Why have Sweden's biker gangs been able to fly under the radar?

The Local
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Why have Sweden's biker gangs been able to fly under the radar?

Motorcycle gangs have been linked to multiple violent crimes including fatal shootings and explosions in Sweden over the past year. These groups have been present in Sweden for around 30 years, yet don't receive the same attention by police and media as newer street gangs, a former police superintendent and gang violence researcher tells The Local.


A senior member of the biker gang No Surrender was linked by media reports as a potential target of a shooting in Norrköping this week.

The same organization was the suspected target of one of the biggest explosions to take place in Sweden for decades, which happened in university town Linköping last year, while other motorcycle groups have been named in investigations of other violent incidents across the country, including another explosion in central Stockholm this week.

In general, gangs in Sweden have shown an increasing tendency to resort to higher levels of violence over recent years. But the gangs themselves, and violent conflicts between them, have long been a feature of the criminal milieu. 

"We need to look back 20 to 30 years to get insight into why we have the problems we have, both within the gang landscape and shortcomings within the police, politics and so on," Amir Rostami, a police superintendent turned sociologist with a focus on criminal gangs, tells The Local.

Most of the inter-gang conflicts can be strategic, he says, whether in relation to retaining influence in a certain area or over a certain trade, such as narcotics:

"They don't want competition, so you need to get rid of competition at the very beginning when it's weakest and when they control an area they do everything in their power to stop the rise of new biker clubs. We see in the Netherlands and Germany where the major gangs didn't manage to suppress the new clubs, now you have a lot of clubs there. If you have competition, you need to share the market, whether it's drugs trade, whether it's a legal market, whether it's about recruiting new members."

Nordic Biker War

The peak of Scandinavian motorcycle gang violence came in the mid-1990s, just a few years after the two international motorcycle clubs Hells Angels and Bandidos first became established in Sweden.

"Two local Swedish biker gangs reached out to Hells Angels and Bandidos and became members, so that was how international outlawed biker gangs became established here. Before that, of course we had criminal groups and networks in Sweden, but the bikers introduced the idea of criminal trademarks, the idea of creating a criminal enterprise and gaining power, status and money that way," Rostami explains.

Photo: Vegard Grøtt / NTB scanpix

The two gangs competed for control of different areas and over a period of three years, conflict between the Hells Angels and Bandidos led to a dozen murders and over 70 shootings in what was known as the Nordic Biker War.

This ended with a truce, and until around the early 2000s, these two groups were the only ones with a presence in Sweden, giving them power to control conflicts, according to Rostami. When other groups tried to set up in Sweden, one of these two early groups – depending on existing conflicts and the geographical location – would work to stop that.

In the mid-2000s, Sweden saw the emergence of so-called street gangs. But rather than threatening the status of the established motorcycle gangs, researchers believe that the gangs may have benefited from police focus on the newcomers. 


Amir Rostami, a former police superintendent turned sociologist. Photo: Bertil Ericson/TT

'Rational organizations'

While there are general differences between most motorcycle gangs and most street gangs in the way they operate, Rostami outlines differences between individual biker gangs.

Some of these groups have had white supremacist elements, for example, and they recruit in different ways, sometimes targeting different potential members. 

Two things that many biker gangs have in common are a strong group identity and loyalty, and a strategic approach.

When the street gangs first started to form in Sweden, he notes the hegemony of the bikers was broken.

"The bikers were the core concern of crime prevention and law enforcement agencies in the 1990s and the start of the 2000s. But their existence became normalized after ten to 15 years. Task forces were dismantled," he recalls.

"Then street gangs emerged in Sweden, although these didn't take over the attention of law enforcement until after 2010 when there was a rise in violence. All operational focus was shifted from the bikers to the street gangs. I'd say this saved the bikers, it allowed them to consolidate their position and recruit at a low pace and expand, going under the radar," the researcher says.

"We refer to the motorcycle groups as rational organizations," says Rostami. "They are more strategic than the street gangs which first formed in the mid-2000s; they can control conflicts, so this allowed them to expand and make the generational shift. The first generation of bikers in Sweden are now in their 50s and 60s, so they needed to adapt to the new situation and to be honest, they have done this quite well."

A murder trial in 2012. Photo: Stig-Åke Jönsson / SCANPIX

A 2018 report mapping suspected members of criminal gangs found that biker gangs were the biggest criminal groupings in Sweden, with 5,693 registered individuals. Meanwhile, 5,094 people were associated with criminal networks in socially deprived areas, 835 people were considered to have direct links with football firms and 785 people with Islamist groups.

And yet motorcycle gangs have not been at the focus of most media coverage of gangs, or most law enforcement policies, Rostami says. 

"It's not just the media and the public. I teach police students and the majority of them don't know about the gang problem during the 1990s and even ten years ago. That's a problem and it's going to get worse because the experts are getting older, many are going into retirement, so I think there's a need to update," he adds.

Success stories

But there are at least examples to look to, where authorities have been able to shut down branches of these organized crime groups.

Rostami says there are several examples of local chapters being successfully removed, including chapters of Bandidos in Huddinge and Botkyrka municipality, and Outlaws in Haninge.

In his opinion, the best way to succeed is a combination of sufficient resources, coordinated work across different agencies, and dedicated law enforcement officials working on the case:

"You need a very dedicated task force working 24/7, and that task force needs to be engaged with the local community, with the municipality, and other agencies to dismantle this kind of group. Those are the core elements."

From Rostami's perspective and research, this kind of on-the-ground effort stands a greater chance of success than legislative efforts to fight gang crime.

Sweden has mulled changes to its anti-terror laws which would make it illegal to be part of or cooperate with certain organizations, though this has received criticism from the country's legislative council which said the proposals go against the constitution and freedom of association.

"It could help [in the biker gang environment] but the Swedish constitution doesn't allow for a law that forbids membership. I think that maybe the problem with this kind of legislation is that you just create new clubs, new groups, new names and they become more underground," he says.

One argument against such legislation is that it could even end up making it harder to crack down on these gangs than it currently is. Biker gangs prioritize loyalty and pride in the group, with many members having tattoos or openly wearing logos for example.

"That's a core element of biker culture, and it gives police plenty of room to gather intelligence. I think a more realistic consequence [of legislation making certain groups illegal] is that you just sweep it under the carpet," says Rostami.


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