FEATURE-Mumbai mafia rides high on India's property, film boom

MUMBAI Wed Jun 13, 2007 4:33am IST

MUMBAI Jun 13 (Reuters) - Hitmen shooting police informers, mafia bosses collecting protection money from Bollywood actors and producers -- it could be a movie script.

But the rise in criminal activity in India's financial hub is all too real and it has police and other officials worried that India's notorious mafia gangs have regrouped.

Over a decade ago, police eradicated mafia gangs from Mumbai after a series of bombings in the city in 1993 -- blamed on the underworld -- killed 257 people.

But judging from a spate of recent crimes -- including the shooting of a police informant in a crowded bar two weeks ago -- the mob is back.

This time it appears to be a new generation of young mob bosses bent on making a name for themselves who are trying to cash in on a property boom in Mumbai and a cash-flush Bollywood, the world's largest film industry by ticket sales which is headquartered in Mumbai.

"The level of underworld activity has gone up in the past few months," said S. Hussain Zaidi, who authored a book on the 1993 serial bombings.

Besides known mafia dons who terrorised Mumbai in the past, younger gangsters have risen to fill a vacuum created after a determined campaign by police forced the old mob to lie low.

Now, Mumbai's notorious mafia -- said to be remote controlled by bosses based in Dubai, Karachi and Malaysia -- is reviving itself, police say, as gangs find it difficult to resist the spoils of India's booming economy.

Mumbai has been in the thick of a national real estate explosion with new shopping malls, apartment blocks and entertainment plazas being built over the last three years.

For Bollywood, the past two years have been its best ever with filmmakers making huge profits and actors bagging enormous fees.

Last month, a mob boss boasted on a national television channel that three Bollywood personalities, including two top filmmakers, were on his hit list because they were refusing to pay him protection money.

Police say they have arrested at least five assassins on contract killing missions in recent months and received an increased number of complaints of extortion calls.

Two weeks ago, a young man was shot dead in a crowded bar, the latest among several police informants killed recently.

"Let's not generalise, but there could be some more instances of criminal activity than the previous years," Mumbai's police chief, D.N. Jadhav, told Reuters. "There are some particular cases where the underworld activity has come to our notice."

In the 1990s, Mumbai, then known as Bombay, faced a tide of mafia killings, abductions and extortion demands with rich builders and Bollywood being the prime targets.

But during a decade of violent confrontations, police busted hideouts and shot dead at least 350 suspected gangsters, breaking the back of gangs and sending mobsters on the run.

TURF WARS

This time, the problem has compounded because younger gangsters are increasingly trying to establish their turf and grab a share of the booty, Zaidi said.

"They want publicity. They want people to know them, fear them. And they are preparing to take on the bigger dons."

While the Bollywood set has always been an easy target, gangs are now attracted by Mumbai's property business, one of the hottest in the world where real estate prices equal those in New York or Tokyo.

The mafia's nexus with Mumbai's builders and Bollywood is a badly kept secret.

While some builders turn to gangsters to secure prime real estate, settle disputes and even bump off rivals, many Bollywood producers have borrowed money from the mafia and even used it to entice box-office actors to perform in their films, police say.

Realising the kind of big money involved in both the construction and the movie industry, the mafia has even began bankrolling projects.

The police began cracking down on Mumbai's mafia after the 1993 bombings in Mumbai, India's worst, which were blamed on a Muslim crime boss and India's most wanted man, Dawood Ibrahim.

The bombings, police say, were to avenge the demolition of an important mosque by Hindu zealots and the subsequent riots between Hindus and Muslims.

After the attacks, Mumbai's authorities hit back, giving a free hand to a specialised team of crime-busters who worked informers and wielded their guns to administer justice.

But police raids have lessened in recent years following allegations that some specialist crime-busters took mob money and routinely killed gangsters, often claiming the killings happened during non-existent gun battles.

Some officers were suspended, investigations were launched against others and shootouts were discouraged.

"An officer will now think twice before firing," said a crime branch officer who did not want to be named.

"This has emboldened criminals."