Sweden's once idyllic image threatened by gang violence and crime risk

  • Living
  • Saturday, 21 Aug 2021

A view of the southern part of Stockholm's old town. Sweden has long had a problem with violence between rival gangs. Photos: Steffen Trumpf/dpa

Sweden, by its own admission, has a serious gang violence problem, with shootings and the detonation of improvised explosives now regular events in many of its towns and cities.

There is widespread public anger at the perceived failure of Sweden's government to tackle the issue, and Swedish police are particularly concerned about teenagers being drawn into criminal circles.

"The power of the gangs over the young must be broken," thundered an editorial in the national daily newspaper Sydsvenskan recently.

Crime reporter Lasse Wierup attempted to understand and explain the phenomenon in his book Gangster Paradise, which came out in 2020.

In it, Wierup sheds light on how a country that for so long was seen as safe and stable could instead become notorious for gang crime, shootings and even bombings.

According to Wierup, who works for Sweden's newspaper of record, Dagens Nyheter, there are now at least 350 criminal organisations in Sweden, from Hell's Angels to street gangs and other locally active networks, all vying to control the drug trade, among other things. This represents a staggering three-fold increase from 2010.Police officers on horseback guarding a football match between Swedish clubs IFK Göteborg and AIK Solna. Photo: Mathias Bergeld/Bildbyran via ZUMA Press/dpaPolice officers on horseback guarding a football match between Swedish clubs IFK Göteborg and AIK Solna. Photo: Mathias Bergeld/Bildbyran via ZUMA Press/dpa

At the beginning of the book, Wierup quotes Prime Minister Stefan Lofven's comment back in 2019: "We may not have seen this coming," he said, referring to the escalation of gang violence in the country.

According to the opposition and some media outlets, this statement revealed a certain helplessness in the Swedish government's approach to the rampant rise in criminality.

Events in Sweden since then make it sound less like the land of Pippy Longstocking, untouched nature and happy blond people, and more like the run-down sections of a major urban centre.

In recent years, there have been repeated explosions, often at the entrance to apartment blocks and sometimes in front of municipal buildings. While people are rarely injured in such attacks, they nevertheless terrorise the local population and contribute to an atmosphere of fear.

While the detonation of improvised explosives and even hand grenades has become less frequent, that doesn't mean that the streets are any safer, as there were some 180 shootings reported in Sweden during the first half of 2021 alone – an average of one shooting somewhere in the country per day.

The death toll in the first seven months of 2021 stood at 25, with dozens more wounded in gang shootings.

In July 2021, for example, a 33-year-old police officer in Gothenburg was shot dead in the street while on duty in the city's Biskopsgarden district, an area well known for gang violence. Just a couple of weeks later, two children were injured by stray bullets in the Stockholm suburb of Huddinge.Could Sweden become a gangster's paradise? Or is it one already?Could Sweden become a gangster's paradise? Or is it one already?

A year earlier, a 12-year-old girl was killed during a drive-by shooting in the municipality of Botkyrka near Stockholm. The nation has been deeply shaken by these events."We have observed a trend that it's becoming more common for bystanders to get caught up in this kind of violence," criminologist Manne Gerell recently told radio station SVT.

The gunmen are usually young men; increasingly they are teenagers.

"The average perpetrator is about 20 years old and lives in a so-called bad area," Wierup says. "One new trend, however, is that minors are playing an ever greater role."

This has been shown by a spate of recent arrests; in the case of the police shooting, a 17-year-old was subsequently arrested. A few days later in the city of Linkoping, a minor died in a shooting, just two-and-a-half months after another attack left a 20-year-old dead.

Minors are used by the gangs for hiding and moving drugs and firearms.

"I am actually quite worried about our future," the local police chief in Sollentuna in northern Stockholm, Christoffer Bohman, told SVT.So what exactly has Sweden been doing wrong?

One of the main underlying causes for the escalating gang violence, according to Wierup, is Sweden's low conviction rate.

"The short answer is that the penalties for living a life of crime in Sweden are often low," he says. "Many young people, particularly those who have immigrated from other countries, are discovering that you can commit a lot of crime without facing a hefty sentence."

Swedish legislation is from a different era in this respect, says Wierup. The Swedish parliament has finally resolved to do something about that and has introduced several stricter laws.

Lofven's government has also presented a 34-point plan for bringing gang violence under control.

"Everyone should be safe in Sweden, no matter where they live," according to a government statement.The problem, from Wierup's point of view, is that criminal networks have long since established themselves, so "breaking" them, as Lofven has often promised, will not be an easy task for the frequently overstretched Swedish police. – dpa

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