Herald Exclusive: African connection

Updated 08 Apr 2014


Ever heard of a human being made captive as collateral in a business deal? In legal business practices, of course, a large number of financial instruments are available to secure investment and ensure that monetary transactions take place smoothly. The shady world of drug smuggling, however, involves no paperwork. Whole transactions, sometimes worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, have to be carried out through verbal commitments. In cases where it is impossible to establish mutual trust between the parties involved in a smuggling transaction, using human hostages to ensure that deals are kept has become quite common, at least among smugglers operating through Balochistan’s Makran coast.

Muffar Banda, serving a prison term in Balochistan’s coastal town of Gadani, was one such hostage before he escaped from captivity from a house in Gwadar, a few months ago. A native of Zambia’s capital Lusaka, he landed in Karachi via Johannesburg on September 22, 2013, on a business visa. One Farhad received him at Karachi’s Jinnah International Airport and took him to a rest house in the city. From there, he was driven to Gwadar by car. “On reaching Gwadar, I was kept in a house where some other people from South Africa, Ghana and Tanzania were also staying,” Banda told the police.

He also claimed in his statement to the police that he was not aware that he was travelling to Pakistan as part of a smuggling transaction. He said his brother-in-law had offered him the chance to become a working partner in his business, and that the first assignment was to travel to Pakistan. Until reaching Gwadar, he said, he was not aware of the nature of the business he had supposedly become a partner in. It was in Gwadar that “Farhad told me that I am part of a drug deal,” Banda revealed to the police. He also told them that 50 kilogrammes of drugs were being sent to his brother- in-law, and that he had to live in Gwadar until his brother-in-law paid for them.

To Banda’s misfortune, his brother-in-law soon stopped making payments to Farhad, who put Banda in fetters and tortured him severely. “On many occasions, Farhad contacted my brother-in-law [and put me on the phone] to tell him to make the payments. Otherwise, he would keep on torturing me,” Banda told the police in his statement.

Amiri Abdu Msyua, however, knew well what he was landing in when he flew into Karachi on April 9, 2013. He was running a shop selling small cars, laptops and television sets in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, when his friend Yahya Chando asked him to travel to Pakistan and stay there for three months as a security bond. He knew Chando was involved in drug smuggling. Msyua was received at the Karachi airport by Farhad and was brought to Gwadar by one Haji Rasheed by car, on April 23, 2013. He was kept in the same house where Banda later landed.

Unlike Banda, as soon as Msyua arrived in Gwadar, his captors put him in chains. Chando told him on the phone, that he had purchased drugs worth 650,000 US dollars, and that Msyua had to live in Pakistan until he had made the full payment. After paying 285,000 dollars, however, Chando similarly stopped making payments and Msyua’s captors started torturing him daily. “One day, they burnt my buttocks and legs with a hot iron rod,” Msyua told the police.

 Five former African captives in chains stand in a police station Turbat. —File Photo
Five former African captives in chains stand in a police station Turbat. —File Photo

One December 3, 2013, Msyua and Banda managed to escape from the house. They located a police constable and sought help for their return to their home countries as well as the recovery of other African nationals being kept hostage in the same house they had stayed in.

The police soon raided the house in the New Town neighbourhood of Gwadar and recovered a Zimbabwean, Nicolas Olland, a Ghanaian, Kelvin Kwaku and a Tanzanian, Saif Shaban. The police also arrested their three captors — Abdul Hameed, Naveed and Anwer — all Iranian nationals, according to the police. Banda later told the police that none of those held hostage in the house were ever allowed to go outside. Several guards were assigned to keep an eye on them, he said in his statement.

In two separate raids later, the police and the Frontier Constabulary (FC) recovered four Tanzanians, three Nigerians as well as Yemeni nationals from Turbat, the administrative centre of Balochistan’s Kech district, in February and March of 2014. Their captors, according to police, were also Iranian nationals. Some of these captors were also arrested in the raids.

All the African nationals recovered from Gwadar and Turbat have almost the same personal story — of travelling to Karachi on a business or visit visa and knowingly or unknowingly becoming human pawns in high-stakes smuggling deals. The captives are originally meant to stay in Pakistan for two to three months but, in most cases, they have been here for much longer because of cash flow problems from their home countries to Pakistan.

Legal (in)action

Such hostage-holding, according to local sources in Gwadar and Turbat, has been going on for more than a decade. In one indirect indication of this trend, a United Nations report on drug trafficking released in 2013 said that the seizure of heroin has risen sharply in Africa, especially in East Africa, since 2009. In the East African region, the seizures increased as much as ten times during the last five years, the report revealed.

But the involvement of East African hostages in smuggling operations in Balochistan has only recently attracted the attention of law enforcement agencies — that, too, after some of the captives managed to flee and narrated to the police horrifying details of the treatment meted out to them by their captors. So far, the authorities have done little beyond arresting the hostages as well as their captors for crimes unrelated to smuggling. Pervez Khan Umrani, district police officer in Gwadar, tells the Herald that the police cannot prosecute the African nationals for links with drug trafficking. “Since no drugs are recovered from them, the police cannot register cases of drug trafficking against these foreigners or even their captors,” he says.

Umrani says the captors are booked and prosecuted for crimes such as kidnapping and kidnapping for ransom and the foreigners are handed over to the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) for further action under immigration laws. Since their travel documents such as passports and visas are genuine, he says, they are only tried for crimes like overstaying and being present in areas where they are not allowed to go. Foreigners are not generally issued visas for travel to Balochistan and their visas also expire during their captivity, he adds.

The arrested captors also do not prove helpful in tracing the smugglers behind the entire affair. Those who receive the African nationals at the airport in Karachi, those who escort them to different parts of the Makran coast and those who guard them during their captivity are all different people with next to no regular interaction among them. “This makes it almost impossible to reach the real culprits,” says Umrani.

He also tells the Herald that the police in Pakistan routinely write to Interpol to nab those receiving drugs in African countries from Pakistan and who send human hostages as collateral for payment. “We are writing to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Islamabad, recommending that Pakistani embassies in Africa should do thorough background checks before issuing visas for travel to Pakistan. We are also writing to the federal interior ministry, suggesting that it mention all those activities that the foreigners have been carrying out during their stay in Pakistan,” Umrani says, suggesting that the two steps, together, may prove to be some kind of deterrence against the practice of involving human hostages in drug smuggling deals.

Waqas Ahmed, the deputy director of the Anti-Narcotics Force (ANF) in Gwadar, also highlights the hurdles of tracing the smuggling rackets through the hostages and their captors. “The ANF has the authority to interrogate any individuals found to be in possession of narcotics or involved in their trafficking,” he tells the Herald. Since no evidence is available that directly or indirectly connects the foreigners or even their captors to drugs trafficking, the police do not hand them over to the ANF, he says.

Once in the FIA’s custody, the African nationals are presented before a court where they promptly plead guilty to violating their visa restrictions. These offenses land them jail terms and fines but these are much less severe than what they would have received if they were found guilty of drug smuggling. Once convicted and punished, they are sent to Gadani prison in Lasbela district to serve their jail terms.

When the Herald approaches foreigners imprisoned in Gadani, they deny that they were ever in the custody of drug traffickers. A prison official later explains that the denials stem from their fear that they may be tried for smuggling drugs once they reach their home countries. Representatives of the embassies of the countries these foreigners belong to often visit them in prison in order to arrange their journey back home, the official says. Since documents pertaining to their trials and conviction do not include their original statements made to the police, the representatives of the embassies never come to know their real stories. This saves them from prosecution for smuggling upon their return home, the official explains.

Identity crisis

For most people in many parts of Pakistan, it may appear strange that people of African origin can travel to Balochistan and stay there without being spotted. Their physical appearance must make them stand out among the local ethnic Baloch population. But a large number of people who have been residing in the coastal regions of Balochistan for centuries are, indeed, of African origin. Dr Hafeez Jamali, a scholar of social anthropology who works as the director of the Balochistan Archives Department, says the coastal belt of Makran has historical trade relations with East Africa that go back to the eighth century AD. “During the 18th and 19th centuries when Gwadar and its adjoining coastal areas were a part of the Omani kingdom, East Africans were brought here in ships and sold as slaves. The descendants of those slaves still live in the region, though over time they have merged with Baloch society and culture,” says Jamali. They are called Makranis in local parlance. It is impossible to differentiate between these slave descendents and those coming from the East African countries as hostages, he adds.

 Two captors behind bars in Gwadar. — File Photo
Two captors behind bars in Gwadar. — File Photo

Umrani agrees. Even if these foreigners were spotted, their captors can easily pass them off as local Makranis and nobody would suspect anything strange, he says.

Linking threads

Another ethnic connection also comes in handy for the drug smugglers operating in the coastal regions of Makran.

Baloch smuggling groups, based both in Iran and Pakistan, are the main conduits of two-way drug trafficking among places like Karachi, Gwadar, Turbat and Iranian territories such as Kerman, before their eventual shipment to Africa. They are also convenient chaperones for transporting the East African hostages from Karachi to places like Gwadar and Turbat without being seen as suspicious outsiders. They also serve as captors and guards.

Though the police claim that the arrested captors are generally Iranian nationals, in most cases they are dual nationals of Pakistan as well. “In every bus travelling from Turbat and Gwadar to Karachi you can spot a couple of families who actually belong to Iran but also have relatives and homes in Baloch-dominated localities in Karachi such as Lyari and Malir,” says a local source in Gwadar, suggesting that a lot of drugs travel through these human carriers.

Statements that the African nationals make to police, read along with interviews with local sources in Gwadar and Turbat, as well as with the officials of law enforcement agencies, throw up an uncomplicated modus operandi. Drug smugglers, mostly having dual citizenship of Iran and Pakistan, contact purchasers in different regions in Africa, particularly in East Africa. Through a third party, the two sides reach a deal, either on the phone or in a meeting held outside Pakistan. This, then, leads to the shipment of drugs to Africa and the travel of hostage guarantors to Pakistan.

These links, indeed, have been well-documented in a number of international reports on drug smuggling.

In its 2011 report, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) specifically mentioned that, besides smuggling through official ports, a significant volume of drugs is trafficked by sea from Balochistan through various unofficial ports operating along the Makran coast. The report mentioned Ormara, Talar, Hingol, Peshukan, Sur Bander and Jiwani as key points for the transfer of drugs to destinations abroad. It also identified Kund Malir in Lasbela and Jiwani in Gwadar as the most vital unofficial natural jetties used by drug traffickers. The report also claimed that drugs originating from places such as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) and travelling through Balochistan ended up in warehouses along the Makran coast before being shipped abroad.

The same UN agency reported in 2013 that both East and West Africa were gaining prominence as routes for maritime drug trafficking. The agency identified a new route for drug trafficking going southwards from Afghanistan via ports in Iran and Pakistan and increasingly being used by traffickers to reach consumer markets through East African and West African ports. The report also showed that narcotics smuggling to African countries through maritime means from the coastal areas of Iran and Pakistan had increased during the past five years.

If these trends continue, authorities in Pakistan should brace themselves for many more hostage guarantors landing in Balochistan in the coming months and years.