SAVAR, Bangladesh — Barely 20 miles from the capital, this gritty suburb is now a dusty, chaotic industrial center littered with factories that produce clothes for leading Western brands. Building codes are often unenforced, regulatory oversight is flimsy, and the men wielding power often travel with armed guards.
And perhaps no one wielded power more brazenly than Mohammed Sohel Rana. He traveled by motorcycle, as untouchable as a mafia don, trailed by his biker gang. Local officials and Bangladeshi media say he was involved in illegal drugs and guns, but he also had a building, Rana Plaza, that housed five factories. Upstairs, workers earned as little as $40 a month making clothes for retailers like J.C. Penney. Downstairs, Rana hosted local politicians, playing pool, drinking and, the officials say, indulging in drugs.
Now Rana, 35, is under arrest, the most reviled man in Bangladesh after the horrific collapse of Rana Plaza last week left nearly 400 people dead, with many others still missing. Tuesday, a top Bangladeshi court seized his assets as the public bayed for his execution, especially as it appeared that the tragedy could have been averted if the frantic warnings of an engineer who examined the building the day before had been heeded.
But if Rana has been vilified, he is partly a creation of the garment era in Bangladesh, which has seen global businesses arrive in search of cheap labor to keep profits high and costs low.
Bangladesh is a garment manufacturing giant, the second-leading apparel exporter, behind China. The industry accounts for $19 billion in exports.
Global apparel companies often depict their supply chains as tightly scrutinized systems to ensure that clothing sold to U.S. buyers is produced in safe, monitored factories. But their inspectors check safety factors and working conditions, not the buildings themselves, and the companies have no direct control over the subcontractors who do much of the work.
Rana existed largely above scrutiny. Many local people say his political clout was such that not even the police dared to confront him. Television stations reported the cracks in the building the night before it collapsed, but no local authority prevented Rana from opening the building the next morning.
"Money is his power," said Ashraf Uddin Khan, a former Savar mayor, who accused Rana of being deeply involved in the drug trade. "Illegal money."
Neither Rana nor a representative was available for comment.
Land helped create Rana's power. His father had been a peasant who sold his plot in a village and bought a small parcel in Savar. As prices began to rise, the father sold a portion of that land and used his profits to start a small factory making mustard oil. He also got involved in politics with the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, then in power, and slowly grew richer.
By 2000, land prices were rising and Rana was helping his father. They could see other hurriedly constructed buildings rising in Savar, and they decided to build Rana Plaza — except they did not have clear title to all the land. Rabindranath Sarkar, who had bought land in partnership with Rana's father, said the family sent thugs to seize part of his share and then retaliated when he filed a police complaint.
"Rana chased me through Savar with weapons," Sarkar said. "The police wouldn't even dare to protect me. The police were always scared of them."
Another adjacent family said Rana sent representatives to try to persuade them to sell a plot, including a small pond, beside Rana's land. By 2005, a year before construction started on Rana Plaza, Rana simply falsified a land deed to take possession of the pond, the family said.
Bangladesh initially sought to attract foreign investment by creating Export Processing Zones, which had higher quality building and tighter regulations. But as demand from foreign buyers rose, factories began sprouting across the country, including quickly built structures to accommodate the small operators who did subcontract work on tight margins.
By 2011, Rana had rented out the existing five floors and gotten a permit from the mayor, a political ally, to build additional floors. Khan, the former mayor, said this practice created serious risks, since officials were handing out permits, often for bribes, without insisting on the necessary safeguards.
"For the garment industry, Savar grew quickly, and in an unplanned manner," he said. "There are so many buildings like Rana Plaza in Savar."
Rana found factory owners to rent his new upper floors and appeared to be gaining in influence. Then on April 23, a problem arose. Workers on the third floor were stitching clothing when they were startled by a noise that sounded like an explosion. Cracks had appeared in the building. Workers rushed outside in terror.
By late morning, Rana's representatives had brought in Abdur Razzaque Khan, an engineer. Taken to the third floor, Khan examined three support pillars and was horrified by the cracks he found. "I became scared," Khan said. "It was not safe to stay inside this building." He rushed downstairs and told one of Rana's administrators that the building needed to be closed immediately. But Rana was apparently not impressed, saying there was no problem.
The next morning, Rana Plaza collapsed.
Even now, many people in Savar remained unconvinced that Rana will be punished or that his style of business will be cleaned up.
"Rana is not the only one," said Sarkar.