- Gang violence in Sweden continues to proliferate, acting as the primary security threat and undermining the country’s otherwise relatively safe security landscape.
- Authorities estimate that there are 40 family-based criminal “clans” operating in Sweden’s so-called vulnerable areas, attempting to consolidate their influence by recruiting youths and increasing their targeting of both business and local politics.
- The government has introduced a number of reforms providing police with more tools in addressing gang violence, including the target of increasing the national police force by 10,000 officers by 2024.
- Travel to Sweden may continue while practicing standard safety procedures and avoiding nonessential travel to police-designated high-risk areas.
- In February 2021, the Swedish Police confirmed that the government is on course to meet its target of adding 10,000 officers to the national police force by 2024. The measure is part of a 34-point program introduced by the government to combat gang violence.
- An estimated 40 family-based criminal “clans” are operating in Sweden. These clans are increasing their influence in Sweden’s so-called “vulnerable areas,” disadvantaged neighborhoods that are increasingly segregated. Police estimate there are 12,000 people active in such organized criminal groups.
- Sweden has witnessed a significant increase in gun violence in recent years, with authorities recording a total of 366 shootings in 2020, compared to 334 in 2019.
- Criminal gangs continue to utilize explosives in order to intimidate rival gangs, as well as extort businesses. In 2020, 107 detonations were recorded, in addition to 89 attempted explosions, compared to 133 detonations and 82 attempted explosions in 2019.
- In August 2020, a twelve-year-old girl was killed after being caught in a crossfire of a gang shootout in Botkyrka, outside of Stockholm, while two teenage boys were tortured, raped, and buried alive in a cemetery in Solna, also outside of Stockholm, in a so-called humiliation crime. The incidents received widespread public attention and incited calls for a government response.
- Also in August 2020, members of a criminal organization set up roadblocks in the suburbs of Gothenburg in order to catch members of a rival gang, as part of an ongoing gang rivalry between four different criminal organizations operating in the area. The gangs eventually negotiated a truce at a hotel in Gothenburg, without any police interference.
- Police have identified 60 vulnerable areas in Sweden, characterized by low socioeconomic development, which makes them prone to influence by organized crime. Of the 60 areas, 22 have been classified as high risk, or so-called “no go zones”, where police are greatly hindered or unable to carry out operations due to high levels of violence and a general reluctance to cooperate in investigations and the judiciary system. The majority of these areas are located in the suburbs of major cities.
- These areas typically have large immigrant communities, in which unemployment is high, compounded by restrictive labor laws, which make it difficult for migrants to gain employment. Additionally, vulnerable areas have a considerably higher proportion of children, as well as high school dropout rates. As such, youth in these areas are prime targets for criminal organizations, who tend to target young men seeking a sense of belonging and purpose.
- An estimated 50 percent of all gang members are foreign-born and 85 percent have an immigrant background.
- According to Deputy Police Chief Mats Lofving, criminal groups are increasing their presence in business and politics in such areas in order to wield more formal influence.
Assessments & Forecast
Criminal groups expected to continue embedding themselves in vulnerable areas, increasing the potential for spillover violence
- The increase in criminal-related violence is likely driven by ongoing inter-gang rivalries, as evidenced by the inter-gang-derived checkpoints in Gothenburg.
- As evidenced by the increase in shootings in recent years, including in 2020, gang-rivalries have led to the increased influx of illegal arms in Sweden, utilizing arms trafficking routes predominantly from the Balkans. Moreover, despite COVID-19-related border restrictions, authorities seized a record number of firearms and drugs in 2020, with a total of 147 firearms seized in customs compared to 58 in 2019. These figures suggest the actual number of illegal weapons circulating in Sweden is likely much higher.
- With this, weapon- and explosive-involved violence is expected to continue in the form of shootings, as well as grenades and explosive attacks. In more extreme cases, and especially during heightened inter-gang tensions, execution-style killings remain possible. As demonstrated by the August 2020 incidents, the threat of spillover violence is high, with shootouts liable to occur in public areas.
- Further, based on precedent, criminal gangs are liable to increase extortive tactics, targeting small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in both their strongholds and more central areas in Stockholm and Gothenburg. Extortion is likely to take place in the form of grenade attacks targeting property, as well as potential attacks on vehicles or residences belonging to business owners.
- The use of grenades as an extortive tactic further increases the risk to bystanders, as undetonated grenades may be left in public spaces. This was illustrated by the 2018 death of a 60-year-old man in Stockholm, who was killed after picking up a grenade at a metro station mistaking it for a toy.
- While the vulnerable areas will remain the primary locations of criminal activity, the continued gang violence risks spilling over to other areas. This is supported by a November 2019 attack in Angelholm, an affluent municipality located north of Helsingborg. Unknown individuals threw an explosive device onto a balcony in a residential building, no injuries were reported.
- In addition to violent crime, the presence of criminal organizations increases the likelihood of petty crime, such as pickpocketing and home burglary, both in vulnerable areas, as well as urban centers. That 81,000 home burglaries were reported in 2020, an increase of eight percent from 2019, in contrast to other countries that witnessed a downturn during the COVID-19 pandemic, further supports this.
- Further, criminal activity, including armed robberies, has seen an uptick in and around central train stations, as well as main streets in urban areas, particularly during the nighttime hours, increasing the risk to the public. In Gothenburg, multiple armed robberies have been reported in recent weeks, with three teenagers reportedly robbed and beaten near Spantorget by a group of six young men on February 14, for example.
- Further, criminal organizations are likely to target police in response to recent security operations, including heightened security measures in vulnerable areas. This is supported by a March 2 investigation, which found that a criminal organization in Uppsala was attempting to carry out an attack against police in the city.
Government and authority bolstered response to gang violence reflects growing threat and public pressure
- Gang violence has become a central political issue in 2020, following a surge in violence and the death of the 12-year-old girl in Botkyrka.
- The government, currently led by the left-wing Social Democrats party, has introduced a number of reforms providing police with more tools in addressing gang violence, highlighting the pervasiveness of gang violence. These include permitting police to access encrypted information, juvenile surveillance (i.e. convicted juvenile offenders are to be monitored using ankle bracelets), increased use of camera surveillance, harsher punishments for possession of weapons, and increased resources for schools in vulnerable areas.
- Despite these measures, various parties have argued that the government’s response has proven ineffective. The center-right Moderate Party, the second largest in the Riksdag, has called for higher police wages, a paid police education program, doubling the punishment for crimes related to gang violence, removing shorter sentences for individuals aged 18-21, increased surveillance in vulnerable areas, and the introduction of witness protection.
- While the far-right Sweden Democrats party has voiced similar criticism of the government’s handling of crime, the party has repeatedly focused on the abovementioned links between organized crime and migration, stating that while the issue is partially due to socioeconomic difficulties, it is also due to sociocultural factors related to Islam. This narrative has been purported by alternative media sources, including Samhallsnytt and Nyheter Idag, both founded by the Sweden Democrats. This is likely to heighten anti-migrant sentiments, with the public support for deportation and stricter migration policies liable to increase.
- That multiple police operations targeting organized crime are ongoing reiterates the primacy of the threat posed by these groups. Such operations include the nationwide Operation Rimfrost, which began in 2019 following the public execution of a 15-year-old in Malmo. Local operations have also begun, such as Operation Solvind in Malmo. Further, police announced on March 2 that 58 people are currently being prosecuted for involvement in criminal networks in Uppsala. 17 of the suspects are in police custody. The arrests are part of an ongoing large-scale operation against criminal networks, which began in May 2020. Police have seized 100 kilograms of explosives along with illegal weapons, 17 kilograms of crystal, 200,000 benzodiazepines and amphetamines, cocaine, and doping substances.
- Travel to Sweden may continue while practicing standard safety procedures.
- Avoid nonessential travel to the police designated high-risk areas (See map) due to increased criminal activity and the risk posed to the general public and bystanders.
- Maintain heightened vigilance in central stations and isolated areas in central Gothenburg, Malmo, and Stockholm during the nighttime hours due to the potential for crime, including muggings and armed robbery.
- Maintain vigilance in crowded areas in urban centers due to the potential for petty crime, such as pickpocketing.