Criminal 'clans' challenge Sweden's law enforcement

Police in Sweden say they're struggling to control criminal "clans" exercising their own form of justice, amid an escalation of violent crime in what has long been a tranquil and safe country.

With close family loyalties and little regard for the authorities, a few dozen criminal gangs now wield considerable influence over some of Sweden's disadvantaged neighbourhoods, say experts.

Shootings, bombings and grenade attacks have become regular events in cities and towns across the country. Media outlets report on drug wars, blackmail, and witnesses too fearful of repercussions to testify.

"Have you seen the movie 'The Godfather'? Then you know what it's like," journalist Johanna Backstrom Lerneby, who wrote a book about one of Sweden's most infamous crime families, told AFP.

Gang members tied to the family Backstrom Lerneby wrote about recently made headlines in Sweden when, during a feud with a rival gang in August, they set up makeshift roadblocks, stopping cars and asking to see passengers' ID cards.

One young man interviewed by broadcaster SVT, who would not give his full name but claimed to be involved in the car checks, said the controls were set up to "protect residents and children in the area".

- Sidelined authorities -

The feud came to a halt in late August -- but not because police arrested any suspects.

Instead, members of several gangs met at a Gothenburg hotel and agreed to end hostilities, effectively ending the strife overnight.

"It's very frustrating, because it is a good solution in the short term... but it was resolved in the wrong way," local police officer Fredrik Terje told SVT, deploring that authorities had been sidelined as criminals set the agenda.

The problem of these "criminal clans" has made headlines since early September, when deputy police chief Mats Lofving told Swedish Radio there were at least 40 family-based criminal gangs in Sweden.

"Far from everyone wants to be a part of Swedish society," Lofving said, adding these families had come to Sweden solely for the purpose of committing crime, bringing with them their own parallel systems of government.

Lofving said these families were making their way into business and politics in order to wield more formal influence, primarily in disadvantaged suburbs, many of which have a large proportion of residents with immigrant backgrounds.

Sweden has struggled to integrate many of its immigrants, with thousands failing to learn the language proficiently and find jobs in its highly skilled labour market. 

"Those who live in these vulnerable areas are often relatively poor people who don't have a choice, even if they wanted to move away," Backstrom Lerneby said.

The violence has also harmed innocent bystanders. In early August, a 12-year-old girl was killed by a stray bullet in a drive-by shooting in Stockholm, sparking an outcry over the ruthless violence.

In early September, Prime Minister Stefan Lofven called the criminal gangs a "poison in our society that we need to get rid of".

Police have not disclosed which criminal groups have this family structure nor which countries they're from. 

In recent decades however, gangs with roots in the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans have made headlines.

Lofven himself has nevertheless refused to "link crime to ethnicity", a sensitive subject in the public debate amid accusations of xenophobia.

- Dug in -

Overall, Sweden remains a country with low levels of violence. Its murder rate in 2018 was 1.07 per 100,000 inhabitants compared to the European average of 2.39, according to Eurostat, and compared to 5.0 in the United States according to the FBI.

But Sweden's Minister for Home Affairs Mikael Damberg expressed concern in an interview with AFP that the family-based gangs had gained a foothold.

"These family-based networks have existed for some time in Sweden. They have been able to dig in, especially in the vulnerable areas in Sweden, where the state hasn't been present enough," Damberg told AFP.

It was important for authorities to move back in, he added.

Police have made it a priority to increase their presence in these neighbourhoods, an important move "to show that Swedish law applies in Sweden", he said.

The government has, among other things, increased surveillance powers for police, toughened sentences for drugs- and weapons-related crimes and rolled back more lenient sentencing policies for young offenders.

But in a widely reported statement in late August, police officials admitted they were still struggling.

"We are working intensively, around the clock, and despite that the serious violence is continuing... We're not backing down and we're not giving up, but the situation right now is very stressful," national police chief Anders Thornberg said.

During the first six months of 2020, 20 people have been killed in 163 shootings in the country of 10.3 million, compared to 42 deaths in 334 reported shootings in all of 2019, according to police.