KARACHI: Murder gangs rooted in Karachi's boiling cauldron of ethnic politics are waging a savage fight for power and space in Pakistan's financial capital, threatening to destabilise the entire country.
At one of Karachi's overflowing morgues, Amir Ali, clutching a photograph of his missing brother on his wedding day, searches for him along a grim line of bodies, only their bloodied faces uncovered.
Yellow dockets tucked into tape that bind the corpses detail the horrific torture they suffered before their bodies were dumped in sacks on the street.
“We've tried the hospitals, the police stations and now the morgue,” said Ali, a 45-year-old stonemason, who fears his brother was kidnapped despite his lack of any political affiliation.
“It doesn't make any sense.”More than 1,000 people have been killed in Karachi this year —100 in the past week alone —as drug, land, gun and extortion mafias linked to ethnically based political parties threaten to plunge the huge city into urban anarchy.
At stake is more than the welfare of the city's 18 million inhabitants because Karachi, gateway to the Arabian Sea, provides the bulk of the democratically fragile country's income.
It is also the main supply route for Nato troops in Afghanistan.
“If Karachi goes down, the country goes down. Nobody survives. It has come to that point,” provincial home affairs adviser Sharfuddin Memon told AFP.
The myriad of problems facing Pakistan are encapsulated in the former capital, which is also its biggest city: Taliban militancy, political violence, organised crime, sectarian divides and ethnic strife.
The weakness of Karachi's political apparatus in handling those threats echoes a national dilemma.
At the Abbasi Shaheed hospital, a drop of blood falls down Zubair Chohaan's face as he recounts in writing how police shot him in the mouth as they tried to chase a gunman in his neighbourhood as he drove home last week.
In the next ward, a young Pashtun factory worker recovers from arm and leg gunshot wounds he says came from a spray of gunfire in the notoriously dangerous Orangi slums where he lives.
Neither is willing to pin responsibility on any one faction. Fear —and cynicism —abound in a city where police are largely seen as a politically appointed force and blame can bring deadly recriminations.
Behind the brutal violence lies complicated political realities that carve Karachi into gangland fiefdoms representing the city's various ethnic groups —Mohajirs, Sindhis, Pashtuns, Punjabis and Baloch.
The ethnic divide is sewn into the city's history.
Down the years millions of migrants have swept in from across the country looking for a share of the city's money, transforming Karachi from a city of 450,000 at independence in 1947 into a demographic pressure cooker.
Political battles with the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) have led the MQM to twice abandon the federal coalition this year, fed up of successive governments' short-lived promises to grant the party a greater share of power in line with its success in winning 17 of the city's 20 parliamentary seats.
Political allegiance based on ethnicity is marked out in coloured flags and daubed in paint on trees and pillars across warrens of slum streets where underworld elements hide amid bulging communities.
In the crimson-designated areas of the Awami National Party (ANP), which represents Pashtuns migrating from the tribal northwest, its leader Shahi Syed shows AFP intelligence reports he says prove the MQM are killing his people.
Across town at the MQM's offices, spokesman Raza Haroon blames the ruling PPP for colluding with the criminals who triggered the latest violence in the downtown neighbourhood of Lyari, a den of gambling dens and drug mafias.
The trading of accusations by politicians has deepened the cynicism of Karachi's inhabitants and business leaders who say all parties are involved in the dark power struggle.
“The whole deal is, who is going to be the capo of Karachi —the Godfather?” said the former chairman of the city's chamber of commerce, Majyd Aziz.
All fear a return to the ethnic warfare that erupted on the streets in the mid-1980s, which was only quelled when the army was deployed.
“This hasn't been ethnic violence until now, but if this persists, we are heading towards that,” says Ahmed Chinoy, of the Citizens' Police Liaison Committee.
There is meanwhile a sense of disenfranchisement that is echoed across a country where votes are seen to count for little in a largely feudal economy run by a political elite far removed from the masses of poor.