KARACHI: A corrupt, low-level cop with a healthy dose of street smarts rises to control hundreds of illegal gambling dens in Pakistan's largest city. By doling out millions of dollars in illicit proceeds, he protects his empire and becomes one of the most powerful people in Karachi.
The allegations against Mohammed Waseem Ahmed — or Waseem "Beater" as he is more commonly known — emerged recently from surprise testimony by a top police commander before a crusading anti-crime Supreme Court judge. The story has given a rare and colorful glimpse into the vast underworld in Karachi, a chaotic metropolis of 18 million people on Pakistan's southern coast.
The sprawling city has become notorious for violence, from gangland-style killings and kidnappings to militant bombings and sectarian slayings. Further worrying authorities have been signs that the Pakistani Taliban are using the chaos to gain a greater foothold in the city.
For months, the Supreme Court's Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry has been leading special hearings on Karachi's crime, berating the city's top police officers for failing to act. This past week, he demanded they move in to clean up so-called "no-go" areas — entire neighborhoods where police fear to tread — according to local press reports.
Further fueling the problem is rampant police corruption, undermining efforts to combat the city's violent gangs and extremists. Among the public, the police nationwide are seen as the country's most crooked public sector organization, a high bar given claims of pervasive corruption throughout the government.
The allegations surrounding Ahmed further fuel questions about the overlap between Karachi's underworld and its police forces. After the testimony to the Supreme Court earlier this year, police officials in Karachi provided The Associated Press with additional details over his reported rise.
The AP made repeated attempts to contact Ahmed, who has been removed from the force and fled to Dubai, but was not successful.
Ahmed came from a poor family in Karachi's old city and joined the police force in the 1990s. He soon started working as a "beater," a low-level thug who works for more senior cops to collect a cut from illegal activities in their area, such as gambling, prostitution and drug dealing, said half a dozen police officers who knew him personally at the time. They all spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.
Ahmed, who sports a bushy black mustache and usually dresses in a simple, white shalwar kameez, earned a reputation for carrying out his illicit work efficiently, said two police officers who have known him ever since he joined the force. That reputation helped him forge relationships with more senior figures, and eventually he was collecting money for some of the top police officers and civilian security officials in Karachi, they said.
The heavyset 40-year-old also attracted the attention of a local boss who controlled the largest concentration of illegal gambling dens in Karachi, located in the city's rough and tumble Ghas Mandi area, where Ahmed worked, said the policemen and a local journalist. The two teamed up to expand their gambling empire to other parts of Karachi and surrounding Sindh province.
Gambling was not always illegal in Pakistan, a nation of 180 million people that gained independence from Britain in 1947 as a sanctuary for Muslims who did not believe they could thrive as part of what is now India, a majority Hindu state. Despite the religious undertones of Pakistan's founding, the country's major cities, such as Karachi and Lahore, were relatively liberal places in the first few decades after independence. Alcohol flowed freely in nightclubs filled with dancing girls.
But in 1977, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto banned gambling and alcohol for Muslims in an attempt to appease Islamic hard-liners. Drinking and gambling, which are forbidden in Islam, didn't stop, but much of it was driven underground.
The gambling dens in Ghas Mandi are hidden behind nondescript facades down dark alleyways with tangled electrical wires hanging overhead in one of the oldest and densest populated parts of Karachi.
In one den, a dozen men dressed in shalwar kameez sat in a semicircle on the floor playing a local card game, mang patta, beneath bare bulbs hanging from the ceiling. The men sipped tea and tossed 100 rupee ($1) poker chips at the dealer.
In an adjacent room, a handful of men played chakka, a game that involved guessing the numbers that would appear when the dealer rolled three dice out of what looked like an old leather Yahtzee cup. Rupee notes were placed on a table as bets and held in place by a large metal washer. Everyone stopped their games when the Muslim call to prayer came over a loudspeaker from a nearby mosque — and they promptly resumed the dice and cards once the prayer ended.
"Civilian officials, who also benefit from corruption, have shown no willingness to reform the system, making the force relatively ineffective in cracking down on criminal gangs and militants in the city."Ahmed earned tens of thousands of dollars each day from hundreds of such gambling dens, said the policemen and journalist who knew him. He also collected extortion money from drug dealers and brothels and smuggled diesel fuel into Karachi from neighboring Iran, where it is much cheaper, they said.
He distributed cash to senior officials, and the pay-outs made him one of the most powerful people in Karachi's police force, said his acquaintances. He won significant influence over who was posted to senior positions, thus providing him with protection, they said.
Known as a man of few words who rarely loses his cool, Ahmed also handed out money to Karachi's powerful criminal gangs and traveled with roughly a dozen armed guards as an insurance policy.
He was sailing smoothly through the underworld until one of the Supreme Court sessions in January.
A petitioner outlined to the court allegations of Ahmed's illicit activities and his power in the police force. Chief Justice Chaudhry then asked senior police officers and civilian officials who were present about the allegations. They all expressed ignorance.
But Deputy Inspector General Bashir Memon spoke up and backed the petitioner's claims.
"I said yes, Waseem 'Beater' is present among the ranks of the Karachi police. He controls the gambling business in Karachi," Memon told The Associated Press. "I also confirmed that he is involved in the transfer and posting of junior and senior police officers."
Another senior police officer in Sindh province, Sanaullah Abbasi, also testified that he knew Ahmed and that he controlled gambling dens in Karachi.
Chaudhry lambasted the senior officials for not going after Ahmed and asked Memon whether he was concerned about contradicting his colleagues.
"I replied, 'I only told you the truth,'" Memon told the AP.
As a sign of Ahmed's power, Memon said he was told the same day he would be transferred out of Karachi, but the Supreme Court canceled the transfer order.
Ahmed was dismissed from the police force after the Supreme Court hearing, according to two senior police officers, and government records indicate he flew to Dubai and has not returned.
Hassan Abbas, an expert on the Pakistani police at the New York-based Asia Society, said Ahmed's case provides a stark illustration of the level of corruption in the Karachi police force, which he described as the worst in any of Pakistan's major cities. Criminal cases are currently pending against 400 police officers serving in Karachi, said Abbas.
Civilian officials, who also benefit from corruption, have shown no willingness to reform the system, making the force relatively ineffective in cracking down on criminal gangs and militants in the city, said Abbas.
"The chaos in Karachi provides criminal gangs with the cover they need to operate," said Abbas. "Corruption provides an incentive to continue that chaos."