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Why Swedish gangs use hand grenades (and what the country is doing about it)

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Why Swedish gangs use hand grenades (and what the country is doing about it)
Grenades seized by Bosnian police in 2014 that were on their way to Sweden. Photo: Bosnian police
15:14 CET+01:00
In the latest edition of our Sweden in Focus series, The Local looks at Sweden's struggle to crack down on hand grenades and illegal weapons.

Most in Sweden will likely know the story: with 2018 barely a week old, a 60-year-old man was killed after an object exploded outside a subway station in Vårby gård, southwestern Stockholm. He had picked up the object believing it was a toy. It turned out to be a grenade.

Outside of Sweden – and in particular in Birmingham – many will also be aware of the story of Yuusuf Warsame, who in 2016 at the age of just eight had his life taken by a grenade thrown into the Gothenburg apartment where he was staying while on holiday. His father was back home in Birmingham looking after the family shop at the time. His mother was sleeping in the same bed and was injured.

Vårby gård in Stockholm, where a man was killed in a grenade blast. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT

There is something about the brutality of grenade attacks – attacks involving objects that are specifically designed for war – that makes them stick in our minds. But while deaths caused by grenades in Sweden are still rare (the two aforementioned incidents are the only deaths caused by grenade attacks), the frequency with which the weapons are used by gangs appears to be increasing.

According to police figures, 43 hand grenades were seized in Sweden last year, of which 21 had been detonated. In 2016, 55 were seized, of which 35 had detonated. Both years were a notable increase on the amount of grenades detonated in 2015, when the number was 10 (though the amount seized that year, 45, was consistent with 2017).

Research and concrete figures on grenade use in Sweden is limited, but police in the country worry it has become something of a trend.

"Research is needed to provide a precise answer on whether the use of hand grenades has increased in Sweden, but we do believe that in part it has become a trend," Linda Staaf, head of intelligence at the Swedish Police National Operations Department (NOA), tells The Local.

READ ALSO: Police suspect they were targeted in grenade revenge attack

One ongoing study by criminologists and researchers Manne Gerell, Joakim Sturup, Amir Rostami and Anders Sandholm attempts to provide more concrete figures on shootings and explosions in Sweden. Their research suggests there have been 78 explosions of hand grenades in Sweden since 2010, of which half occurred in 2016.

The study has sought to compare the numbers with other countries, but found that difficult because figures on grenade explosions are rarely recorded during peace time. "The fact that no other countries even bothered to quantify the number of hand grenades says something. But from our perspective, there is a need to count them in Sweden," researcher Gerell wrote in a blog post detailing their continued work. The only other country they found with figures on grenades that could be used in comparisons was Mexico, though data there is weak.

The most common grenades in Sweden are quite literally weapons of war, dating back to the Balkan conflicts in the 1990s. And they are not the only war materials brought in from that conflict and used by gangs.

"In general pistols, revolvers and semi-automatic or automatic weapons are the ones we have seen," Noa's Staaf explains.

Linda Staaf. Photo: Polisen

They are primarily smuggled into the country by land, according to Jonas Karlsson, an expert on weapons smuggling at the Swedish Customs Agency (Tullverket).

"The most common way we find them is when they're being brought in by vehicles: cars, trucks and buses. They've been purchased or acquired in the Balkans, then driven across the continent through Europe to Sweden. Pistols and revolvers are most common, and some automatic weapons," he details to The Local.

Detecting them is a difficult task, as there is not a constant stream of weapons coming in – that's not how the black market works:

"This kind of smuggling is completely different from for example narcotics smuggling, because with narcotics there's a high pace of consumption so they have to be brought in all the time. With weapons there's a much lower pace of purchase on the market, so it could have been brought in six years ago and still be on the market. Weapons generally come in intermittently when there's a demand to be fulfilled among criminal networks."

A gun seized by Swedish police. Photo: Polisen

It is not known exactly how many illegal weapons are in circulation in Sweden, but according to Noa's Staaf, there is access for those who want to get hold of them – though not necessarily with ease.

"What we can see is there's a quite big demand for weapons, and there's also access. So in some way, people are getting their hands on these weapons. But then there are also cases where weapons are recycled – old weapons circulate around criminal circles. That suggests it's not entirely easy to get access to them then, because there's an inner-market where weapons that have been brought in to Sweden are being sold on and used again in different conflicts."


Gun crime among gangs is of course not unique to Sweden, but why do criminals in the country appear to be turning towards grenades in particular? Joakim Palmkvist, a Malmö-based crime journalist and author who has decades of experience writing about gang violence, thinks the choice was made easy for them by the law.

"Why use a hand grenade? Well, say you want to scare or injure someone. Option one: you take a gun, threaten them, perhaps shoot them in the leg. Then it's attempted murder or an aggravated weapons crime – the guy you shot sees you and can point you out. On top of that there's a big trail: the empty shells, bullets that can be tied to a specific weapon. Traces on your hands after the shot. You have to get rid of that, clean it and so on. And you're also at risk of being caught committing a serious crime if you're stopped and searched before the incident even happens," he explains to The Local.

"Option two: you take a hand grenade and throw it at the person's house. It'll be either carelessness endangering the public or perhaps attempted murder. But all of the traces are gone. And who saw you throw the grenade? Before the law was changed, if you were stopped and searched while travelling to the place with one on you, you went down for a lighter crime."

Joakim Palmkvist. Photo: Stig-Åke Jönsson/TT

Police head Staaf believes a combination of factors have played a part in the use of grenades by gangs, but also highlighted the laws in the area:

"In the past there were relatively light sentences for them, though that has changed now. It has also been cheap and fairly easy to buy them when someone was at the same time buying weapons from the former Yugoslavia."

There has been debate in Sweden for some time now about the capacity of the law to react when it comes to weapons and explosives. One peculiarity is that in the Nordic nation, grenades do not fall under weapons laws, but rather, those covering flammable and explosive materials.

Previously that meant the minimum sentence for aggravated breaches of laws governing possession of explosive materials was only six months in prison, with a maximum sentence of four years.

To bring the laws into line with those covering firearms, the government recently tightened them so that, as of January 2018, the minimum sentence for aggravated breaches of the rules became two years in prison. In the most serious of cases ('synnerligen grovt' as defined by Swedish law) the minimum sentence is now four years, with a maximum sentence of six.

"The laws were previously a problem, but there has recently been a change, and while hand grenades are still not classified as weapons covered by the weapons laws, and are covered by the laws on flammable and explosive items, the sentencing-scale for possession has increased. So it's just as serious now as it is for those in possession of illegal weapons. There's no difference – they're covered by different laws but it's the same punishment. That law change has helped a lot," says Staaf.


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Law changes have also been introduced to help the Customs Agency detect the grenades that smugglers attempt to bring in to Sweden. Unlike weapons, it was previously not necessary for explosive objects (including grenades) to be reported to customs authorities ahead of importing them into the country. In November 2017 the laws changed however to bring the customs rules regarding explosives in line with weapons rules, meaning failing to report them is considered smuggling. The change was something customs agents had long been arguing for.

"Since the law change in November we've confiscated around 2,100 different explosive items – which could be anything starting from bangers or flares upwards – in just a few months," says Karlsson.

"The law change impacted our capacity to act, and means explosive items not previously covered by border laws are now covered. It means we have the right to intervene with explosive items like hand grenades, bangers and so on."

Tullverket's Jonas Karlsson. Photo: Tullverket

All of the experts The Local interviewed said they now feel the law is sufficiently equipped to cope with weapons and explosives crimes. Legal changes are not the only measures the government wants to use to tackle grenades and illegal weapons however. It has also proposed a first-ever grenade amnesty to run between October 2018 and January 2019, where the explosives could be handed in to the police without punishment, provided they are contacted in advance with the information necessary for authorities to handle the explosive objects.

READ ALSO: 800 guns handed in during first week of amnesty

An amnesty for illegal guns meanwhile started on February 1st and will run until the end of April. Noa's Staaf says police are "cautiously optimistic" about how it is going.

"We thought we'll perhaps not get a lot of weapons directly from gang circles, but rather those that are at risk of falling into their hands and being sold on the illegal market. It has actually proven to be the case however that we've received some weapons which we judge to be directly from gangs – people who have themselves handed in their automatic weapons in the amnesty."

"The amnesty serves as a complement to other police work directed towards stopping shootings. It's important to say that weapons themselves aren't really the problem – the problem is people are choosing to use weapons. So we're working on those people and those conflicts. In the short term, we work to get those who have illegal weapons or bring them into the country off the streets. In the long term, we work together with other social actors, above all in deprived marginalized areas we can link the conflicts to. The goal there is to turn around that development, but it's long-term work," she adds.


Weapons handed in to police during the current amnesty. Photo: Claudio Bresciani/TT

Crime journalist Palmkvist isn't convinced amnesties have any major impact on the weapons being used by criminals, other than taking weapons that could fall into criminal hands out of circulation as Staaf previously pointed out.

"Weapons amnesties and criminal shootings have nothing to do with each other. I don't think amnesties should be mentioned in the same sentence as weapons dealings by gang criminals," he says in reference to the strategy.

"To hurt gangs you need a combination of repressive measures: more coordinated checks for example. Dropping the age of criminal responsibility (to 18 from 21), a ban on the possession of bullet-proof vests. And at the same time, active measures like building more public housing, increasing the number of teachers, offering internships – the kind of measures that give options to young people," he continues.

Noa intelligence head Staaf ultimately agrees that Sweden needs a multitude of measures to change the trend – and not only from the police.

"It's two-sided. Above all we need to work on changing this development in vulnerable areas, look at what it is that causes people to use weapons and get involved in conflicts. That's a long-term issue."

"In the short-term, we need to work to battle these ongoing conflicts and against the people who are part of the conflicts and use weapons. It's not just up to the police but other crime-fighting agencies too to do what we can against criminals and stop them in different ways. Through making sure they're sentenced for crimes and also taking economic action," she concludes.


Thank you for reading. Read more in-depth articles from our Sweden in Focus series here and please don't hesitate to get in touch with us at news@thelocal.se if you have any comments or questions.

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