Karachi’s criminal enterprises: Cogs in the wheel

There’s nothing ‘petty’ about theft; motorbike, car and mobile phone snatching in Pakistan’s biggest city are part of a
Published March 29, 2015

Cogs in the wheel

Vehicular theft is a billion rupee industry that brings together criminal gangs and purchasers from across the country.

By A B Siddiqi

Baba Mithal Abro’s Thursdays for the past 40 years were spent outside Madni Masjid in Karachi’s F.B. Area. Many would look at the 80-year-old man, at his wrinkled face and flowing white beard, and assume he possessed some kind of saintliness. The old man must have giggled to himself countless times: he was never there to pray, he was always there to steal a motorbike, and he did it without arousing any suspicion. Once he had obtained his target, he would drive the stolen motorbike straight to Hub or a town nearby Karachi.

Mithal’s arrests always confounded officers and judges. Most would chuck his case out in disbelief, blaming sloppy investigations and crooked cops for having booked an innocent old man. His fate was only sealed after he stole a court clerk’s motorbike from inside court premises, and was caught on camera doing so. A shocked judge had no other option but to convict him.

Baba Mithal Abro, 80, spent 40 years stealing motorcycles.
Baba Mithal Abro, 80, spent 40 years stealing motorcycles.

But men like Mithal are just small cogs of a gigantic criminal enterprise: vehicular theft.

Described by police officials as a “billion-rupee” black market, the economy of vehicular theft in Karachi brings together large purchasers, criminal gangs, the black spare parts market and errant government officials. Given the size of the city and the volume of vehicular traffic, there is neither a shortage of demand nor of supply.

Motorbike spare part markets that burgeoned in many parts of Karachi now source their products from those who have already dismantled stolen motorbikes and are selling their parts. Whereas once these markets would sell smuggled merchandise, the product now is very local.

“All spare parts of a motorcycle, such as carburettors, tanks, handles, wiring, etc. are sold as ‘Kabuli spare parts’ — a commonly used term for smuggled spare parts. Anyone can get these parts at 50-60 per cent less than the market rate,” explains Anti Car Lifting Cell (ACLC) chief SSP Irfan Bahadur.

The senior police official names motorbike spare part markets located in Shershah, Gulistan-i-Johar, Water Pump, North Nazimabad, Shahrah-i-Nur Jehan, Shafiq Mor in New Karachi, and UP Mor in North Karachi as among those that trade in stolen merchandise.

Car thefts too show similar dynamics when it comes to being sold in black, but in comparison with motorcycles, the incidence of theft has dropped from 4,454 in 2013 to 3,867 in 2014; up till March 2015, 514 cars have been stolen and snatched. “This year, we have achieved a 14-year record low for car thefts in Karachi. Today, only six cars are being stolen per day as compared to the record of 11 per day,” claims SSP Bahadur.

The economy of vehicular theft has its hub in Karachi, but is by no means restricted to the provincial capital of Sindh; its tentacles extend to the rest of the province and beyond.

There are 36 exit and entry points to and from Karachi, from where anyone can pass through unchecked. Some of these routes are established roads while others are kutcha tracks that lead to major markets of stolen vehicles in Balochistan, Sindh and Lower Punjab.

Many of the same routes are used to bring smuggled fuel to Karachi, while weapon and drug smugglers are also said to use them, undeterred and unchecked.

Vehicle recycling

Material seized by gangs busted by the ACLC often includes fake number plates and ownership papers.
Material seized by gangs busted by the ACLC often includes fake number plates and ownership papers.
Motorbikes are the lifeline of the middle class in Karachi, with 2.5 million registered motorbikes serving office-goers and students of the megapolis. Reasonably priced and easy to maintain, motorbikes are affordable private transport options in a city that has scanty public transport, and where average workplace-to-home distances can run up to 20km or more.

A local motorbike industry in Pakistan had been catering to an increasing domestic demand for motorcycles, but in 2011, Chinese motorbikes entered the market and drove prices down. At a starting price of around Rs40,000, Chinese motorbikes managed to bag the lion’s share in the market.

But there was another side to the coin: motorbike thieves began preferring Chinese models and makes.

According to figures compiled by the ACLC, nearly 5,732 Super Power 70cc bikes were taken away in 2014, followed by 4,754 Unique 70cc, and 2,924 Honda 70cc bikes. This totals to a staggering 80 motorcycles stolen every day in Karachi during the last year.

In terms of a larger trend, the Super Power 70cc, Unique 70cc, and Honda 70cc bikes are the top three in the list of top 15 motorbike makes that are frequently stolen.

In cases where an entire gang of motorcycle thieves is at work, police officials explain, each person has an assigned job and receives remuneration accordingly. Only one or two people are designated to snatch or steal a bike and escape; they usually earn Rs5,000 to Rs10,000 per bike, depending on the make and condition of the stolen two-wheeler.

The bike is then handed over to a “carrier,” who gets Rs1,000 or so to take the motorbike to the “purchaser” in smaller parts of Sindh (such as Dadu and Jacobabad) or in Balochistan (Hub, Sibi and Zhob).

“A motorbike that sells for Rs40,000 gets sold at half that price in remote areas There is a large demand for this commodity but little police machinery to check and pursue,” says Inspector Ishtiaq Ghori of the ACLC.

Another part of the same gang is tasked with forging duplicate (ownership) papers, allegedly with the help of errant excise department officials. Most gangs maintain a group of technicians, who remove the original chassis number, and engrave or punch another one manually.

“The original numbers punched by the motorcycle manufacturing company are done by using sophisticated machinery, while the robbers do it by hand with a hammer and nail. The difference can be made out in a forensic laboratory or can be detected by a trained eye, but a cop conducting snap checking cannot tell the difference,” maintains Inspector Ghori.

Because such operations are so extensive, stolen motorbikes are also easily put to another use in Karachi. “Many stolen motorbikes are being used in Qinqis (Chinese rickshaws plying on city roads),” claims Citizens-Police Liaison Committee (CPLC) chief Ahmad Chinoy.

Another factor related to motorcycle theft is juvenile delinquency, says Inspector Ishtiaq Ghori. “Youngsters tend to steal motorbikes for recreation; they abandon their joy ride once they run out of fuel,” he says.

In comparison, stealing a car is a more complex and risky proposition. Stolen cars are taken to upper Sindh and lower Punjab, with a snatcher receiving Rs200,000 per car. Forged papers are prepared for another Rs100,000, provided the purchaser so desires. Otherwise, a car worth Rs1.6m is sold between Rs0.5m and Rs0.8m, depending on the condition, make, model and colour of the stolen merchandise.

Installing the mantrap

Senior police officials concede to the dismissive attitude of the police personnel when a shocked, bruised and harassed motorcyclist comes to the police station to report the loss of a motorbike. This approach reflects a particular class bias; authorities often brush aside such cases since they belong to people falling on the lower strata of the socio-economic ladder.

“These people [complainants] are hardly ever from influential or resourceful backgrounds, as compared to those with cars. Often, the police station staff doesn’t take them seriously,” says an officer.

With this frame of mind at work, the top three Karachi police stations in 2014 that ignored the crime “affecting students and the blue-collar workers” were Nazimabad, Korangi Industrial Area, and Sharea Faisal. The number of two-wheelers stolen every month from the jurisdictions of these police stations is 624, 573 and 554 respectively.

But changes to the way these cases are dealt with are in the pipeline, slow and tedious as the shift might be.

“For the first time, we are trying to analyse the theft pattern of motorbikes, on the basis of colour, model, as well as investigating particular areas where incidents of robbery take place and the time at which they happened,” claims SSP Irfan Bahadur. “This analysis gives us an insight into the groups involved and makes pursuing them easier. Vehicular theft is mostly an affair of darkness: it largely takes place from 8pm onwards.”

The results are tangible: with more data being collected and analysed, police officials claim to have busted 36 gangs and booking many purchasers, while another 16-17 are currently being tracked. Of the 22,474 motorcycles stolen in 2014, the police have been able to recover 4,617.

“Owing to a large demand for the stolen motorbikes in interior Sindh and Balochistan, we threw the dragnet around the ‘large purchasers’ in Sukkur, Shikarpur, Jacobabad, Jhat Putt, Hub, Quetta, Zhob and Usta Mohammad and arrested 10 of them,” narrates SSP Bahadur.

During the raids, a purchaser from Mehr, Sajjad, was also arrested. He had bought a whopping 1,200 new motorbikes from five gangs at half the market price in Karachi. He would then lease the bikes out on monthly instalments, after receiving Rs10,000 in advance first.

“It was like I had hit the jackpot; I got a return on all my investment,” Sajjad told the police in his confessionary statement.

“Our strategy was to disturb and upset the market and purchasers of stolen vehicles. We struck at markets and purchasers by following the gangsters, particularly those bailed out from courts on technicalities. We busted markets in Sindh, Balochistan and even went as far as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to pursue car thieves and other delinquent elements operating gangs and running the chor bazaar,” says the ACLC chief.

Similar statistics exist for cars, too.

Over 1.4m private cars were registered in January 2013; some 4,453 cars were stolen that year. The property loss incurred comes out to a cool Rs2.2 billion per annum.

In 2014, the most favourite colours chosen by car thieves were white (1,624), silver (414) and gray (410). The favourite car makes were Suzuki Mehran, with 729 cars stolen and snatched; followed by Toyota Corolla (644 cars) and then by Suzuki Hiroof (528 cars).

Meanwhile, police stations that require robust efforts to control vehicular theft are Gulshan-i-Iqbal (from where 217 cars were taken away), Taimuria (183) and Shahrah-i-Nur Jehan (161). Others high-risk jurisdictions include Nazimabad, Sharea Faisal, Ferozabad, Hyderi Market, Aziz Bhatti, Darakshan, Bahadurabad, North Nazimabad, Mobina Town, Gizri, Gulistan-i-Johar and New Town.

The road ahead

The number of motorycles in Karachi far exceed the number of cars.
The number of motorycles in Karachi far exceed the number of cars.

Efforts at busting gangs of vehicle thieves have doubled but they cannot be sustained at higher levels unless the government puts in its due. Former CPLC chief Jamil Yusuf goes as far as arguing that unless crime fighting is pivoted around vehicular theft, all crime fighting strategies are bound to fall apart.

“Vehicular theft is the biggest bane of any law enforcement machinery, but is often neglected by the police on the pretext of pursuing more serious crime. The fact is that be it car or a motorcycle theft, these vehicles are used by criminals to escape a crime scene or to conduct one. This is besides using these stolen vehicles to transfer or smuggle weapons and drugs,” says Yusuf.

SSP Bahadur though points to the need of legal amendments to tackle vehicular crime. “Without amending the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) — 1898 and the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) — 1860, there can be no deterrence against vehicular theft. Under these laws, the punishment should be enhanced to life-term and a fine of one million rupees should be imposed, besides making it a non-bailable offence,” says the ACLC chief.

Officials believe that it is crucial to understand that a vehicle owner is subjected to serious harassment and their life is in jeopardy when someone trains a gun at their temple, giving them the option of losing their life or losing their vehicle. Threatening someone with a gun becomes “an attempt to murder” while possessing a weapon is a serious offence under the Arms Act.

“Section 468-A of the PPC also needs amendment to deal with tampering with car chassis, engine numbers, and forging ownership papers. These should be turned into an offence liable with life term,” says SSP Bahadur. “Without certainty of punishment, nothing much can be achieved while delinquents will continue going scot-free.”

In terms of logistics and equipment too, there is an urgent need to modernise the police’s capacity to fight these gangs and equip them accordingly. Some 10 years ago, trackers and anti-jammer systems were given to the police to combat crime. They were a big hit back then.

But over time, the gangs of vehicle thieves were able to successfully neutralise the trackers. In the absence of modern technology, the police stood stationary, but the gangs managed to progress.

Serving police officials also believe that exit and entry points into Karachi can be manned by a 360-strong force, trained to intercept stolen vehicles, decipher forgery of documents, and identify manipulation of engine and chassis numbers. What is needed, they argue, is greater logistical support.

Proposals to install scanners along these routes to check for weapons and drugs, as well as chip scanners to stop and identify stolen vehicles, have been in discussion since the early 1990s. Several products were evaluated too, but no plan ever achieved fruition.

Sweating the small stuff

Muggings and cellphone theft may not be considered major crimes, but controlling them is a crucial first step towards tackling larger issues

The map above shows some of the 25 zones that have been indentified by the Karachi police as vulnerable to street crime.
The map above shows some of the 25 zones that have been indentified by the Karachi police as vulnerable to street crime.

“It was after dusk. I was driving home but I got stuck in a traffic gridlock. Moments later, a young man cocked a pistol and began banging at my window. Fear instantly consumed me, I rolled down the window, and he demanded my cell phone and wallet. Before I could move, he forced the cold muzzle of the pistol against my forehead. As I nervously began to empty my pockets, he thrust his hand and removed my wrist watch. Before I could recover, he vanished into the traffic. I lost Rs70,000 in cash and kind.”

This is the story of many a Karachiite, the tale of falling prey to a mugging at traffic intersections. These are occurrence of late evenings, when darkness begins to set in, and continues well into late night, targeting commuters trying to go home or even students travelling in buses. Dark streets and “not so well lit” service lanes are described by police officials as active sites of mugging.

A recently-compiled internal research paper of the Central Police Office (CPO) has identified 25 such roundabouts where muggings have become almost routine because of persisting traffic gridlocks.

“These roundabouts are located in the four districts of East, West, Central and South. All of them are common thoroughfares,” reads the document. “They all have different set of problems: some are narrow, others require better road management.”

But all these points have one commonality: they are all without adequate lighting arrangements.

“The Citizen Police Liaison Committee (CPLC) has also identified 100 trouble spots in Karachi that serve as the theatres of city urchins,” says CPLC chief Ahmad Chinoy, arguing that street crimes are among the most under-reported in Karachi. His argument is laced with numbers: in 2013, 22,033 cell phones were snatched. This figure rose to 31,288 in 2014, while 8,309 cell phones have been reported stolen till March 2015.

“Due to the operation in Karachi, many criminals involved in organised crime have switched to street crime. There have also been reported cases where those previously involved in car and motorcycle theft are now indulging in cell phone theft,” says Chinoy. “It is far easier to handle and conceal cell phones than a car. It is relatively quick money too; if an iPhone or an Android phone is stolen, it will easily fetch up to Rs15,000 in the market.”

There was a time in Karachi when cell phones were sold at particular markets, but over time, newer and smaller markets burgeoned and prospered.

“Stolen cell phones are available in some shops of the cell phone markets in Orangi Town, North Karachi, Buffer Zone, Gulistan-i-Johar, Saddar and Korangi,” says Murad Hussain, a cell phone franchise owner. “A dealer usually purchases stolen property for up to Rs10,000, and resells it for an amount between Rs15,000 and Rs20,000, usually as a smuggled item.”

Another mode of sale and purchase, the franchise owner explains, is buying per bag.

“Each bag might have 50-60 phones of different types and brands; each bag might sell for anything between Rs5,000 and Rs10,000. The expensive iPhones and Androids fetch Rs20,000-25,000,” claims Hussain.

“If the phones are in good condition, iPhones and Androids are also smuggled in baggage to Iran, Dubai, Afghanistan and some African countries,” adds Chinoy.

Perhaps the ugliest part of street crimes is when a robbery goes wrong and a victim is shot at or killed during the incident. In more recent trends, young men and novices have taken to cell-phone snatching, but they are often jittery, nervous and fearful of the police pursuing them. In this frame of mind, if they misjudge a victim’s reaction, the trigger of the handgun gets pulled,” says a local police officer.

“Most of the time, 30 bore pistols are used for crimes in Karachi and now the 9mm is also in vogue. The biggest problem in the locally produced hand guns is they do not have safety pins to prevent accidental firing. In panic, the pistol goes off, resulting in murder,” explains the officer.

The picture of Karachi’s street crime is reflective of New York. Two decades ago, when New York mayor Robert Giuliani and police commissioner Bill Brandton declared zero tolerance for petty crime in their city, they devised a “Broken Window” campaign against vandalism and anti social behaviour. The underlying concept was if petty crimes are stopped, delinquent behaviour would be largely eliminated and bigger crimes would never place.

The nature of crime was similar too: the people of New York were troubled by crimes at the underground subway terminals, and like Karachi, at streets with insufficient light. Criminal elements would also tear down street light to hide their activities and would spray graffiti on the walls to mark their turf.

The New York police saw to it that the destroyed bulbs were replaced and the graffiti wiped clean. They did not stop there: at bus stops, they would quiz those loitering around and escort them to a police station if they could not offer a reasonable explanation. Similarly, travelling without paying the fare would also not go unpunished. With these steps, New York, which was notorious for crimes during the 1990s, has now turned into one of the more peaceful cities of the United States.

Following the US experience, the Pakistani model to tackle petty crime in Karachi can begin with expressing no tolerance for traffic violations. In order to make certain traffic gridlocks do not occur, the “VIP culture” of blocking roads needs to be done away with, since blocking one road leads to a cascading effect on all thoroughfares.

If traffic jams are prevented in Karachi and adequate lighting is ensured at these 25 choking points, muggings could be made difficult and perhaps even thwarted. The power utility of the city could be involved to ensure that these “vulnerable points” remain well-lit. Local communities can be mobilised too and asked to arrange UPS’s or generators.

Police patrolling can be increased, and cops deployed at vantage points to intercept and engage any suspicious person or one in possession of weapons. The Sindh or city government can help by installing functional CCTVs and centrally monitoring the situation.

Meanwhile, while there is a public drive underway to register SIMs, there is little in the way of a crackdown against the sale and use of stolen cell phones. A campaign was launched previously against shops selling stolen merchandise, but market associations rose in protest and the campaign lost steam. Collective punishment to the cell phone market associations would be helpful in ensuring that stolen property is not resold.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, March 29th, 2015

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