Photos By Jason Mojica
One of Pakistan’s famous decorative buses gets hit by one of Karachi’s infamous outbursts of violence. Photo by Zia Mazhar/Associated Press.
Interviewing a “target killer” in Karachi was probably the scariest thing I’ve done in my 17 years at VICE. His gun sat between my feet in the backseat of our car as we drove in circles around his neighborhood. After our chat about killing people for a living, I felt like vomiting for three hours. I’ve been around my share of guns and violence, but sitting next to someone who has murdered 35 people (for between $550 and $1,100 per head) made me feel not so good.
So who hires these people? According to the hit man I interviewed, politicians contract about 80 percent of the assassinations in the region and the other 20 percent are related to organized crime. Twenty years ago, he said, there were a total of six guys in his profession. Today, there are more than 600 active target killers operating in Karachi. Indeed, many locals speculate that the famous Raymond Davis case—in which a CIA agent took out two armed men in Lahore last year and subsequently strained US-Pakistan diplomacy—was a failed target killing, not some random kids on motorcycles trying to rob him.
On the outskirts of Karachi, children search for scraps in one of the largest garbage dumps in the world, which is next door to what is rumored to be one of the mafia’s favorite hiding spots for its kidnap victims, Surjani Town.
I have visited Pakistan many times and know my way around the rest of the country, but this was my first time working in Karachi. This place is different. A sprawling, ultraviolent metropolis of 18 million people, it’s one of the fastest-growing cities in the world and is probably most famous in the West as the place where Wall Street Journal journalist Daniel Pearl was kidnapped and beheaded.
Karachi has a rich history of violence, dating back to 1947, when Pakistan rose from the ashes of the British Empire. The massive influx of Muslim refugees into the new country brought turf wars, ethnic diversity (as well as ethnic tensions and rivalries), political warfare, gang violence, sectarian killings, and, in more recent years, suicide bombings.
By some estimates, there are as many as 4 million heroin addicts in Pakistan, and in Karachi high-grade horse can be bought on the street for 80 cents a gram. Heroin and opium flow freely from Afghanistan: 160 tons went across the border in 2009, the same year a UN report put the value of Pakistan’s opiate market—including trafficking and private consumption—at $1.2 billion.
When the Western media report on Pakistan, they generally focus on the “war on terror” and how awesome it’s going for America and NATO. We’ve all heard the stories of successful US drone attacks on Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants in tribal areas—and others of drones missing their targets and leveling entire villages of innocent women, children, and old people—but it seems the overall sentiment is that it’s cool because they’re faceless mountain people and we’re winning.
After 9/11, Taliban militants scrambled over the Afghan border and into the hilly tribal areas of Pakistan. When the Americans followed, blowing them to smithereens with remote-controlled airplanes, they fled to the cities. First they infiltrated Peshawar, which they promptly destabilized with regular suicide bombings. Then they hit Karachi.