Trading bullets in a gun-friendly nation
On January 25 this year, 32-year-old Waqas, a garment factory employee was hit by a bullet in New Karachi and he died. The bullet was not fired from the gun of a target killer, but by friends of a bridegroom amidst late-night wedding celebrations.
Two children aged 10 and 12, died in Sialkot in a similar incident on February 20, when the jubilant brother of a bridegroom unleashed a burst of bullets.
Such accidents, almost an every-day affair in Pakistan, never make it to the front pages of newspapers or prime time news bulletins. A country where any festive occasion is often announced by the sound of gunfire, Pakistan is evidently a very gun-friendly society.
The on-going gun and arms battle in Karachi’s old neighbourhood of Lyari also serves as an example of thriving gun culture in the country.
“For the last several days, the densely populated neighbourhood of Lyari has been resounding with endless volleys of gunfire. At times the sound of gunfire is interrupted by rocket-propelled grenades, forcing most residents to either remain indoors or run for life,” states a report in this newspaper.
In a population of over 170 million, there are only 0.7 physicians and 0.6 hospital beds for every 1,000 people and less than 7 per cent of the country’s population has acquired college education; but for every hundred citizens, at least four are in possession of licensed firearms. In turn, for each licensed firearm holder, there are nine who possess these arms without a license. This, while presuming the Small Arms Survey may not have been able to find exact figures from Pakistan’s rural areas, where the possession of at least one firearm per capita would not be inappropriate assumption and also not accounting for the wide possession of assault rifles, a restricted item which is used and traded in abundance.
This micro-image mirrors a larger picture of a heavily militarised Pakistan. For the country’s defence forces, the figures go far beyond the scope of small arms. Heavy and light infantry, ammunition, bombs, missiles, tanks and even combat aircraft are among the top forms of arms. Additionally, there exists an organised weapons sector, which encompasses arms production, exports and imports. The primary production facilities in this sector fall under the ambit of the military, such as the Pakistan Ordinance Factories, Heavy Industries Taxila, Heavy Mechanical complex, and many other entities managing various aspects of defence production.
Pakistan reportedly deals in almost US$300 million worth of military exports annually, according to military officials. Majority of these exports are attributed to Al-Khalid tanks and JF-17 aircraft, while small arms exports are estimated at US$10 million.
On the imports front, Pakistan has been ranked as Asia’s third-highest weapons importer by Swedish institute SIPRI, with major suppliers being China, the United States, and Sweden. France, which was one of Pakistan’s significant suppliers, has recently halted sales after the raid to capture Osama Bin Laden in May 2011 was carried out.
Additionally, Pakistan also houses a sizable cottage weapons industry, mainly located in its North-Western tribal belt. While the military claims to have cracked down on the unregulated activity with operations in the Khyber Agency, such make-shift manufacturing activity still continues unabated, with some of the production taking place in the largest metropolis, Karachi.
The illegal supply spreads well beyond cottage production. Pakistan’s porous Western border provides ample trafficking opportunities, with large caches of arms being smuggled into the country. In Balochistan, these markets thrive, where otherwise thousands live under poverty yet an AK-47 is a common commodity. However, the illegal arms trade is not just limited to assault rifles.
Rockets, mortars, mines, anti-aircraft guns – there is no shortage of variety as one can deduce from the Shahzain Bugti incident, where he was found in the possession of a large cache of arms being brought through the Afghan border. While these markets may thrive in the rural areas, their spill-over effect is felt all over Pakistan.
Karachi, Pakistan’s financial hub and primary metropolis, is one of the areas significantly affected by the said spill-over. With the presence of all major political parties, religious organisations, and even the odd terrorist outfit, the extent of possession is verified by its crime rate and violence.
An estimated $134 million worth of small arms are imported into Pakistan annually. The quoted figure is the legal imports of small firearms, military grade to hunting and sports, which include pistols, revolvers, shotgun, and rifles along with their ammunition. This would obviously not account for the plethora of weapons smuggled through the porous Afghan border, where various arms traffickers operate.
Gunpolicy.com states the possession rate of illegal firearms in Pakistan is 2.5 illegal firearms for every single legal fire arm. The figures have been obtained from different sources and are based on a mean average basis over a long period of time, making it safe estimate that every year around $200-million worth of illegal firearm weapons and ammunition cross the borders into Pakistan and enter the black market. The rest are produced locally in the infamous Darra Adam Khel market, in the absence of any regulatory or controlling authority to monitor or even measure the manufacturing.
The main issue in regulating arms control in the state is the border, where macro smuggling (across national borders) and micro (inter-provincial and inter city) smuggling.
While markets which are direct recipients of smuggled weapons across the border operate in various areas in Balochistan, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and the tribal agencies, the transfer of these weapons takes place towards other provincial markets. The Sindh-Balochistan border, the areas around Jaffarabad, Jacobabad, and Shikarpur, are the primary markets of these weapons, from where they spread out further throughout Sindh, including Karachi. Likewise, Dera Ismail Khan, Dera Ghazi Khan, and Rahim Yar Khan are transit areas for weapons heading towards Punjab.
According to centralasiaonline.com, the trafficking of illegal firearms has increased 50 per cent over the years and weapons from the Central Asian and Afghan black markets into Pakistan from Balochistan or Fata’s porously-patrolled border areas.
Weapons are also exported via the coastal areas of Pakistan to either Arab or East African states, intelligence officials have claimed. It is believed that monitoring illegal imports ranks higher on the priority list of the Coast Guards, making arms export via the coast line a rather smooth operation.
Once these weapons enter the country they are smuggled into other provinces or major cities, for instance, Karachi which could rival any tribal area of the Pashtuns, Baloch and Afghans, when it comes to the gun possession ratio.
Karachi alone has 36 entry/exit road routes which are policed by a short-staffed and poorly resourced police department. Even if pickets are set-up on these routes the criminals are tipped off by their informants and opt for other off-road paths to bypass the pickets. In contrast to the coast guards the authorities policing the highways have a higher priority on keeping a check on stolen cars taken out of the city.
There is a further division of smugglers, who would be moving contraband items such as drugs, alcohol and weapons mostly, across city and provincial borders ranging from small-scale operations like transporting a small cache in a private car to medium scale operators like passenger bus drivers and transporters and lastly the large-scale commercial smugglers.
In all three cases the contraband items are hidden in concealed compartments within the vehicles. The same markets that provide the contraband items are usually neighboured by auto mechanical workshops that specialise in modifying cars and constructing concealed compartments in vehicles.
Small private vehicle owners usually attempt to shield themselves by accompanying themselves with their family members (women and children), passenger coaches and container trucks and cargo trailers have concealed compartments in addition to the regular cargo holds.
Whatever arrests that authorities make to contain the movement, they are mostly based on tip offs received by informants or intelligence agencies.
In the world of arms sales, there is no specific black market – everything is just a shade of grey. Shopkeepers, in the present day, are generally apprehensive while dealing with new customers and refuse to entertain any clients without a valid arms license, but those with the proper connections and reputation do get access eventually and with quite ease.
The process of applying for an arms license is anything but simple. Knowing people in the right the right connections can help obtain an arms license without any hassle at a nominal government fee of approximately Rs.3,500. Otherwise, a license can be procured very easily for a fee of Rs15000 via the liaison of any arms dealer in the city.
Apart from a license, a carrying permit is required which incurs an expense of Rs1200 for every 90 days. However, the 144 permit – as it is called – is not issued easily, where PR and palm-greasing come into play.
Guns for hire
“The Afghan-Russian war of the 1980s and the subsequent influx of Afghan refugees was the prime factor in the change of weapon culture in Pakistan,” a police official, requesting anonymity, told Dawn.com.
In the tribal belt of the Pak-Afghan border guns are part of the daily attire and no “self-respecting” Pashtun would be seen without a visible weapon. For those who are lesser fortunate and cannot own a weapon, there are shops that offer weapons for hire on an hourly basis, charging a nominal fee. When these people move to urban areas, their lifestyles seldom change and the same customs are followed in the city.
The network of lending and borrowing weapons is therefore spread out to where ever the people move.
The other communities where these tribal inhabitants settle, pick up on the developing influx and adapt themselves to match the trend in a bid to keep up with the “weapon-carrying fashion.”
Several factors contribute to the bonding of groups, including neighbourhoods, communities or political affiliations that look out to each others concerns, forming a support system for each other.
Weapons are lent to prospective customers or colleagues and the dealing takes place under an implied code of conduct. For instance, the borrower must bear all risk for the hot weapon and would be expected to conduct his activities outside the neighbourhood.
This scenario presents a very interesting equation: a motorbike can be hired for Rs30-75 per hour where as the going rate for a weapon is estimated to be Rs100-300 per hour, depending on the make and model of the weapon leased. For an investment of Rs400, which cover the basic ingredients needed to commit street crimes (rampant mobile snatching incidents, muggings and snap kidnappings), culprits can potentially earn up to a hundred times more than the initial investment.
In this country, hearing gunshots on a daily basis is a sign of normalcy. The open display of weapons is considered a sign of strength and power. Compare this to the police forces in certain countries, which are armed with nothing more than a baton and it seems that the weapons carried by the law enforcement agencies are often pale in comparison to those carried by civilians.
The younger generation is growing up under the adverse influence of this culture, with prime example being the lucrative business (on Eid and other festivities) of toy gun sellers. Children, after collecting their ‘Eidi’ (cash presents handed out by elders), find toy guns as the most attractive purchase.
Weapons and crime have a directly proportional relationship, and with the increasing prevalence of arms in the country, crime has consistently been on the rise. Unless the border is regulated such that the flow of weapons into the country is controlled, and large caches of illegal arms, ones being sold as well as those possessed individually, are confiscated, this issue does not seem likely to subside.
While possessing a weapon illegally is often more convenient than taking the legal course, one wonders what will make the government realise and act upon the dilemma. Judging by the law enforcement approach of the high and mighty, it is puzzling that they do not see it as a problem. Recently, Interior Minister Rahman Malik announced a quick and easy process for the issuance of arms licences to traders amid growing extortion threats. Puzzled at the offer, traders retorted: “we are not supposed to pull out pistols and start a gunfight with extortionists.”