The violent gang crisis shaking Sweden


What used to be a home is now a mess of wood, insulation and cladding, littering neighbouring gardens and spilling into the street. Windows are completely blown and only jagged shards of glass remain. Curtains and clothes are strewn about, propelled by the sheer force of an explosion.

“It is like a war scene,” says a local resident, “something you see on the news from Afghanistan.”

But this is not a conflict zone. It is a previously peaceful district of prosperous Uppsala, Sweden’s fourth-largest city, now the centre of the country’s gangs crisis. Soha Saad, a 24-year-old newly qualified teacher, died in the blast on September 28. The attack was not aimed at her, but at a neighbour believed to be a relative of a criminal gang member.

Soha was “ambitious, good, kind, generous”, according to her friend Sara Samara. “I wonder how many more innocent lives will have to be taken from us,” she wrote on Instagram. “This is my appeal to politicians: wake up.”

Sweden has suffered an extraordinary spate of violence in recent months, particularly in Uppsala and its neighbour to the south, capital Stockholm. At its worst in September and October, barely a day went by without a shooting, bombing or hand grenade attack — sometimes several.

The Nordic country has gone from having one of the lowest levels of fatal shootings in Europe to one of the highest in just a decade. Well-established criminal gangs, largely run by second-generation immigrants, are no longer just killing each other but increasingly relatives and, in the case of Saad and others, innocent bystanders. Many of the perpetrators are children as young as 14 who are groomed by gangs to carry out hits.

In a televised addressed at the end of September, Ulf Kristersson, the prime minister of Sweden, offered his diagnosis for the unprecedented violence, directly blaming “irresponsible immigration policy and failed integration”.

“I cannot over-emphasise the seriousness of the situation,” added the leader of the centre-right Moderate party. “Sweden has never seen anything like it before. No other country in Europe is seeing anything like it.”

The issue has shaken the full strata of society in the Nordic country. “This is a social earthquake in Sweden,” says Jesper Brodin, chief executive of furniture giant Ikea’s retail arm and one of the country’s most high-profile business leaders.

“If this continues for the next two decades, Sweden is lost. It’s tearing us apart,” says Richard Jomshof, head of the Swedish parliament’s justice committee and an MP from far-right Sweden Democrats.

A memorial site with candles, flowers and words of remembrance for Soha Saad
Memorial site for Soha Saad. The 24-year-old newly qualified teacher was killed in her home during an attack aimed at her neighbour © Mickan Palmqvist/TT/Alamy

The rise in gang violence is leading to uncomfortable conversations. A wealthy nation famed for its welfare state, Sweden has over the past three decades taken in more asylum seekers escaping various conflicts from the Balkans to the Middle East than most European countries. As the violence increases, the far right feel emboldened, while the left are nervous about vilifying immigrant communities. But both sides of Swedish politics accept that the country has failed to properly integrate some of its new arrivals.

Now criminal gangs across the country are evolving beyond the drug trade. Growing evidence suggests these networks have infiltrated some public services, political parties and even the criminal justice system.

With the police overwhelmed investigating a growing number of crimes following the deadliest month on record, the government drafted in the army to pick up the shortfall elsewhere.

What has gone wrong? “It’s a system failure,” says Erik Pelling, the centre-left mayor of Uppsala.

Therez Almerfors, the head of the centre-right opposition in the city, says: “If you don’t feel safe, you are not free. Every day, people are waking up in Uppsala and don’t feel safe.”

She describes the problem blighting Sweden as a “lack of hope in the future”. “We have failed,” the Moderate party politician says. “And to solve it, it’s not a quick fix.”

‘A completely new world’

Uppsala is renowned for its university, the oldest in the Nordics, as well as Scandinavia’s biggest cathedral and a grand royal castle.

But in recent years it has achieved notoriety as the hometown of one of Sweden’s most deadly gangs and its notorious leader Rawa Majid, “the Kurdish Fox”, who fled to Turkey in 2018 after a number of drug and violence-related convictions.

GM171110_23X LOCATOR MAP Sweden

Much of the recent violence is due to a major split in the Foxtrot drug gang, say police. Majid, who was raised in Uppsala by Iraqi parents, is believed to have fallen out with his former right-hand man Ismail Abdo, or “Strawberry”, who also moved to Turkey.

Amid the feud, Abdo’s mother was shot dead in Uppsala in September.

“The situation in society is inhumane, incomprehensible and without any limits,” Catarina Bowall, a senior police officer in Uppsala, said recently. Police in Uppsala and Stockholm declined to be interviewed, saying they are too busy investigating recent shootings.

Fredrik Linder, a doctor at Uppsala’s hospital, has witnessed the effects of the violence. When he started working in A&E there would be one or two cases of gunshots a year, none of them related to gang crime, he told a local TV station. Now, there is an average of one a week. “It’s a completely new world,” he added.

By the end of October, there had been 48 deadly shootings this year in this country of 10.5mn people. Last year, there were a record total of 62, up from 45 in 2021.

But the targeting of relatives, many of whom live in respectable districts, and a record number of bombings have led to a growing feeling of insecurity. “It almost appears random — it can happen to anybody, anywhere. It makes it more similar to terrorism,” says Manne Gerell, a Swedish criminologist and senior lecturer at Malmö university.

Police in Stockholm alone have a list of 150 homes in the capital that could be targets for a shooting or bombing, public broadcaster SVT has reported. “If my family is in danger, everyone’s family is in danger,” a gang member told the TV station.

Another recent phenomenon is that the killers are getting younger, as children in Sweden often receive light sentences. In October, several people were convicted for two powerful explosions in a trendy part of Stockholm. A 25-year-old received five years in jail, while two 17-year-olds involved were placed in youth homes for 10 months.

This is also a risk. Police say gangs are actively recruiting vulnerable young people from within these care homes, known in Sweden as Hem för vård eller boende, or HVB. “We know that HVB can increase the problem, not be the solution,” says Ola Jerimiasen, chief of staff for social services in Uppsala.

Pelling, the mayor, says that many of the people arrested for recent killings in the area are not from Uppsala, but young “hitmen” sent to the city.

“It’s very hard for the city of Uppsala to prevent those crimes,” he adds. “It’s a national problem.”

Society of division

Ask a Swede what has gone wrong in their country and you get an interesting insight into their politics and beliefs.

The dozens of politicians, security officials and criminologists interviewed have different answers for what is driving the gang violence.

Those on the right largely blame immigration, which has added 2mn people to the country in recent decades. Those on the left point to social factors, including the privatisation of Sweden’s welfare system which has led to worse services in deprived areas.

Refugees praying in a gymnasium
Refugees in Sweden’s largest temporary camp. The country has taken in more asylum seekers in the past three decades than most European countries © David Ramos/Getty Images

For most of the 2010s, the nationalist Sweden Democrats were a lone voice opposed to mass immigration, but their support has risen almost in lockstep with the intensifying violence.

Now, the one-time fringe party is one of Sweden’s largest political groups. “For a long time, we were alone. We were labelled racists. Today the situation is so bad. We’re not alone any more,” says Jomshof, of the justice committee.

Jomshof, who faced calls to resign in July over his views on Islam and an inflammatory description of the Prophet Muhammad — wants Sweden to stop immigration and deport criminals born overseas.

But the nearest thing to agreement across the political spectrum is that Sweden itself has not done enough to integrate its immigrant communities.

Almost all Swedish cities have at least one so-called vulnerable area, where immigrants often make up a majority of the population. Crime rates there tend to be high and schools struggle to keep students or maintain discipline.

“I don’t want to say migration is what went wrong; I would rather say integration [went wrong],” says Jens Lapidus, a criminal defence lawyer turned crime author who wrote the Netflix show Snabba Cash.

He says most of his former clients and gang members today are not newly arrived immigrants but those born in Sweden. “You were born here, but you still feel very foreign. You were born here, but you still feel the doors are closed to you and you have not been let in,” he adds.

This has a “psychological effect”, argues Lapidus. “The real problem is how we failed at integrating these people.”

A close-up photo of Richard Jomshof, head of the Swedish parliament’s justice committee
Richard Jomshof, head of the Swedish parliament’s justice committee. The far-right politician has faced calls to resign over his inflammatory remarks on Islam and the Prophet Muhammad © Michael Campanella/Getty Images

Taha, who gave only his first name, became a Swedish citizen after arriving from Iraq two decades ago but is now thinking of moving to the UK.

“Swedes make you feel foreign even when you have the passport, even my kids who were born here,” he says. “They blame immigrants for everything. But this gang violence affects me, my family, my friends as well.”

The Swedish authorities let this happen, he says. “They should have done more, much more, a long time ago.”

Local politicians now openly talk of segregation and the presence of parallel societies. Many, especially on the political right, are urging Sweden to set more demands on new arrivals.

“The politicians have been naive. You have people in Malmö who have lived on financial aid for decades and who can’t speak Swedish. Why are we letting people be so passive?” asks Farishta Sulaiman, a local councillor from the Moderate party.

Naive is a word on many lips. Lapidus, the former lawyer, argues that Swedes “have a naive belief in human goodness” and have been slow to “fathom that there are not so nice people out there”.

Jomshof, whose Sweden Democrats support the government in parliament, is one of those bemoaning his country’s slowness to react, noting that neighbouring Denmark started cracking down on gangs 20 years ago and has been far more successful.

Gerell, the academic, agrees. “No one took the violence and the gang structures seriously until it was too late.”

But Lapidus points to a different shift in Sweden: the “complete explosion of the hyper-rich”. Inequality has risen faster in the Scandinavian country than any other developed country in the past three decades.

“If you create a society where the rift is too big, it also leads to more criminality . . . more problems with the underbelly of society,” he argues.

Particularly on the left, there are concerns over how gangs have exploited another big change in Swedish society: the widespread privatisation of the welfare state.

Private companies now run large amounts of schools, hospitals and care homes in Sweden after the Moderate’s previous stint in power from 2006 to 2014.

A photo of Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson on television as he addresses the nation
Swedish prime minister Ulf Kristersson. The premier said ‘irresponsible immigration policy and failed integration’ were responsible for the country’s unprecedented violence © Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images

Police and local politicians say there is increasing evidence that gangs are now making more money from activities such as fraud and even running parts of the welfare state. One estimate suggests criminal profits at SKr6bn ($570mn), which is about twice as much as they make from the drug trade.

“We have a system where criminal networks run schools and care homes. We have had 20 years of deregulation and we have been too naive. We have a school system that works against integration [by] segregating,” says Pelling, referring to a practice that means poor areas are often left with the worst schools.

Nobody quite knows how far the infiltration has spread. Security officials believe some political parties have been affected.

Prosecutors recently charged an employee at the district court in Attunda, midway between Stockholm and Uppsala, with leaking secret information to a gang member. The woman, who denies the offence, is also accused of letting the criminal use her work computer.

“What scares me is that we’re trying to fight non-democratic citizens with democratic rules,” says Jomshof, the far-right politician. “Sometimes I wonder: will it be enough?”

‘The country is still safe’

For many years, it was the southern city of Malmö that was the focus of gang violence. Just across the Øresund strait from the Danish capital of Copenhagen, it is the main entry point for immigrants arriving in Sweden and home to one of the country’s most notorious suburbs, Rosengård.

In the decade after 2010, Sweden despaired at the violence in Malmö. But that has since subsided, moving to other cities such as Uppsala.

After a peak of violence in 2017 with 65 shootings and 58 explosions, police say there have been 27 shootings and 7 explosions so far this year. Glen Sjögren, a veteran police officer in Rosengård, says: “Back then, it felt quite helpless. We had a feeling that no matter what we did, it just got worse. Nowadays, we rather feel the opposite.”

With fewer murders to deal with, he says, more resources can be put on the street to prevent crimes.

Police attribute the fall in violence to a crackdown on gang crime starting in 2019, in which the worst criminals were put in jail. Authorities also turned to a US anti-violence tactic, known as Group Violence Intervention, to engage the entire community in persuading actual and potential gang members to avoid violence, shifting the focus from punishment to prevention.

“The slogan is: alive, safe and out of prison. Jail has a high cost. It is more important to stop them committing crime than lock them up for crimes they have done,” Sjögren argues.

But he and local politicians argue that law and order is only part of the solution. Much of the answer also lies on the social side, particularly schools.

“To really turn things around, we need to do something with recruitment. It’s doing things now with three-year-olds to stop them in 10 years’ time picking up a gun,” says Gerell. If as much resource was placed on social solutions as law enforcement, he adds, Sweden could afford to give each at-risk child their own social worker.

Sulaiman, the local councillor, adds: “The best vaccine for not getting into crime is to pass secondary school. Malmö has a lot of kids not even passing elementary school.”

Police officers inspect parked police cars
Police officers in Malmö. Until recently, the city was the focus of gang violence and home to one of the country’s most notorious suburbs, Rosengård © Johan Nilsson/AFP/Getty Images

This is “the most important thing we can do”, agrees Anders Fridborg, head of security for Uppsala. “If kids don’t finish school, they are more likely to end up in a criminal structure.”

A final area of rare universal agreement is that there are no quick fixes to Sweden’s gang crisis. Controversial policing measures, such as wiretapping and allowing anonymous witnesses, may only stem the violence in the short term.

Improving integration, keeping more children in vulnerable areas in school and removing the gangs from the welfare state will take many years.

“It’s going to take time,” says Almerfors in Uppsala. “We need to work together, not against one another.”

Others, like Lapidus, are urging people inside and outside Sweden to look beyond dramatic headlines and keep a sense of perspective.

“It’s bad what is going on,” he says. “But come on, it’s nothing like Mexico or even America. Sweden is still one of the safest countries in the world.”

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