What the bullets know: the forensics of Karachi violence

photos and text by Cheree Franco

KARACHI: On July 17, Taj Muhammad stood in the doorway of a burnt house. Melted bits of a desktop computer and a sewing machine were visible in the rubble. A few days earlier, the house had looked like hundreds of others in Orangi town’s Aligarh Colony, where tiny alleys lead to a jumble of concrete walled, partially open-air squatter dwellings. A street vendor by profession, Muhammad held a pan of spent bullets at arms length, displaying remnants from the previous week’s riots. Over the course of four days, 100 Karachites were killed and countless more injured in street violence. Muhammad’s three brothers are among the dead. One of them had six children.

“ANP shoots from there,” Muhammad’s neighbor said, indicating flat rooftops and high windows. “MQM fights on the ground.” Nearby walls are pock-mocked from bullets, and although the situation seemed stable on a bright Sunday morning, echoes of occasional gunfire ruffled the truce.

The Sindh Police Department blames its inability to halt Karachi’s ethnic clashes on a lack of resources. But according to Munir Ahmed Sheikh, assistant inspector general of forensics, police are getting better at determining perpetrators through scientific means.

“We’ve identified six weapons used in target killings from their spent bullets,” said Sheikh. “This is important because you come to know which groups are operating in the city, or which groups have actually committed crimes. Particular groups use particular weapons because they get financing from the same source.”

Sheikh is not at liberty to reveal which weapons have been identified, nor who those groups may be. He is unable to say if confiscated weapons have been matched to shells plucked off the streets in the past six weeks of heightened Karachi violence.

“All I can tell you is the procedure,” Sheikh said. “Bullets are recovered from the field by investigation officers, who send them to us. The bullets are then photographed and grouped according to weapon, so that we know how many weapons we’re dealing with. Then we use a comparison microscope to obtain unique data on the bullets.”

The residents of Aligarh say that no police have come to collect their shells. If police were in the area the night of July 8, they kept out of sight as bullets flew, fires raged in 30 homes, and the contents of eight Pashtun-owned fabric shops hardened into black fossil.

When shells do make it into police custody, experts can usually determine if the involved weapons were obtained legally or illegally. “We only issue licenses for bolt-rifles and handguns,” said Muhammad Riazuddin Qureshi, additional secretary of the Sindh Home Department. “Licenses for automatic weapons are stringently controlled and come from the federal government.” So if a street bullet was fired from an automatic weapon, that weapon is almost certainly illegal.

An examiner can identify the weapon type from any bullet. But specific data from a single weapon must be matched to a specific bullet in order to confirm weapon identification. This identification is possible only if that weapon has entered police custody long enough to have its data collected. Each bullet has unique qualities—striker pin, breech and chamber marks—which are essentially a gun’s fingerprint. Like people, no two guns have the same fingerprints.

According to Sheikh, the bullet’s data is entered in a database and a report is filed. Then the bullet is returned to the police branch that originally recovered it, and sometimes it’s introduced as court evidence. When weapons are recovered, they are fired in a chamber, and the resulting shells undergo the same procedure.

“All we do is examine material and send it back. Only the court and the investigating officer know the details of the report, because it could prejudice the case investigator,” said Sheikh.

The largest ballistics database has over 200,000 entries and contains stats on bullets used in street crime. High profile murders go into a three-month-old target-killings database. There is also a third database, configured to match bullets to weapons. Forensics receives 20 to 25 bullets a day, including those retrieved from the autopsies of gunshot fatalities. If a bullet matches a weapon, Forensics contacts the Home Department to find out if the weapon is registered.

“This is important for the report, because punishment of the same crime is different if committed by legal versus an illegal weapon,” said Sheikh.

Home Department records show that 13,802 guns have been legally registered in Karachi from January 1 to July 31 of this year, up from 9,794 guns registered in all of 2010. “But criminals don’t want to be tracked, so of course they don’t use registered weapons,” said Qureshi.

Karachi has a thriving underground arms trade. Presently the Home Department is taking steps to make forgeries more difficult and national background checks standard for every license applicant, but Qureshi admits that it will be years before these improvements are fully implemented. “And by that time, officers tend to get transferred or promoted elsewhere,” he added.

To register a weapon, a Sindh resident must have a NIC and either tax returns or utility bills—“because in Pakistan, 97% of people don’t pay taxes,” Qureshi noted—as well as an application vetted by his or her local supervisory police district. At this time, background checks happen only at the local level.

“We issue one license per weapon,” explained Qureshi. “It costs Rps4,500 to renew each license, each year. Legally you cannot even own a weapon after its license expires. You have to turn it in to your arms dealer or the Home Department. But since people tend to lock up their weapons and stay away or out of country, the Home Department takes a benign view and avoids prosecuting these license holders.” New weapons licenses have a built-in carry permit for loaded handguns, but older licenses require an additional permit.

Under Benazir Bhutto’s cabinet, possession of firearms was banned in1992. Musharraf overturned the ban in 1999. According to a 2010 paper published by the Collective for Social Science Research, Karachi, the city’s violent ethnic crime peaked between ‘93 and ‘96, directly following Bhutto’s gun ban, “with the rate of violent deaths to be 13 per 100,000 (deaths).” This Collective used stats from Human Rights Commission Pakistan’s annual reports.

But in Sheikh’s opinion, “street violence in Karachi is worse now than it’s even been. Maybe that’s because in the 1990s, there were more knives and now there are more guns, and or maybe the media hype contributes. Maybe we just didn’t know how bad it was then. In the 90s we had only PTV.”

There were between two and three hundred murders in Karachi in July, and thus far, August figures seem to be following suit. “Police can’t respond swiftly in an emergency. What do you want the people to do? If the state is failing to protect its people, then you can’t blame them for wanting a weapon for personal protection,” said Qureshi.

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