While remaining a remarkably safe country, Sweden is facing a recent surge of gang crimes that worries authorities, including a bombing in Gothenburg on Sep. 28th that injured more than 20. The fact that these family-based networks often have roots in North Africa and the Middle East is fueling criticism about the country's immigration policies.
Is this Sweden … or Sicily?
An explosion in a multi-family complex in the western Swedish city of Gothenburg on Tuesday has sparked a national debate over harsher punishment for organized crime.
The blast that left four people seriously injured and more than 20 hospitalized is still under police investigation. It is the latest in a series of explosions around Sweden linked to gang and mob violence; bombings in particular have increased dramatically in the last years, recalling the Mafia's campaign of violence on the Italian island of Sicily in the 1980s and 1990s.
From 2014, such targeted explosions in Sweden have risen from a handful to 107 in 2020 — the sharpest increase in any European country. Meanwhile, gun-related violence is on the rise too, with 366 confirmed shootings in 2020, claiming 47 lives, as daily Svenska Dagbladet reports. Today, lethal gun-violence in Sweden is almost three times higher than the per-capita European average, while the country's year-by-year increase is by far the continent's highest.
A wave of crime that sparked anti-terror debate
While overall crime levels in Sweden remain low, and homicide rates have fallen since the 1990s, it is particularly gang-related violence that worries authorities. A police report last year mapped out 36 different "clans" in major Swedish cities, tracking these family-based networks that often have roots in North Africa and the Middle East. These organizations engage in extortion and drug trafficking, fight each other over turf, and often have ties to other criminal outfits such as motorcycle clubs.
The crime wave has sparked a debate over extending the current anti-terrorism laws to also cover organized crime, which would grant courts the right to convict members of criminal groups even if no crime has yet been committed. Such a move in heavily unionized Sweden is particularly controversial as the country's welfare state was built on the right to association and organization.
In 2019, a government proposal for an extended anti-terror law was quashed after it was deemed incompatible with Sweden's constitutional freedom of association.
Criminal groupings represent a very small fraction of Swedish migrants.
Still, the Swedish government has recently proposed the largest-ever reform of the country's criminal code, including expanded surveillance rights, harsher sentences for organized crime and threatening witnesses, as well as a plan to add 10,000 police officers by 2024.
While some of the legal changes have already been implemented, Sweden's center-right opposition expresses doubts as to whether the measures proposed will be enough to curb the spread of violence, suggesting harsher action like deportation of non-Swedish citizens found guilty of committing crimes.
A memorial for victims of a gang shootout in Norsborg, Sweden, in August 2020
Tougher new laws in Germany and France
The rise in violence has also given ammunition to those opposed to the government's decision in 2015 to accept more refugees per capita than any other country — with 163,000 people applying for asylum that year. However, evidence points to the fact that these clan networks have been present in Sweden for decades, while some members have arrived more recently to give support to their respective clans in local conflicts or to expand the criminal network. It's also worth noting that criminal groupings represent a very small fraction of Swedish migrants. Between 2015 and 2018, only 8% of migrants born abroad were suspected of crime; and for second-generation migrants — with parents born in Sweden — the number was 3%, according to a government report cited in Dagens Nyheter.
The opposition has also pointed to other European countries that have introduced tougher anti-terror legislation in the last decade. Germany passed a law in 2015 that made it a crime to travel outside the country with the intent to receive terrorist training. More recently, France adopted new legislation in July that reinforces anti-terrorism and intelligence-gathering legislation by incorporating emergency regulations into regular law.
It remains to be seen if Sweden follows suit. And while the country's recent wave of violence resembles gang warfare more than ideological or religious terrorism, experts note that the criminal networks often operate in similar ways — and eventually can be dismantled in the same way too.