Karachi Vice: Pakistan’s Megacity Is a Sweltering Gangland

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Adam Ferguson / VII for TIME

Pakistani men interact on the street during a power outage in Lyari Town, Karachi, on Sept. 20, 2013. Lyari Town is the epicenter of gang violence in the city

Like many parts of Pakistan, swaths of the sweltering Pakistani city of Karachi experience regular power outages for up to nine hours a day. The Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Centre, despite its priority status for receiving power, keeps several large generators to provide, among other things, reliable air-conditioning. The air in its emergency ward is so blessedly cool compared with the simmering streets outside that you momentarily forget you are in a place of fear and suffering. Instead, with your eyes soothed by a curved wall of mosaic sunflowers, you can convince yourself that this is a place off-limits to the violence unfolding outside.

Far from it. On Jan. 1, two gangs got into a shoot-out in the ward, spraying bullets across the waiting room. Three years before, a bomb blast went off on a motorbike parked outside the building, killing 18. The hospital has been inundated with more and more victims of violent crime, and once, the ward had to be evacuated when a scared suicide bomber who lost his nerve came in to ask staff to remove the grenades from his chest. “Our job is to see patients,” says Seemin Jamali, director of the hospital’s accident-and-emergency department. There are a few Kalashnikov-toting guards at the ward’s doors, but, she says, “We’re not trained for controlling terrorists.”

This sprawling megacity on the Arabian Sea has long been Pakistan’s economic hub, but in recent years it has become better known for its robberies, kidnappings, terrorism and murder than for business. While major acts of violence, like the recent back-to-back attacks that killed more than 130 people in Peshawar, periodically shock the nation, brutality in Karachi is a constant menace. Increasing poverty and unemployment have made room for a wide range of criminals to flourish in several “no-go” zones throughout the city, limiting the movement of ordinary citizens to areas they know are safe. In 2012, Karachi’s crime rate reached an all-time high when 2,500 people were killed, up 50% from the year before. This year, a new record may be in the making: in the first half of 2013, 1,700 people were killed, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

In early September, the new government of Nawaz Sharif initiated a crackdown, sending police and paramilitary Rangers into the city’s trouble spots. On Sept. 21, Qaim Ali Shah — chief minister of Sindh province, where Karachi is the capital — announced that police had conducted over 1,600 raids in the first two weeks of the operation, putting over 1,800 suspects in custody for crimes including militancy, targeted killings and kidnapping.

The government does not want to stop there. The nation’s Cabinet has also approved a draft of amendments to the antiterrorism act that would increase the power of law-enforcement agencies in dealing with Karachi’s epidemic of violence. According to Dawn, the amendments call for greater protection for witnesses, extending preventative detention of offenders, and, perhaps most controversially, for the Rangers to be given the unprecedented power to shoot on sight without being fired upon first.

The changes, which have to be approved by Parliament, have been met with mixed reviews. “It can be argued that the excessive powers granted to the Rangers can be misused,” a Sept. 22 editorial in the Daily Times read. “However … the main focus of everyone should be to cleanse Karachi of the criminal elements that have made the 20 million people of Karachi hostage.”

Residents want action too. In Lyari Town, one of the most crime-ridden neighborhoods in Karachi, Rangers in bulletproof vests and police in neat black polo shirts and baseball caps are ubiquitous amid the food carts and clogged streets. Residents here say the government is all but absent from their neighborhood. They complain about the area’s constant blackouts, known in South Asia as “load shedding,” and say since elections, politicians have been nowhere to be seen. “Everyone knows what the problems here are,” says Rukhsana Umar, who lives in the Kharadar quarter of Lyari. “Load shedding, corruption, target killings … but the main problem is the government.”

Despite the unpopular belt-tightening he has ushered in, there is so far a cautious optimism about Sharif’s administration in Karachi, particularly among industrialists who hope, as a businessman himself, the Prime Minister will prioritize reviving what is the beating heart of Pakistan’s economy. Whether expanding the military’s power in Karachi will help or harm depends on whether the state and central government can continue to cooperate in securing the city. It also depends on whether the officers Sharif seeks to empower abide by the rules of law and order they are enforcing. If either falls apart, it will be up to professionals like Jamali to continue to pick up the pieces. “Not everyone would do it,” she says. “It’s a labor of love.”