The Price of Looking the Other Way
By Changez A. Ali
Pakistan’s lucrative cigarette-smuggling trade has links to terrorism.
Japan Center in Lahore’s Shah Alam or Shahalmi market is a gray, five-story structure just off the main road. It specializes in tobacco-related goods, with entire shops dedicated to retailing lighters, water-pipe tobacco, and smuggled cigarettes. The low-price cigarette brands displayed front and center here include Three Kings, Fisher, Tradition, Capitol, and the ubiquitous Melburn. All of these makes, say law enforcement officials and cigarette manufacturers, are illegal and dubious. But despite periodic crackdowns, their sale in Lahore and other Pakistani cities keeps places like Japan Center in business all year long.
Shahalmi isn’t the only market in Lahore to peddle cigarettes that have either been illegally manufactured, without abiding by regulations that seek to reduce health risks, or smuggled into Pakistan without paying due duties and taxes. But it seems to be the center of the illegal cigarette trade, with Japan Center just one of the many buildings here crowded almost exclusively with mom-and-pop cigarette fronts. Revenues from the sale of such cigarettes bolster crime rings and add to the security risks already confronting Pakistanis.
“Smuggled goods also include narcotics and arms and ammunition,” said Sultan Azam Temuri, additional inspector-general with the capital police in Islamabad, about the illicit cigarette trade in Pakistan. “This links up with terrorism.”
Many of the syndicates involved in cigarette trafficking via Torkham are linked up with militant groups, say Pakistani police officials. Brands like Melburn make their way into Pakistani markets through the Afghan border, which remains largely defiant to monitoring and vigilance efforts. Cigarettes, of course, are only part of the illegal imports; there are also drugs, alcohol, weaponry, and U.S. military hardware. The scale of the cigarette business alone—an estimated Rs. 100 billion in annual revenues for the smugglers—points to the difficulties in stamping out the problem. The billion-dollar cigarette-smuggling industry is flush with cash, a portion of which is used, some suspect, to have law enforcement look the other way.
The social costs from fattening the purses of organized crime linked up with terrorist outfits are obvious. Smuggling revenues are used to fund terrorist attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Cigarettes are only second to heroin as a revenue source for terrorists, according to a Pakistani intelligence official. The U.N. estimates that a third of the Taliban’s approximately $400 million in annual revenues comes from their extortion of smugglers.