IN DEPTH: What’s behind the rise in gang violence across Sweden?

Honour, debts, and prestige are serving as the pretext for an increasing number of deadly shootings that challenge the ideals of equality and social harmony on which modern Sweden was built.

IN DEPTH: What's behind the rise in gang violence across Sweden?
Police in Skåne at the scene of a shooting. File photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

“You strengthen your own gang by eliminating an external threat and you gain prestige,” Eddy Paver, a reformed former member of a biker gang, told AFP.

Paver was long willing to pay the ultimate price in order to “belong” to a criminal gang which required absolute loyalty from its members. “It's about strengthening the sense of community and showing who's the toughest,” the 47-year-old former convict explained.

Last year more than 300 shootings resulted in 45 deaths and 135 injuries in Sweden.

While the overall homicide rate remains one of the lowest in the world, with one per 100,000 inhabitants according to police statistics, deadly shootings have been steadily rising and last year reached record levels. 2019 is also on track to create another unwanted record. In Stockholm the first six months of the year have seen as many killings as the whole of 2018.


Stockholm police officer goes viral with call for help fighting gun crime
Christoffer Bohman, a police officer in one of the designated vulnerable areas, whose appeal for public help went viral in Sweden. Photo: Janerik Henriksson/TT

Most of the shooters and victims are unemployed young men with immigrant backgrounds, under 30 years of age, living in disadvantaged neighbourhoods and often without a high school diploma.

“If you don't feel like you belong anywhere, you're struggling with the language (Swedish), and you see these guys who sell drugs, they have gold chains, they drive fancy cars, they get to sleep with the girls. It's not hard to find your way there,” said Paver.

'Vulnerable areas'

Like in other Europeans cities, you find many of Sweden's struggling housing projects at the end of metro lines. Other designated “vulnerable areas,” with elevated levels of violence, are found in inner cities, as in Malmö in the south.

Buildings are generally in good condition, schools properly equipped and streets clean, but social issues, unemployment and a high proportion of foreign-born inhabitants often facing extra challenges lead to segregation, school drop-outs and drug trafficking.

“Some shootings are connected to the trade of narcotics, internal conflicts or when someone has been cheated out of money… But many times it can be about honour. You can get screwed over by someone in the same gang, fights over cliques or girlfriends. The level justifying a retaliation is quite low,” Gunnar Appelgren, police commissioner in Stockholm, told AFP.


Fittja, one of the vulnerable areas in Stockholm. Photo: Lee Roden/The Local

“Gangs have no institutional recourse to resolve conflicts… The motive for settling a score is not always important. It's about saving face,” said Torbjorn Forkby, a Professor of Social Sciences at Linnaeus University.

The most badly affected areas are the capital Stockholm, and Malmö and Gothenburg, but violence has also started to spread to medium-sized cities. 

The weapon of choice for gangs are Kalashnikov automatic rifles. Imported from the Balkans, they are available for between 2,500 and 3,500 euros (around $2,800 to $3,950), although they become “more expensive in the event of an open conflict,” according to Appelgren.

Sweden's gang members have also been using grenades and explosives to settle their scores. On June 7th a bomb placed in a bicycle shed destroyed the facades of two residential buildings, causing damages to over 200 apartments in the city of Linköping, a two-hour drive south of Stockholm. Miraculously it caused no serious injuries. 

'Tearing apart society'

Some efforts by authorities have helped reduce local tensions. The city of Malmö has adopted the Group Violence Intervention (GVI) programme, implemented in Boston in the 1990s though its impact is still uncertain.

The right-wing and far-right opposition have been critical of Social Democratic Prime Minister Stefan Lofven's “laxity” in responding to the shootings. They have been calling in particular for the abolition of a prison penalty “discount” when it comes to the incarceration of people under 21 years of age.

“This violence is tearing apart society as we know it and the country we want Sweden to be,” conservative MP Johan Forssell said during a recent debate on gangs in parliament.


The government for its part has said that a repressive response is not enough and has called for a joint mobilization of civil society and law enforcement.

“The shootings and gang crime can only be uprooted if police efforts are combined with a strong social sector and a good school,” PM Lofven told the parliament last month.

Eddy Paver, who now works at a drug rehab centre, also believes that a mere judicial response would be insufficient.

“You can't punish away the problem. Penalties for possession of illegal weapons have already been heightened and that hasn't helped. You have to start earlier, what we need is life training in school, teaching kids what's right and wrong”. 

By Gaël Branchereau with Camille Bas-Wohlert in Malmö

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Swedish Green leader: ‘Easter riots nothing to do with religion or ethnicity’

The riots that rocked Swedish cities over the Easter holidays were nothing to do with religion or ethnicity, but instead come down to class, the joint leader of Sweden's Green Party has told The Local in an interview.

Swedish Green leader: 'Easter riots nothing to do with religion or ethnicity'

Ahead of a visit to the school in Rosengård that was damaged in the rioting, Märta Stenevi said that neither the Danish extremist Rasmus Paludan, who provoked the riots by burning copies of the Koran, nor those who rioted, injuring 104 policemen, were ultimately motivated by religion. 

“His demonstration had nothing to do with religion or with Islam. It has everything to do with being a right extremist and trying to to raise a lot of conflict between groups in Sweden,” she said of Paludan’s protests. 

“On the other side, the police have now stated that there were a lot of connections to organised crime and gangs, who see this as an opportunity to raise hell within their communities.”

Riots broke out in the Swedish cities of Malmö, Stockholm, Norrköping, Linköping and Landskrona over the Easter holidays as a result of Paludan’s tour of the cities, which saw him burn multiple copies of the Koran, the holy book of Islam. 


More than 100 police officers were injured in the riots, sparking debates about hate-crime legislation and about law and order. 

According to Stenevi, the real cause of the disorder is the way inequality has increased in Sweden in recent decades. 

“If you have big chasms between the rich people and poor people in a country, you will also have a social upheaval and social disturbance. This is well-documented all across the world,” she says. 
“What we have done for the past three decades in Sweden is to create a wider and wider gap between those who have a lot and those who have nothing.” 

The worst way of reacting to the riots, she argues, is that of Sweden’s right-wing parties. 
“You cannot do it by punishment, by adding to the sense of outsider status, you have to start working on actually including people, and that happens through old-fashioned things such as education, and a proper minimum income, to lift people out of their poverty, not to keep them there.”

This, she says, is “ridiculous”, when the long-term solution lies in doing what Sweden did to end extreme inequality at the start of the 20th century, when it created the socialist folkhem, or “people’s home”. 

“It’s easy to forget that 100 to 150 years ago, Sweden was a developing country, with a huge class of poor people with no education whatsoever. And we did this huge lift of a whole nation. And we can do this again,” she says. “But it needs resources, it needs political will.”