Bootlegging, Pakistan-Style

By ADAM B. ELLICK (NYT  story yesterday)

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — Even the threat of death cannot deter one 30-year-old entrepreneur here from his appointed rounds supplying the Pakistani elite with expensive contraband Scotch.

The bootlegger employs an elaborate scheme to conceal his business, renting a private house that doubles as a secret warehouse and hiring teenage motorbike drivers to deliver his supplies. Such inventiveness is a requirement in this line of business: to hide from the police, who want his money; the Taliban, who want his head; and his family, who would disown him.

Alcohol products have been illegal in Pakistan since the 1970s, when religious groups reacting to a spike in consumption persuaded Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to institute a ban.

Shortly thereafter, Mr. Bhutto silenced the moralists and softened the prohibition when, addressing a crowd of constituents, was asked if he drank. He responded by saying, “Yes, I do drink wine, but at least I don’t drink the blood of the people.”

In today’s urban centers like Lahore and Karachi, alcohol is still widely available. But in places like Peshawar, a somewhat lawless and more conservative city on the frontier of the Taliban’s strongholds in Pakistan’s northwest, it has lately become far more difficult to procure.

For decades, men had sat on stools sipping whiskey at outdoor bars here. Even the local Taliban, who publicly condemned the consumption of alcohol as a violation of Islamic law, turned a blind eye, often relying on the illicit trade to support their insurgency.

But for a variety of local reasons, the Taliban decided to appear more righteous and closed the bars over the past two years and demanded that all shop owners remove alcoholic beverages from their display shelves. Violators have received public whippings. Some have been hanged.

The violence prompted most vendors to shift to unobjectionable products like flour. But for an intrepid and capitalistic few, the crackdown has opened a door to riches. The fancy prices government officials and feudal landlords are willing to pay for their favorite brand, Johnnie Walker Black Label, create profits that are handsome by Pakistani standards — $4,000 a year, or about seven times the average Pakistani salary.

Bootleggers who operate larger and more dangerous networks earn the steepest profits. One man, who claims to be the biggest dealer in Peshawar, says he has 10 employees and nets as much as $14,000 a night serving “the so-called respectable people,” as he wryly referred to his customers.

But they all operate in a shadowy world, aware that the slightest slip in security could mean disaster. All of the bootleggers interviewed for this story requested anonymity, for fear of being thrown in prison, kidnapped or killed.

“Before, it was so common in stores and bars,” said a man who shut down his bar about 18 months ago and is now delivering liquor. “But now, no one can say he drinks or sells. We hide everywhere. We cannot walk around freely. No one’s proud of this business.”

“When we get a big order, we’re not happy about it because the chances of getting caught are higher,” he said.

One distributor used to supply a certain district with cases of liquor several times a week, but he dropped the route after he was kidnapped last year, and released only after ransom was paid.

The local Taliban are “selling drugs and kidnapping, but they are against the sale of alcohol,” he said.

Selling alcoholic beverages is so sensitive that it is hidden even from close family members.

“Every bootlegger hides it from the family,” said one who was abducted last year by a local Taliban warlord; a huge ransom was paid for his release. “My wife didn’t know about my business until 2005, when a whole container of ours was captured in the port, and it was a huge business loss.”

To ensure their safety, bootleggers hire teenage motorbike drivers to shuttle one or two bottles across the police checkpoints that divide Peshawar from the outlying Tribal Areas. Sometimes the motorbike drivers panic at the checkpoints, the bootleggers say, refusing to stop and getting themselves shot in the process.

Those who are caught typically are released after paying a $350 bribe. At the higher levels, some bootleggers say they pay $1,200 a month to police chiefs who stamp their signature on the bottles, a sign to police officers to look the other way.

Once motorbike drivers reach the city, they give the bottles to the bootleggers, who stash the alcohol in the door panels of their cars, or stuff them in the front bumper — Suzuki Altos are known for an especially snug fit — and personally deliver them.

The added costs and risks of delivery have caused bootleggers to raise their prices by 20 percent compared with prices at the bars when they were open. Carlsberg and Heineken beers, which are especially popular in the summer, cost $8 a can. Whiskeys can range from $25 to $50 a bottle. Vodka, mostly from Central Asian nations like Kazakhstan, is also widely available, but it has never regained the popularity it enjoyed during the years of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

Until a few years ago, most of the alcoholic products were looted from containers coming from Karachi and destined for NATO troops in Kabul, Afghanistan. But since NATO heightened security along its transit routes, bootleggers now obtain the alcohol from employees at foreign embassies in Islamabad and Kabul, who secretly resell it on the black market.

Some also purchase small quantities from Pakistan’s non-Muslim groups, who are traditionally lower class and who can legally purchase small quotas, which they resell to bootleggers. Other inventories are smuggled in through customs at Pakistani ports like Karachi and Gwadar.

People who drink liquor have to exercise the same caution as those who sell it.

“We used to be a very moderate, vibrant and modern society,” said a 28-year-old educated Pakistani who does not tell his family that he is a regular drinker. “We had clubs, and females went to those clubs, but if you have people who have arms and are fully equipped, you don’t have any options.”

Pir Zubair Shah contributed reporting.

3 Comments

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3 responses to “Bootlegging, Pakistan-Style

  1. stuka

    Speaking from personal experience, easiest place to buy liquor is the theka behind Pearl Continental in Lahore. There are liquor stores in Avari and Holiday Inn as well but it is more of a hassle. Also Murree Whisky and Gin is disgusting. But Murree beer is pretty good. It is a lager and well suited to hot weather. Becharey Muslims of Pakistan do themselves a disservice when they give up Murree beer for Rooh Afza.

  2. Farukh Sarwar

    Abject poverty is the most probable reason why these bootleggers are not afraid, not even from death. The increasing influence of Taliban has resulted these people to abandon their traditional occupations and engage in these illegal occupations, mostly to support their families.

  3. Turath

    Prohibition does not work. The situation in Pakistan is the same as that of the United States in the 30s. People found a way to get their booze and those who brought it became very wealthy and powerful. In fact prohibition gave rise to various criminal organizations that eventually became the mafia. No surprise, that the law of prohibition on alcohol was eventually struck.

    Today in the western world it`s marijuana that is outlawed. Yet, marijuana is still available in the underground network and those who supply it have also become very wealthy.

    What people do in the comfort of their homes is their own business. The government has no right to violate a citizens personal liberty and privacy.

    If someone is Muslim and they want to drink so be it, it is a personal decision. The state has no right to interfere. Unfortunately, this is something the government of Pakistan does not understand.