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Muggings, murders and mob justice: Violent crime roars back in Karachi

Across Karachi, Pakistan’s economic powerhouse, the rate of violent crime has soared. That has created a sense that no place is safe in this metropolis of 20 million people, and led many to worry that the city is returning to its violent, chaotic past.
Last Updated : 12 June 2024, 08:06 IST

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Karachi, Pakistan: The terrifying stories are sprawled across local newspapers and recounted in hushed tones at tea stalls and bus stands: another day, another brutal death during an armed robbery in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city.

Last Wednesday, a car mechanic was shot dead by muggers trying to steal his phone. The day before, robbers in two separate incidents killed a secondhand shoe seller who refused to hand over his phone and a businessman who had just withdrawn cash from a bank. A few days earlier, robbers killed a 27-year-old mechanical engineer, stealing his phone, cash and motorcycle.

Across Karachi, Pakistan’s economic powerhouse, the rate of violent crime has soared. That has created a sense that no place is safe in this metropolis of 20 million people, and led many to worry that the city is returning to its violent, chaotic past. The country’s president, Asif Ali Zardari, has called for a “large-scale operation” against the street criminals.

“The fear of mugging hangs over you every time you step outside,” said Shamim Ali, 43, a factory worker who said he was mugged twice in recent months. “Criminals operate with brazenness in broad daylight.”

The number of reported homicides, extortion attempts and motorcycle thefts has nearly doubled this year compared with the same period last year, according to the government-backed Citizen-Police Liaison Committee. At least 58 people were killed in muggings in the first five months of 2024, nearly double the number in that period in 2023, police records show. Rights activists say the true toll of violent crime is most likely higher, as many victims are hesitant to report cases.

A major driver of the jump in crime, experts and police officials said, is Pakistan’s economic crash, its worst in decades, with soaring debt, widening trade deficits and record inflation. Another contributor: record-breaking floods in 2022 and other natural disasters that have sent tens of thousands of farmers to the city looking for work. Few have found it.

The sense of desperation among the city’s poorest has deepened as the economic collapse and population surge have strained the local government’s already limited capacity to provide basic services like water and sanitation, activists said.

The rising crime is the result of “systemic injustices and the state’s failure to take responsibility,” said Qazi Khizer, vice chair of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. “Decades of neglect to the city have created a pressure cooker ready to explode,” he added.

The despair has breathed new life into the city’s criminal gangs, which have found recruits among the ballooning youth population, police officials said. Some of the muggings-turned-murders have also been linked to militant groups that have resurged elsewhere in the country in recent years, said Raja Umar Khattab, a senior official in the Karachi police’s counterterrorism department.

Ali, the factory worker who has been the victim of two recent muggings, said the latest had happened one day around 9 a.m. at his usual breakfast spot in a lower-income neighborhood. As he was having a cup of tea, four armed robbers barged inside.

“Hand over your phones and wallets, now!” the thieves yelled, warning the patrons not to resist, according to Ali. Within minutes, the robbers had taken valuables from the two dozen people there.

The surge in violence has knocked the city back in time to around a decade ago, when armed wings of political parties, Taliban militants and criminal gangs controlled large swaths of the city, their turf battles frequently spilling out onto the streets. TV news broadcasts were filled with reports of murders each night. Family members checked in with one another every day to make sure they had returned from work alive. Others barely left their homes.

A paramilitary-led operation starting in 2013 to flush out the militants restored order. Murders plummeted from around 3,100 in 2012 to 508 in 2020, according to police data.

Now, though, fear — and outrage — have returned. “The government seems to have abandoned Karachi’s residents to the mercy of robbers,” said Syed Akhtar Hussain, 70. His 38-year-old son, Syed Ali Rehbar, was fatally shot in January by robbers who accosted him while he was delivering food for a ride-hailing app.

One recent afternoon at a bustling tea stall along a main road in Karachi, dozens of taxi drivers, businessmen and university students nursed their steaming cups and chatted beneath shade trees. Nearly everyone kept a wary eye on the street, suspicious that any motorcyclist passing by could be a robber in disguise.

“Before 2014, our worries were ethnic violence and stray bullets from gang wars,” said Muhammad Zaheer, a 33-year-old computer trader. “The security operation brought peace for a few years, but now, the fear is different. Street criminals wouldn’t hesitate to kill if you resist giving up your phone.”

Social media has only added to the collective anxiety. Every day, new videos circulate showing robbers brazenly snatching valuables in broad daylight on busy streets, at restaurants, at traffic lights, at barbershops, even at mosques.

As public anger has risen, political leaders have scrambled for solutions. Officials have floated regulations to control the sale of secondhand phones and motorcycles — items frequently targeted in muggings. The city’s mayor, Murtaza Wahab, has promised to install thousands of surveillance cameras. Others, including the provincial governor and certain political parties and business associations, have called for a more heavy-handed approach, including military intervention and the issuance of firearms licenses so residents can protect themselves.

Last month, Zardari, the country’s president, directed the provincial government to launch an operation against street criminals in Karachi, but no such action has begun. Experts warn that a crackdown could exacerbate the problem.

“Historically, pressure on police to deliver quick results leads to violent, coercive practices like staged encounter killings, custodial torture, arbitrary detentions and shoot-to-kill policies,” said Zoha Waseem, a Pakistani policing expert at the University of Warwick in Britain. “A policing response is not a long-term solution,” she added.

Public trust in the police — already frayed by years of corruption and inefficiency — has plummeted after scores of officers were implicated in street crimes. In January alone, more than 55 Karachi police officers faced suspensions over suspicions that they had been involved in criminal groups or taken kickbacks from them.

Some residents are taking matters into their own hands, leading to a worrisome rise in vigilante justice.

Last Wednesday, a mob, enraged by a robbery, chased down two fleeing men, killing one and injuring the other. The day before, a mob lynched another man suspected of robbery. Three days before that, the police narrowly saved three robbery suspects from a lynching.

“Simmering public frustration is dangerously normalizing mob violence,” said Muhammad Nafees, an expert on crime and violence associated with the Islamabad-based Center for Research and Security Studies. “These mobs deliver punishment based on mere suspicion, putting both the innocent and the guilty at risk.”

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Published 12 June 2024, 08:06 IST

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