, said the policemen and a local journalist. The two teamed up to expand their gambling empire to other parts of Karachi and surrounding Sindh province.

Gambling was not always illegal in Pakistan, a nation of 180 million people that gained independence from Britain in 1947 as a sanctuary for Muslims who did not believe they could thrive as part of what is now India, a majority Hindu state. Despite the religious undertones of Pakistan's founding, the country's major cities, such as Karachi and Lahore, were relatively liberal places in the first few decades after independence. Alcohol flowed freely in nightclubs filled with dancing girls.

But in 1977, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto banned gambling and alcohol for Muslims in an attempt to appease Islamic hard-liners. Drinking and gambling, which are forbidden in Islam, didn't stop, but much of it was driven underground.

The gambling dens in Ghas Mandi are hidden behind nondescript facades down dark alleyways with tangled electrical wires hanging overhead in one of the oldest and densest populated parts of Karachi.

In one den, a dozen men dressed in shalwar kameez sat in a semicircle on the floor playing a local card game, mang patta, beneath bare bulbs hanging from the ceiling. The men sipped tea and tossed 100 rupee ($1) poker chips at the dealer.

In an adjacent room, a handful of men played chakka, a game that involved guessing the numbers that would appear when the dealer rolled three dice out of what looked like an old leather Yahtzee cup. Rupee notes were placed on a table as bets and held in place by a large metal washer. Everyone stopped their games when the Muslim call to prayer came over a loudspeaker from a nearby mosque -- and they promptly resumed the dice and cards once the prayer ended.

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