If Karachi's police seem helpless to combat drugs on the streets, perhaps Pakistan's Anti Narcotics Force (ANF) is the last, best hope to stem the large-scale trade and trafficking. Staffed by former military officers, the ANF is in practice a branch of Pakistan's powerful army, but it has received funding from the United States and guidance from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Its more than 1,500 well-armed troops form the front line in the drug war, and the force's website trumpets the staggering quantities of hash and heroin seized: 9,863 pounds of hash apprehended on May 1 in Killa Abdullah, 613 pounds of heroin on April 26 in Karachi. And on July 26, the ANF announced that its Lahore office had seized some 117 pounds of ephedrine, 95 pounds of ephedrine mixed with vanilla powder, and, bizarrely, 1,272 bottles of ephedrine mixed with jam. Often, though, the news releases accompanying such successes contain a line of boilerplate that speaks to the scale of the problem: "Although the endeavors of ANF are wholehearted and wide-ranging, the meager strength / resources remains to be a challenge." According to Naveed, "The crackdown on ephedrine has not had an impact on the prevalence of crystal use on the streets; it continues to rise."
Pharmaceutical executives in Karachi, however, say that the ANF has cracked down hard on access to ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, so much so that companies are afraid to apply for new quotas. Insiders say that this is blowback from the Gilani case: ANF officials are embarrassed that they didn't catch the scam themselves, and in an attempt to show their underwriters that they are serious, they have overreacted -- but will soon back off. The labs and the traffickers are likely biding their time, waiting to see whether the ephedrine spigot is easily loosened again. "I think that there is such easy money to be made [by diverting ephedrine] that I don't think it's going to go away," said a former official. "It's like bootlegging."
ONE YEAR BEFORE Ali Musa Gilani was charged in Islamabad, another young Pakistani man was arrested for his alleged role in selling ephedrine on the global black market. Shiraz Malik, then 34, was taken into custody last year after landing at Prague's airport on a flight from Dubai. He was later extradited to the United States, where he awaits trial in a federal court in California. Malik is accused of running a multimillion-dollar "industrial scale" online narcotics and precursor business, according to the U.S. attorney in California's Eastern District.
Undercover DEA agents found a website for a Karachi-based pharmacy that offered to ship a number of prescription opiates as well as ephedrine, according to a criminal complaint the DEA filed against Malik. After agents emailed the pharmacy, Malik is alleged to have written back offering to send samples of his wares via express mail. Between 2008 and 2011, Malik mailed everything from heroin to ephedrine powder to Ritalin. The agents wired tens of thousands of dollars to bank accounts associated with Malik in the United States and Europe. After accessing his email account, the agents found that Malik had done regular ephedrine business with customers in Mexico. (They also found photos of kilogram-sized bags of ephedrine packed in suitcases that were believed to be headed to Mexican customers. The shipment never made it. A Pakistani-American mule was arrested with the cargo as he attempted to fly to Mexico City.)
Malik has pleaded not guilty. But there is still what appears to be an online business directory listing for the pharmaceutical wholesaler -- Shama Medical Store -- that the DEA alleges was a front for Malik's operation. In the section for company information, the site reads: "we are abal to provide u any kind of medicion and any kind of row matirial all our tha world and we also doing drop shipping all or tha world." There's even a physical address, located in Karachi's Hijrat Colony neighborhood, which was described to me by an urban-rights activist as "a nursery of crime" controlled by a powerful drug gang known as the "Hamid Terha Group" (terha roughly translates as "crooked").
I decided to pay Shama Medical a visit this past spring and see whether I'd be able to get prices for ephedrine or bulk amounts of cold medicine. I brought along a friend who covers crime for a local newspaper, and we made our way to Hijrat Colony slum, which is bordered by railway yards to the east and a mangrove swamp to the west. We took a main thoroughfare near the port into the colony and were quickly squeezed to a standstill by the suddenly winding, narrow streets. We doubled back, stopping to ask for directions.
Finally, we pulled up to Street 56, got out of the car, and walked into an alley.
After a couple of hundred yards we reached a four-story concrete building with faded red paint that read, "Shama Hospital." Next door was Shama Medical Store. Both seemed abandoned except for a group of young toughs loitering in the shade outside. One of them, with a long beard and wearing a white T-shirt and jeans, asked us what we were looking for; the others just gave us hard stares. "Shama Medical Store -- is it open?" my friend asked haltingly. In the silence, I realized that the street, in the middle of a densely packed slum, was unnervingly empty.
"Yeah, it's here. But it's been closed for a long time," the bearded guy said -- just as an older man in a purple button-down shirt, gray suit pants, and pointy black dress shoes that looked to be made of imitation alligator stepped out of the medical store. A cell phone was pressed to his ear.
We should go, I whispered under my breath. So we did -- walking quickly back to the car and driving away, hoping we wouldn't be followed.
Later, through a well-sourced local contact, I inquired about whether the police and ANF had investigated Shama Medical. They said they had never heard of it.