As a result, Karachi is far and away the world's most dangerous megacity, with a homicide rate of 12.3 per 100,000 residents, some 25 percent higher than any other major city. Consider this telling statistic from a megacity next door: In 2011, 202 murders occurred in Mumbai, India. Karachi had 1,723 -- and more than 2,000 in 2012. Now added to this combustible mix are drug gangs often with links to Iran -- like the one Abbasi and his men busted. And they've brought with them a new commodity that is increasingly making its way from Karachi's ports to the wider world: methamphetamine.
Opiates had always been Karachi's drug of choice. With as much as 90 percent of the world's heroin production right across the border in poppy-rich Afghanistan, Pakistani drug barons have reaped the benefits of proximity. Despite a ban on opium production in 1955, Iran saw a heroin resurgence in subsequent decades, becoming a major regional production center. But after the mullahs came to power in 1979, the drug trade shifted east. Heroin was produced en masse in Afghanistan and Pakistan to fund the mujahideen fighting the Soviets. The drugs primarily went to market through Karachi's port and on to Europe and the Americas.
Setting up the infrastructure for this trade was almost a matter of policy for military ruler Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, who created the National Logistics Cell -- essentially a military trucking business -- to transport heroin from the northwest to Karachi and bring weapons in the other direction. Even by the standards of rogues and dictators, Zia was unusually brazen and corrupt, with close associates implicated in drug trafficking and money laundering plots. Pakistan seemed on the verge of becoming a narcostate. In 1980, on his way to the United Nations in New York, Zia's diplomatic cargo was searched, and heroin was reportedly found stuffed into marble lamps. After the war with the Soviets and Zia's mysterious death, that transport infrastructure was more or less privatized by Pakistani cartels and drug mafias, and it has lasted through the present day. Today, as much as 40 percent of Afghanistan's heroin still transits through Karachi, according to the United Nations.
But as the global appetite for heroin has waned, producers and smugglers are turning to methamphetamine, demand for which is soaring in nearby East Asia. Iran has emerged as the biggest producer of methamphetamine in the region, but Pakistan still appears to be the natural transit route to eastern markets like Malaysia and Australia, as well as a major supplier of the precursor chemicals that are the drug's main ingredients. There are signs, however, that sophisticated labs are being set up in Pakistan itself, perhaps by Iranian syndicates. And links to Pakistani meth are showing up in places from Mexico to Melbourne.
AS ANYONE WHO has seen the TV drama Breaking Bad knows, the production of methamphetamine is a complex and combustible process, requiring a laboratory and various chemical ingredients, or precursors -- the most notable of which is ephedrine or its close cousin, pseudoephedrine. These precursors have legitimate uses in cough, cold, and allergy medications (they act as a decongestant), and drug companies produce them on an industrial scale. But in Karachi, which has an advanced pharmaceutical industry, it has become clear that production is being diverted to criminal enterprises.
In April 2011, Karachi port officials discovered 540 pounds of ephedrine hidden in packets of spice mix bound for Australia. That same year, officials in Tehran reported the seizure of 1,170 pounds of ephedrine coming from Pakistan. And in June 2012, a group of men with more than 1,750 pounds of meth was stopped at Karachi's airport. Authorities only managed to arrest one of the smugglers; accomplices waiting outside barged into the customs hall and fled with the drugs. But what really has international drug-control officials worried is the sense that these seizures are just the tip of the iceberg. For example, Australian police are investigating a Melbourne biker gang, the Black Uhlans, that is suspected of setting up a massive Indian meth lab and contacting a senior Pakistani government official about drug importations.
The U.N. International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) helps governments regulate and monitor the potential for illicit drug production, and Pakistan, like most countries, reports its need for ephedrine -- what are called annual legitimate requirements. In 2007, Pakistan reported a legitimate requirement of 11 tons of pseudoephedrine to the INCB. In 2010, it reported 53 tons -- nearly three times the amount that most countries produce, making Pakistan the world's fourth-largest producer of pseudoephedrine. That means that either a lot more Pakistanis have suddenly come down with the sniffles -- or the drug trade has, once again, corrupted officials at the highest levels.