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Spread of gang violence wrecks Sweden’s peaceful image

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Spread of gang violence wrecks Sweden’s peaceful image

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STOCKHOLM — Gangland shootings and bombings that have plagued Sweden’s biggest cities have spread to quieter suburbs and towns, shattering its reputation as a safe and peaceful nation.

Half an hour north of central Stockholm, Upplands-Bro features lakeside boat clubs, copper-red wooden villas and apartments flanked by pine and spruce trees.

But a 14-year-old boy was found dead in a forest here in August, and since January there have been several shootings and bombings targeting houses and apartments.

“It’s awful. We’ve [been] woken up by explosions in the neighbourhood and it’s scary,” says 42-year-old Anna Petterson, who lives in Bro and has three children. “It’s very much something that we’re aware of, and we talk about a lot, and are afraid of.”

Sweden has been a European hotspot for gang-related shootings and bombings for several years. But recently the violence has shifted beyond low-income, vulnerable urban areas and police say one reason is that gang members are increasingly targeting rivals’ relatives.

Detectives suspect some of the latest violence has been organised by criminal leaders based in other countries, including Turkey and Serbia.

More than 50 people have been killed in shootings so far in 2023, and there have been more than 140 explosions. Last year, more than 60 people died in gun violence, the highest number on record.

“What started out as gun violence between young gangs looking to defend their territory has turned into a vicious circle of firearms trafficking and gun violence,” explains Nils Duquet, a firearms researcher based at the Flemish Peace Institute in Brussels.

“Gangs have also matured and are no longer just the street criminals, but are often connected to higher-level criminals as well.”

Innocent bystanders are also among the dead.

In September, a 70-year-old man and another man aged 20 were killed in a pub shooting in Sandviken in central Sweden, and a newly graduated teacher, 24, died in an explosion just outside the university city of Uppsala.

Soon afterwards Sweden’s Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson gave a rare national address admitting that “no other country in Europe” was experiencing this sort of situation, and promising tougher penalties for deadly violence.

Evin Cetin, an author and lawyer who has represented teenage shooting victims and suspects, says boys as young as 13 or 14 are being recruited by gangs, often through social media promises of money and designer clothes.

“Children are using their own bags not to carry books, but they carry the drug markets in Sweden on their own shoulders,” she tells the BBC on a visit to Upplands-Bro, part of a nationwide schools tour to more than a dozen areas affected by gang crime.

Others are trying to tackle the problem by organising street patrols in areas affected by drugs and violence.

“That we’re out and go around chatting with our kids and young people – it increases safety,” says Libaane Warsame, during a night walk in Jarva, northern Stockholm, on a wet, windy Friday night.

Jarva looks like a lot of Swedish suburbs, with well-maintained apartment blocks, a few shops, and a nearby forest. The main difference is that it is more multicultural than many neighbourhoods, and it has Stockholm’s highest unemployment rate.

Warsame began patrolling the streets after his 19-year-old son — who police say was not in a gang — was killed in a shooting in December 2020.

“It’s hard for [young people] to sit at home for hours without any income, any work. So they go out and stand around and there’s a big risk that they will be recruited.”

He also runs an organisation that supports families who have lost loved ones in deadly violence.

This year there have not been any fatal shootings in Jarva, but many locals say they remain on edge.

“I haven’t been outside so late… because I don’t want to make my mum worried,” says Gizem Kuzucu, 17.

She often spends her evenings studying at Framtidens Hus, a youth centre, and says none of her friends have been in trouble with the law. But she has been exposed to crime on social media.

“I’ve seen a lot of videos on TikTok [in which] people are, like, talking about crime. They are like saying ‘follow me on Instagram, I’m gonna post like a rapper that got killed’.”

Another teenager at the youth centre, Libaan, says he grew up around older criminals and “did commit a few crimes” when he was younger.

“Kids here, they are really, really mean to each other…they don’t know how to speak about their emotions, so what they do instead is that they lash out,” says the 18-year-old.

Swedish police do not currently map gang members’ nationalities, but research for the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention in 2021 showed young people born in Sweden to two parents from abroad were overrepresented as suspects in murder cases and robberies.

The right-wing coalition government, elected in September 2022, believes the rise in gang violence in recent years is directly connected to Sweden’s earlier immigration policies. Until 2016, it had one of the most generous asylum laws in Europe.

“We can now see that ‘outsideship’ and lack of integration, in combination with trade of narcotics and organised crime is creating this very, very toxic mixture,” Foreign Minister Tobias Billstrom told the BBC in September.

The government wants to make it harder for immigrants from outside the European Union to get social benefits, and to make preschool compulsory for children with two foreign parents in some areas, in order to improve Swedish-language skills.

Earlier this year, it became an offence to recruit children to participate in criminal activities. Stop-and-search zones are set to be introduced in early 2024 and ministers want to double prison sentences for offences including gun crimes and explosions.

The BBC was not granted a government interview to discuss these plans, despite multiple requests.

At the state-funded Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention, researcher Klara Hradilova-Selin believes tackling gang crime “should have been a more important issue earlier” for previous coalitions on both the right and left of the political spectrum.

“There are colleagues of mine who were actually warning like decades ago [about] this kind of development of growing marginalisation in the deprived areas.”

Worries about how gang conflicts are impacting the country’s international image are also growing. “Sweden has always been viewed as an extremely safe country. Maybe one of the top safe countries in the world. And this image is falling apart,” says Hradilova-Selin.

According to a recent survey for the Stockholm Chamber of Commerce, eight out of 10 Swedish companies questioned believe it will get harder to attract foreign talent, investment and visitors due to the ongoing violence.

At Framtidens Hus youth centre, teenagers are being offered the chance to drive, dance and make podcasts. Former criminal Libaan says he would like a job that involves writing, or helping others, but he believes his future is also dependent on how he is treated by other Swedes.

“I don’t feel included in the culture even though I’m born here. They kind of see me as this ghetto kid who has no future.” — BBC

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