Swedish Mafia: fighting a losing battle

To an outsider, Sweden would seem an unlikely place to find rising gang crime. But the problem has snowballed since the nineties, leaving police clamouring for better tools to deal with the problem. Daniel Boman reports.

Sweden is not a country usually associated with mafia-style gang crimes. But over the last decade a new breed of organized crime has sunk its claws into Sweden, leaving the authorities several steps behind.

Reported cases of extortion have more than doubled in ten years and police estimate that there are now fifty criminal gangs around the country, compared to just a few ten years ago. Frustrated at finding themselves on the back foot, police now want the Minister of Justice to establish a ‘Swedish FBI’.

Even though there is no Cosa Nostra or Yakuza operating in Sweden, around a dozen criminal clusters are believed to exist in the country, competing with each other over market shares and using deadly violence to achieve their goals.

Gothenburg restaurant owners Masoud and Shahnaz Garakoei last year became the public face of the victims of gang crime. Their ordeal started in 2003, when two men walked into their Persian restaurant in the Hisingen area and demanded protection money.

“We are Bandidos. We own Hisingen and we are here to protect you from the Russian mob. Pay us and don’t tell this to anyone,” the men told Mr Garakoei.

The restaurateurs decided that they had no choice but to pay the 120,000 kronor the gang demanded. But when the gangsters returned a year later and demanded more, the couple decided they would not give in to further threats. Mr Garakoei went to the Bandidos’ headquarters and told the gang’s president that he would not pay. He then went to the police, and seven Bandidos members were arrested, tried and jailed.

The couple’s bravery earned them the accolade ‘Swedes of the Year’ from Fokus magazine, but in the end even the Garakoeis decided they couldn’t take any more. They shut up shop in February, saying the financial and psychological pressure of enduring extortion and death threats had become too much.

The Garakoeis’ story is by no means unique. A new book “Svensk Maffia” (‘Swedish Mafia’), describes how biker crews such as Hells Angels, Bandidos and Outlaws have established themselves in 25 cities, from southernmost Sweden to Luleå in the north. And in larger cities police witness the growth of suburban gangs, for example Fucked For Life, Original Gangsters and Naserligan.

In 1990, the Hell’s Angels established a chapter in Skåne, making them the first international biker gang in Sweden. Soon after the Angels’ arrival on the Swedish scene, media started reporting that the gang was involved in criminal activities. A biker war developed between rival gangs in southern Sweden. Since then, organized crime has been a fact of life in Skåne and in Sweden as a whole.

“Sweden is no longer like it was in the idyllic fifties. Today companies need to watch out for extortion, fraud and even kidnapping. As an enterprise you have to prepare for the worst, you should assume that you are a target”, says Tommy Svensson, head of security at Svenskt Näringsliv, the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise.

Mainly these threats are aimed at companies situated in what the police describe as the grey area between legitimate and illegal businesses, where owners do not feel comfortable asking for help. But even large scale, well established firms have been hit.

In 2005 Fabian Bengtsson, president of electronics giant SIBA, was kidnapped and kept in a soundproof wooden box for three weeks. His ransom was set at 50 million kronor. Darko Sokacic, a 43-year-old Croatian, who was found to have masterminded the plot, was sentenced to ten years in jail for kidnapping and attempted blackmail.

High-profile convictions like this have led some to imagine that since the Berlin wall was torn down, criminals from former communist countries have flooded Sweden.

This is a common misconception, says Henrik Tham, criminology professor at Stockholm University:

“Crimes in Sweden are carried out by Swedes. The majority of criminal activities still revolve around alcohol, drugs, gambling and sex-trade, even though extortion and threats towards witnesses and police have increased”.

Indeed, Sweden has been pretty good at exporting its own, home-grown gangsters.

One of the first home-grown criminal networks to use mafia techniques such as threats and violence as a business concept was the Uppsala Mafia. Having started out by selling steroids at the gym, the gang eventually achieved worldwide notoriety after luring international companies into investing in Gizmondo, a company that built on the back of a handheld gaming console that barely reached the market.

In total, Gizmondo was drained of 1.6 billion kronor. The scam got international attention last year after Stefan Eriksson, one of the crew’s top dogs, split his seven million kronor Ferrari Enzo in half, crashing into a telephone pole in Malibu, California while driving at 250 kilometres per hour.

Police and criminologists agree that criminal gangs have become more common but are at a loss to explain why. In times of economic growth crime rates also rise, but the underlying factors have yet to be explained.

“Maybe it’s simply because more people like to be in gangs. There hasn’t been any studies done on this”, says Henrik Tham.

The increased power of the Swedish mafia poses a tough challenge for the police. Many officers admit they are powerless in the face of the gangs’ ruthless techniques.

“The criminal networks have multiplied, and in a sense the authorities can’t protect the public,” says Thomas Servin, chief of the Skåne police intelligence unit.

“A restaurant owner or construction company pushed for a monthly envelope will be forced out of business if they turn to the police. There will be threats or retaliation, and today’s witness protection programs are not sufficient”, says Servin.

With the police powerless to help, companies are being forced to take their own measures to deal with the problem:

“The security industry is growing,” says Tommy Svensson.

“It is now also common to recruit a head of security to deal with these questions. If an employee discovers phoney invoices for example, the security expert will report to the police. Then the employee won’t risk being threatened,” he says.

The best hope for the authorities to take back the initiative is to strike at the roots of the criminal enterprises, says Bengt Svensson of the National Criminal Investigation Department. But, he says, this will require cooperation over regional and national boundaries.

“We need to cooperate on a national basis since criminality no longer is limited to regions, or even countries. Then we would be able to strike towards the foundations of these gangs, not only individuals caught in the act of stealing or robbing”, Svensson says.

These calls have now reached the top of the police force. National Police Commissioner Stefan Strömberg is pressing the government to approve the foundation of a ‘Swedish FBI’ which would be allowed to operate anywhere in Sweden. There has so far not been a formal response from the government, but many police dealing with organized crime hope this idea will help them turn the tables on Sweden’s gangs.

Daniel Boman