From the Archives: Gun Runners of Karachi
While the traditional source of the guns coming to Karachi has never been a secret, the gun-runners have always remained elusive, shadowy figures. Contrary to popular belief, however, there is no mafia at work. Big-time gun-runners who talked in terms of truckloads have become a thing of the past. In the last year, the business has been taken over by a new breed of independent underground entrepreneurs – students and political activists patronised by political parties who maintain what one student terms the ‘minimum safety distance.’
These boys have not only taken over the local distribution network, but also bring in their own supplies through regular visits to the tribal areas. They travel in small groups, always by train, and return to Karachi with their bags brimming with metal. “One Kalashnikov and two TTs are as easy to bring as dry fruit from Peshawar,” boasts a student who has done it. “Now if five people are travelling, and remember, not all of them keep to a limit of one and two… make your own calculations.”
Police officials maintain that this type of traffic is almost impossible to check. “How many trains come from Peshawar to Karachi daily? How many people travel in them?” Little wonder, then, that over the last three years the prices of guns have gone down by forty to fifty percent. The IT pistol, which is considered a beginner’s weapon in Karachi’s arms bazaar, was priced at Rs5500 in 1987. Today it sells for Rs 3000.
Manufacturers and traders from Dacca have also evolved new strategies to win back their share of the market. Like modern-day marketeers, they frequently visit Karachi, thus eliminating the local middleman. Now, the Peshawar-Karachi route involves only three parties: the manufacturer in Darra, the transporter and the local distributor. The visitor from Darra recruits local distributors through his contacts in Karachi, mostly Pakhtun students. The order is booked, and no advance payment required. Payment is made after the guns have been sold in the local market.
The most curious character in the whole network is the transporter. The shipments handed over to him in the tribal area are his responsibility till he delivers the goods to the doorstep of the person who has booked the order. “Our merchandise is insured,” explains a local gun-runner. “If the transporter can’t make his delivery, which is rare, he pays the damages.”
The local distributors themselves have a loose, informal kind of network.
As soon as an order is booked, they drop the word (‘Saman aa raha hey’) to the area party chief, who asks his boys to arrange for funds to pay for the shipment. This is done through a spree of robberies, car snatching and, if even that doesn’t raise the required amount, the party puts in the rest.
An interesting dimension of the arms trade is that ethnic prejudices are set aside while striking a deal. In the past, the role of the middleman was played mostly by Punjabis in transactions between Pathans and mohajirs in Sindh. With the elimination of the middleman, mohajirs are dealing directly with Pathans, and they seem to have developed a remarkable rapport. A mohajir activist, describing his first experience with a Pathan manufacturer, says, “I was apprehensive at first. I asked him what would happen if he went back on the deal, saying that we were killing his Pathan brothers with his guns. And he said, ‘Tum kaisa Muslman hai? Hum ney Pathan ko khana hai?Hamain roti chahiey.• (What kind of a Muslim are you? I can’t eat Pathans. I need my bread)
Another student reveals that members of feuding student organisations freely trade guns with each other. In fact, APMSO began building its armoury by buying arms from the jamiat and the NSF. ‘The arms bazaar is a free market,’ comments a student.
The latest trend in this free market is the barter system: guns for cars. Speculation that stolen cars were being traded for guns had existed for some time, and was confirmed by a recent CIA raid on a guns-for-cars racket in Bhangoria goth.
The system works like this: a car is stolen or snatched at gun-point and driven down to one of the many goths surrounding the RCD highway at the entry point to Karachi. There the car is handed over to the other party. The guns that will be given in barter can be collected after three days. The number of guns a car fetches depends on the make, model and condition of the car. In the Bhangoria raid, a Pajero jeep which was recovered had been traded for three Kalashnikovs.
The Quetta-Karachi route is the favoured one for barter trade. “It is shorter, safer and there are far less checkposts than on the Peshawar-Karachi route, which means that the amount of bribes you have to give along the way is less,” says a CIA official.
A kachha detour has been discovered recently along the Karachi-Quetta route near the main checkpost, Mochka Choki. “All the indications are that this route has been operative for a long time, admits a police officer.”
The cars are taken to district Lasbela in Baluchistan, which runs its own free market of fake registration papers. With new number plates and new registration papers, these automobiles are handed over to showrooms in Quetta, where buyers from all parts of the country come to do cut-price vehicle-shopping. The buyers are told that these vehicles have been smuggled in from Iran.
“We have no way of knowing how long this has been going on,” says a police officer. “But in the past few months, the number of cars being stolen has increased alarmingly and the number of cars being recovered has fallen suddenly. “That can mean only one thing: that these cars were being taken out of town. The knowledge that these cars are being traded for guns is not going to help much. In the Bhangoria goth raid we traced two waderas who were behind the racket. But from the day we put them behind bars, we have been receiving frantic calls from certain politicians in power to let them go.” The irony of the situation, according to the police, is that while the buyers in this particular case were MQM boys, the gun-runners had close links with the PPP.
The profits involved in the Quetta-Karachi operations are far too attractive for those in the trade to resist. An original Russian Kalashnikov which is available in Quetta for just ten thousand rupees can sometimes be traded for a brand new 1000 cc car from Karachi. And for the boy in Karachi who needs that gun, it’s a one-hour job to get a car.
A police officer sums up the situation with wry cynicism: ‘Their leaders told them to sell their TVs and buy guns. They have just gone one step further. They are selling other people’s TVs and buying guns.”
It’s a product of Cast iron and desperation. When the arms race began in Karachi following the bloodbath in Aligarh and Qasba colonies, Karachi’s gun-runners had little to offer in response to the market’s frantic demand. As a result, prices shot up. Not everyone could afford to spend six thousand rupees on a pistol.
Fired by the desperate demand for weapons, some enterprising underground entrepreneurs in Orangi set up their own small furnaces. Within days an Orangi-made carbine was selling for a mere one hundred and fifty rupees.
This home-made contraption uses a piece of domestic metal waterpipe for its barrel, a pipe joint as a one-bullet magazine and takes lisboll from the door: a sharpened version of the common doorbolt was used to trigger the bullet. The news spread like wildfire and people came from as far as Hyderabad 10 buy these carbines in bulk. Its range was short and its sigh Highly inaccurate, but it made a real loud blast and came very very cheap. It also had a tendency to burst in the hands of the users, owing to the low quality of the iron pipe, which was meant to hold water, not bullets. Nonetheless, it proved as dangerous for the man in front as the one behind it. Later more sophisticated versions were prepared, with added luxuries such as triggers and proper handgrips.
With the success of their first product the Orangi entrepreneurs took up more ambitious ventures, Pipe bomb-making became a household industry. This process was again very simple: a Sui Gas pipe filled with gunpowder. Meanwhile, the whiz kids of Lalukhet took petrol bomb-making10 such proportions that the administration issued a notice to petrol pumps to stop the sale of petrol to anyone without a vehicle.
But the ultimate in local arms production is perhaps the use of electronic poles as rocket launchers. Poles suddenly began disappearing about two years ago. Rumours spread that some Bihari boys had found a way to convert them into long-range guns. Some dismiss this as mere rumour – but there are others who swear by the names they have seen coming out of these poles.
This article was originally published in the October 1989 issue of Newsline.
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