IN AUGUST A criminal clan set up roadblocks in Gothenburg to catch members of a rival gang. The police intervened and made several arrests, but failed to charge anyone. The gang war in Gothenburg eventually ended not because the cops stopped it, but because the gangsters negotiated a truce. Swedes are shocked to see such instances of the forces of law and order losing control of the country’s streets.
Sweden remains exceptionally safe—its murder rate is only a fifth of America’s. But a surge of spectacular gang crimes has captured public attention. This summer two Swedish teenagers were tortured and raped in a cemetery in a so-called humiliation crime. In the first half of this year 20 people, mostly young men, were killed in 163 shootings. A study in 2018 found that a man aged 15 to 29 in Sweden is ten times more likely to get shot than in Germany.
The problem is concentrated in highly segregated immigrant neighbourhoods. In Husby, a suburb of Stockholm, more than 80% of the population are migrants or the children of migrants, most of them from Iraq, Somalia, Syria and Turkey. The scene of ugly riots seven years ago, Husby is officially classified as one of 22 “extremely vulnerable areas” prone to crime and violence. Unemployment in such neighbourhoods is high. Thanks to restrictive labour rules, it is hard for unskilled newcomers to find jobs. Many teenage boys skip school; gangs offer a sense of purpose and belonging.
Around half the street-gang members are foreign-born; 85% have an immigrant background. The gangs are loosely organised, without a strict hierarchy. Their frequent use of extreme violence is a sign of immaturity, says Amir Rostami of Stockholm University. More mature gangs in Germany are less violent, he explains, because it is “bad for business”.
Many native Swedes are calling for tougher policing. So are many immigrants, who suffer most from crime. Sweden has only two cops per 1,000 inhabitants, compared with three in Germany. The government recently decided to hire 6,000 more police and 4,000 in supporting jobs by 2024. Erik Nord, chief of the Gothenburg police, wants 10,000 more officers (and the 4,000 support staff), and more camera surveillance too. The police were only recently allowed to tap criminals’ phones.
Operation Hoarfrost, launched after the fatal shooting of a 15-year-old in November last year, brought in police from across Sweden to crack down on crime in Malmo, a southern city. In recent years the culprit has been arrested in only 20% of gangland murders. The city hopes that more officers and better policing methods will improve this dismal record.
Sweden is also trying to learn from nearby Denmark and Germany. “We want to follow the Danish model,” says Johan Forssell, an MP for the centre-right Moderate party, pointing out that gang members from Stockholm who committed a murder in Denmark were sentenced to 20 years in prison, whereas in Sweden they would have got four years in a social institution because they were under 18.
Police from Sweden went to Essen and Berlin, German cities with high levels of clan criminality, to study local policing. In particular, the Swedes are considering Germany’s tougher gun laws and its methods for confiscating criminal funds. It will take time to reverse the trend, says Mr Rostami, but Sweden is belatedly confronting it. ■
This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the headline “Segregated cities”
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