KARACHI/QUETTA (Reuters) - One night in March, police found a body slumped in the back of a black Toyota parked in an affluent district of Karachi, Pakistan’s commercial capital.
The man, a prominent public servant named Abdul Rehman Dashti, had been shot in the face. His watch, ring and money were gone.
Not far away, servants scrubbed blood from the driveway of an imposing house belonging to Imam Bheel, a businessman from the southwestern province of Baluchistan. Camera crews rushed to the scene, and Deputy Inspector-General Shaukat Ali Shah named the suspected killer: Bheel himself.
The allegation cracked a wall of silence around a man who Washington says is a key gatekeeper in a heroin supply chain stretching from poppy fields in Afghanistan to street corners in the West.
Three years earlier, President Barack Obama had designated Bheel an international narcotics “kingpin” - ranking him with drug lords from Venezuela, Colombia and Mexico. The announcement drew scant attention in the Pakistani media and he continued to live quietly in Karachi, untroubled by police.
Pakistan faced a deluge of questions last year when Osama bin Laden was killed in a U.S. raid near a military academy outside Islamabad.
Few in Pakistan or abroad know the country is home to a suspected major player in a $68 billion global opiates industry that has claimed far more lives than attacks by al-Qaeda.
The lack of action over the murder and Bheel’s links with politicians raise new questions over the extent of official tolerance for heroin smuggling in Pakistan and its corrosive influence on the volatile, nuclear-armed state.
The Dashti case is remarkable not simply because of the sensational accusation: the suspected head of a heroin cartel invited a well-known administrator to his home and then shot him dead.
The silence that greeted Dashti’s death among Pakistani officials is also striking. Bheel’s name is virtually unknown among diplomats in Islamabad, and only a small circle of agents are familiar with his alleged role in narcotics.
“He’s been on the radar of law enforcement for a long time,” said a Western official. “Has anybody ever got close to touching him? No.”
Bheel is a friend to senators and his eldest son is a member of the national assembly. Bheel himself once campaigned on behalf of a politician aligned with the powerful military.
After the murder, Bheel returned to his home area in Makran, a coastal strip along Baluchistan’s Arabian seacoast, Baluch sources say. Far from placing pressure on Bheel, the case has underscored his growing confidence, a Pakistani intelligence official who has served in Baluchistan told Reuters.
“He’s the tycoon over there, the don,” he said.
The most serious threat Bheel seems to face is not from law enforcement, but from insurgents fighting for an independent Baluchistan. The guerrillas, who have killed other suspected heroin traffickers, accuse Bheel of tipping off intelligence agencies they say are waging a campaign to abduct, torture and kill suspected separatists. The military denies that.
“HE KILLED OUR BROTHER”
Bheel did not respond to requests made through his family for comment. Yaqoob Bizenjo, Bheel’s eldest son, denies his father is a drug trafficker and says the United States has provided no evidence to support its claim.
“He’s only a businessman. He’s not rich,” said Yaqoob, 30, who is a member of the national assembly.
Dashti’s relatives have launched a public call for justice, their anger sharpened by the fact Dashti had known Bheel for 25 years. They came from the same part of Makran. People thought they were friends.
“For us, he crossed the limit - he killed our brother,” said Fida Dashti, a slight man with a salt-and-pepper beard who spoke publicly about his brother’s murder for the first time to Reuters. “He can kill anyone he wants. We cannot sit quiet like other people, we have to raise our voice.”
While the murder has outraged Dashti’s extended family, Bheel’s suspected role in the drug trade has provoked scant comment in Makran, a smuggler’s paradise where lines between criminality and commerce blur.
The US government’s decision to list Bheel under the 1999 Kingpin Act, which aims to bar suspected “significant foreign narcotics traffickers” and their business partners from using U.S. banks, caused hardly a ripple.
“Everybody knows that he’s involved in drugs,” said Hasil Khan Bizenjo, a senator who knows Bheel, in comments that seemed to reflect the quotidian nature of the heroin industry in Baluchistan. “He admitted it to close friends.”
Police have declined requests for comment since the murder.
The Dashtis filed an application to the Supreme Court in May demanding an inquiry. Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry denied the request after reviewing a police report, a court official told Reuters. The judge is not obliged to explain his reasoning.
Western security concerns about Pakistan focus on its history of supporting Afghanistan’s Taliban and the safety of its nuclear warheads.
The murder case opens a window into an insidious threat to Pakistan itself: a flood of drug money that taints politics, corrupts officials and swells a vast illicit economy.
In Afghanistan, poppy production has surged since the Taliban’s ouster in 2001. Pakistan, by contrast, has sharply reduced cultivation of the crimson flower from which opium and heroin are derived. But Pakistani cartel bosses remain central to the heroin trade, and convicting them has proved much harder than eradicating poppies.
From the opium fields of southern Afghanistan to the tidal creeks of Baluchistan’s Makran shore, traffickers haul a slice of the global heroin supply worth roughly $20 billion a year, according to U.N. estimates. Manufacturers stamp their bags of product with signature symbols of scorpions, lions or snakes.
Some $1 billion to $1.5 billion of the revenue is retained by trans-shippers in Pakistan, the United Nations says. Much of the rest enriches middlemen ferrying the narcotics to Asia, Africa, Europe and Russia.
“We are a victim of this drug,” Rehman Malik, Pakistan’s interior minister, said in an interview. “We are worried that drugs, arms and ammunition and terrorists are coming across the border.”
About 100,000 people across the world die each year from taking Afghan opium, the United Nations says, far more than those killed by Islamist militants. Taliban and other insurgents are believed to earn at least $125 million a year from the drugs trade.
With opium prices near record highs and NATO troops scaling back in poppy-growing areas ahead of a handover to Afghan forces in 2014, the industry’s prospects look bright.
Bheel is not the only alleged trafficker in Baluchistan, but he is said to be among the biggest.
“Imam Bheel is a transporter. If people want a large chunk of stuff moved, he’s the man that can do it,” said the Western official familiar with Pakistan’s drug trade. “He provides the networks, the manpower and the contacts.”
Bheel’s own life was shaped by another murder, his father‘s.
His family comes from Baluchistan, an alkaline moonscape of ash-colored hills and isolated towns wedged between Iran and Afghanistan. Covering almost half of Pakistan but home to less than 5 percent of the population, the province has a distinct identity dating back centuries.
Baluch nationalists have launched repeated rebellions since the territory became part of Pakistan in 1948, accusing Islamabad of exploiting their natural gas, copper and gold while denying them a fair share of power.
Today, a new generation of separatists is waging an uprising overshadowed by the U.S.-backed army’s separate battle with Taliban militants along the Afghanistan border.
Nicknamed “the Stammerer” for his speech impediment, Bheel’s father was a trader with a reputation for padding his camel trains with boot-legged whiskey.
His career ended abruptly in 1980 when a policeman shot him dead at a roadside restaurant, accusing him of killing his wife and son years earlier.
His father’s death thrust Imam Bheel to the helm of the family business at a time when Afghan opium producers were seeking connections to global markets.
Heavily armed convoys of four-by-fours began speeding across Baluchistan’s desert before veering into Iran or offloading drugs onto Dhows plying the Arabian sea.
Bheel, believed to be in his 60s, caught the attention of authorities in 1998 when investigators named him the suspected mastermind of a plane hijacking in Makran. When General Pervez Musharraf ousted Pakistan’s government the following year, the smuggler’s son saw a chance to wipe his slate clean.
Bheel pledged to back Zubaida Jalal, a pro-Musharraf candidate running for a national assembly seat in Makran in 2002 elections, in return for her help to clear his name.
Jalal, who had been Musharraf’s education minister, said she accepted Bheel’s support after he had assured her he was no longer involved in trafficking.
“He said that he left that business behind many years back,” Jalal told Reuters. “I challenged him. I told him he should use his money to support welfare projects for the people. He never delivered.”
After she won the seat, a court dropped the hijacking case against Bheel due to a lack of evidence, Jalal said.
To many in Baluchistan, the episode reinforced a perception the authorities would tolerate suspected heroin smugglers provided they supported the military’s political allies.
“The army establishment is turning a blind eye to the drug business in return for their help to influence politics,” said Akhtar Mengal, a former chief minister of the province. “Imam Bheel is an example.”
Bheel’s star rose again when Pakistan returned to civilian rule at elections in February 2008 and his son won his national assembly seat. In October, Bheel got an even bigger break.
Haji Juma Khan, who U.S. officials believed was then the world’s biggest heroin exporter, was lured to Jakarta and arrested in a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration operation.
Ed Follis, a former DEA agent who orchestrated the Afghan’s arrest, said field reports suggested Bheel and other smugglers had jockeyed for market share in the resulting vacuum.
“Imam Bheel played a key role in facilitating Haji Juma Khan’s trafficking activities,” said Follis, now working with the consultancy, 5 Stones intelligence. “With Khan out the way, Bheel seized the chance to expand.”
Khan is awaiting trial in New York on charges of channeling drug money to the Taliban. His lawyer said he believes the case will be resolved and he will eventually be released.
Bheel’s son, Yaqoob Bizenjo, said he doubted his father shot Dashti, or was a heroin trafficker.
“If he’s a drug dealer, why do people give me 61,000 votes?” said Bizenjo, speaking in one of the apartments allocated to law-makers visiting Islamabad, whose languid suburbs are a world apart from Baluch bandit country.
Obama took a different view. In May 2009, the White House added Bheel’s name to a list of suspected narcotics “kingpins” subject to U.S. sanctions. The U.S. government does not publish the evidence it uses to support such decisions. The Department of Justice in Washington and the U.S. embassy in Islamabad declined to comment on Bheel.
The White House designation aims to prevent the biggest suspected drug smugglers from exploiting the U.S. financial system by imposing fines or jail terms on their business associates.
After learning of the announcement in a newspaper, Bheel called Hasil Khan Bizenjo to ask what his “kingpin” status meant. Bizenzjo, a former member of Pakistan’s Senate committee on narcotics control, consulted the Internet.
“I told him: ‘You can’t travel on American airlines, you can’t do any business with American banks’. At first he didn’t understand.” Then, he said, Bheel replied: “It’s okay, I don’t do any business with the U.S.”
The designation did little to dent Bheel’s career. In 2010, he publicly pledged allegiance to the National Party, a small party whose stronghold is in Makran. Its leaders, who include senator Hasil Khan Bizenjo, want greater rights for Baluchistan within Pakistan. Separatists see them as stooges of the military.
While Bheel was making inroads with politicians, Abdul Rehman Dashti spent years in the backwaters of Baluchistan. He eventually became the top official in Gwadar district, which covers much of the Makran coast, a major exit route for heroin shipments.
Relatives remember a stern but good-hearted patriarch who exhorted his nephews to ‘love the pen, not the gun.’
Dashti and Bheel crossed paths in elite Baluch circles. With the close-cropped beard, flowing shirt and baggy trousers worn by many in Baluchistan, Bheel was at ease among senior Baluch officials who attended a wedding feast for his son Yaqoob in 2006. Dashti was among the guests.
“He has influence,” Fida Dashti said. “It’s obvious to a blind man.”
The Dashtis’ frustration is compounded by a belief they have a solid case. The theory among police that Bheel was the killer hinges on the testimony of Dashti’s long-serving driver.
According to the driver’s account, as relayed by Dashti’s relatives, Bheel called Dashti on his mobile phone and summoned him to his home at 30-B Khayaban-e-Tanzeem street in Karachi’s well-heeled Defense district on the evening of March 5.
The two had a heated discussion on the phone before Dashti reached his compound. Bheel arrived a few minutes later.
Dashti asked Bheel what was wrong while the two men were still standing in the car porch. Bheel did not reply. Instead, he raised a gun and shot him in the forehead, according to the Dashtis’ retelling of the driver’s account.
The driver slipped away in a motorized rickshaw that took him to Dashti’s relatives.
Investigators suspect Bheel’s men stripped Dashti’s body of valuables, bundled it into his car, then drove it 200 meters away, according to a police source familiar with the case. The sight of servants washing blood from Bheel’s driveway heightened their suspicions. Badly shaken by the episode, the driver has since fled Karachi for Baluchistan.
Shah, the deputy-inspector who first investigated the case, confirmed to Reuters the driver told police he saw Bheel shoot Dashti. Police went to Makran about a week later to arrest Bheel but could not trace him, Shah added.
“The situation in Baluchistan is very tense as far as law and order is concerned,” said Shah, who retired in June.
Police named Bheel the suspect in their initial report of the murder, seen by Reuters, but have offered no official theory for a motive. Officers have wondered whether the pair may have fallen out over a business deal, possibly involving drugs.
The Dashtis say such speculation is baseless, but are at a loss to explain why the head of their family was killed.
Bheel may have less to fear from police than from guerrillas in Baluchistan who have declared war on drug traffickers.
Baluch insurgents accuse him of using his network to help Pakistan security agencies kidnap, torture and murder suspected separatists.
“He’s an asset of the Pakistani agencies,” said Allah Nazar Baloch, the leader of the Baluchistan Liberation Front, which has stepped up insurgency operations in Makran.
The BLF says its suspicions are based on testimony from villagers who say Bheel’s followers have visited their homes to inquire about individuals who have later disappeared.
The bodies of hundreds of the missing have been strewn across Baluchistan in recent years in what human rights groups call a policy of “kill-and-dump”. New York-based Human Rights Watch said in May 300 corpses had been found in the province since early 2011.
The military denies reports security forces abduct separatists and says insurgents themselves receive drug money.
“I do not maintain any links with criminals,” said Major-General Obaidullah Khan, head of the Frontier Corps in Baluchistan, the main force in the province.
“Allah Nazar is operating on the money that is provided by these smugglers,” Khan told Reuters in his headquarters in Quetta, the provincial capital. “Where is he getting these weapons?”
The Pakistani intelligence officer said he doubted Bheel personally supplied tips to security agencies, even if he was in broad alignment with them. “Every other guy is willing to sell this information,” he said. “Why would I be talking to Bheel?”
What does seem certain is that Bheel is on a rebel hit list. In 2009, the BLF sent a parcel bomb to Bheel’s son Yaqoob, wounding him and several others. Last year, their fighters killed a man reputed to be a significant member of Bheel’s syndicate.
Six months after Abdul Rehman Dashti’s murder, his family say they are resisting pressure from their community to seek revenge the old-fashioned way: a tit-for-tat killing. Instead, they nurse a hope the Supreme Court might reconsider their petition.
“We have given our personal cell numbers,” Fida Dashti said. “No one has taken the trouble to call us.”
Additional reporting by David Ingram in Washington and Katharine Houreld in Islamabad; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Michael Williams