KARACHI, Pakistan (Reuters) - Relaxing in his luxurious four-storey home, Uzair Baloch has high hopes of breaking into Pakistani politics despite the 63 warrants out for his arrest.
“People will give me votes, God willing,” said Baloch, as his muscular bodyguards eyed the surrounding slum streets.
Murder, torture and extortion allegations would bar most people around the world from seeking public office.
Not in Pakistan’s commercial capital, Karachi, where men like Baloch thrive amid gang wars and ethnic, sectarian and political violence. He’s confident of winning a legislative seat in a general election due early next year.
In some ways, instability in the city of 18 million poses a graver security threat to U.S. ally Pakistan than the headline-grabbing Taliban insurgency in the north.
Karachi is home to Pakistan’s main stock market. It handles all of the cash-strapped country’s shipping. The city also generates most of Pakistan’s tax revenue - and some of the country’s most wanted men.
Police say Baloch, whose father was kidnapped and killed by gangsters, has spent years building a business empire through extortion, kidnapping and drugs.
He also made powerful friends in political parties in a city long split along sectarian and ethnic lines.
Karachi is dominated by the Muttahida Quami Movement, originally set up by mohajirs, Muslims who fled to Pakistan from India at the time of partition.
The Awami National Party seeks to challenge them, claiming to represent an influx of millions of ethnic Pashtuns from the strife-plagued northwestern region along the Afghan border.
The country’s ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) is the smallest player in Karachi. Despite arrest warrants for Baloch dating back to 2009, he’s held news conferences and repeatedly appeared at PPP rallies.
That all changed in recent months after Baloch publicly criticised the PPP. He believes that prompted police to go after him. But the operation proved disastrous.
Last month, thousands of officers attempted to seize control of his stronghold in the Lyari slum but were ambushed by gunmen with rocket-propelled grenades and armour-piercing bullets.
Five policemen and about 20 civilians were killed, police say. A legislator’s house was set on fire. But no fugitives were arrested.
Chaudhry Aslam, a chain-smoking, pistol-packing bearded policeman journalists have dubbed “Pakistan’s toughest cop,” is charged with going after figures like Baloch.
He denies the arrest attempt was politically motivated, and says Baloch’s tactics made it impossible to nab him.
“He used human shields. That is why we could not arrest him before,” said Aslam at a police barracks, where armoured vehicles sit in the parking lot and rocket-propelled grenades are stacked in a bathroom.
Baloch denies any link to violence. Residents disagree.
In one notorious incident, his supporters showed up at the giant Sher Shah scrap yard, witnesses said.
Picking their way past the disemboweled car engines littering the oily alleys, traders point to areas where the killers gunned down a dozen men who refused to pay protection money.
This week, two brothers were shot in broad daylight less than 50 meters from a police post in the yard. Now, police are stationed just outside the office of market association president Malik Dehelvi.
He is still too scared to name the killers.
“I am afraid,” Dehelvi said, his meaty hand touching the loaded pistol kept on his desk. Colleagues show scraps of paper and phone messages demanding protection money.
“The groups who ask for extortion, they can’t run it on their own. Obviously there’s a party behind it,” said Dehelvi.
While the Taliban are attacking the state, violence in Karachi was caused by groups inside the state itself, said Kamran Bokhari, vice-president of Middle Eastern & South Asian Affairs with global intelligence company Stratfor.
“Democratic forces are unable to deal with the violence because they are involved in it,” he said. “It’s the political mainstream that is engaged in this kind of violence.”
Political parties mark their turf with ragged flags strung from lamp posts in crumbling neighbourhoods where children too poor to afford a football kick around an empty plastic bottle.
Shopkeepers slam down their metal shutters whenever trouble looms. Some areas, like much of Baloch’s stronghold of Lyari, are a no-go zone even for police.
Baloch blames his former PPP allies for failing to tackle Lyari’s hardships, and portrays himself as a Robin Hood figure.
“There’s no teachers in the schools, no doctors in the clinics,” Baloch told Reuters in an interview. “I pay hospital bills when people don’t have money ... I tell people, ‘as long as I am alive, I will be here for you’.”
Muhammad Rafique, who represents Lyari in the provincial assembly on behalf of the PPP, has appeared with Baloch at several rallies.
He is careful not to criticise his former supporter but insists Baloch had no formal position in the party.
“If criminals have taken over politics, how can gentlemen survive?,” he said. His own family home lies behind a heavily guarded roadblock.
It’s easy to see why Rafique is so concerned about Karachi’s violence.
At police headquarters, officers drag out a sweating, manacled prisoner with a black bag over his head. Kaleem Siddiqui is a confessed killer - $750 a hit, he said.
“We charged more if they wanted us to mutilate the bodies in a certain way,” he said. “I killed for the money ... (but) I know a lot of people who kill others for politics.”
Sometimes politicians hired gunmen like himself, he said. Other times they used their own.
The police, underfunded, out gunned and widely seen as corrupt, can do little. Karachi only has 30,000 officers.
They’re not properly trained to gather evidence or prepare cases, said regional prosecutor general Shahadat Arwan. The lack of a witness protection programme means few will testify.
Baloch, who says all cases against him are politically motivated, is confident he will never end up behind bars.
“They made cases against me so they can stop me. They know in the coming election people are with me. People say whatever Uzair Baloch says, we will do this,” Baloch said, as a visiting government official looked on.
“Even if they kill me,” he said, “there are thousands more Uzairs out there.”
Editing by Michael Georgy and Robert Birsel