In Sweden, where gang crime has become extremely violent, crucial societal issues, such as who is behind the current crime epidemic, are a public taboo. How do you solve a critical societal problem that is maiming and killing people, without talking about it openly? (Image source: iStock)
"Since 2015, 32 people have been shot dead in 30 separate acts in Malmö's latest murder wave. Our survey of the murders shows that more than 120 young men are linked to them in different ways", according to a recent series of reports about gang violence in the Swedish mainstream newspaper, Sydsvenskan.
"There is much talk about 'gang wars' in Malmö," the report relates.
"Nothing indicates that there are fixed groupings with hierarchical structures and regulated activities in Malmö's crime world. Rather, on the contrary -- everything can be seen as one single gang. And there is civil war [within the gang]. We have mapped 200 criminals in the city. Most of them know each other - they have grown up together, been schoolmates, shared housing and moved in the same circles. Of these, we have selected 20 men for closer examination. Either because they are suspected of having shot, planned or otherwise contributed to the murders. Or that they themselves have fallen victim. And for being identified... as central people in Malmö's crime world in recent years. At least 18 of the murders have, according to our review, occurred within the relatively narrow circle of these 20 men".
The report then mentions that "17 of the 20 surveyed men have Swedish citizenship and 14 are born in Sweden."
"Almost everyone has parents who have come here mainly from the Middle East and Africa. Altogether, they have been convicted of at least 180 crimes -- everything from driving a car without a driver's license to robbery, weapons crimes, assault and murder. One of them is on Europol's list of our continent's most wanted criminals, suspected of having ordered two murders... Half of them have parents who are also convicted of crimes. Drug crimes, harassment, money laundering, theft, smuggling and serious abuse. But there are also examples of parents with stable incomes and an academic background".
In Sweden, crucial societal issues, such as who is behind the current crime epidemic, are a public taboo. Swedish authorities have only published statistics about the ethnic backgrounds of criminals twice: in 1996 and in 2005. In 2017, Minister of Justice Morgan Johansson -- who is also Minister of Justice and Migration in the current Swedish government -- refused to publish statistics about the ethnic origins of criminals in Sweden. "So the political conclusions that I need to make, I can already make with existing international and Swedish studies," he said at the time.
The majority of the political parties in the Swedish parliament agreed with him. They said they did not think such a statistic was needed.
"For the first time now, more crimes -- in absolute terms -- are committed by persons of foreign background than by persons of Swedish origin...The most crime-prone population subgroup are people born [in Sweden] to two foreign-born parents".
The mainstream Swedish media, however, largely ignored the privately published report.
This general suppression of information is why Sydsvenskan's account is especially remarkable -- although in recent years, media reports have become slightly more common. It is hard, after all, completely to escape reality. In 2017, when Stockholm was hit by a wave of murders, the Swedish mainstream media outlet Expressen, did a report about the 49 criminal networks in the capital that showed the networks consisted of between 500 and 700 gang members. 40.6% of the gang members that Expressen surveyed were foreign-born; 82.2% had two parents who were foreign-born. Their main country of origin was Iraq, followed by Bosnia, Lebanon, Somalia, Syria and Turkey.
More remarkably, Sydsvenskan's report also indicated that nothing could be done about the hardened criminals:
"With the exception of three people in the survey, all have been offered help since they were boys. Some of them were already registered with the police as ten-year-olds... They have undergone programs... far from the criminal environment in Malmö... It has not worked... what the social services have done so far does not help, and there are no more measures to try out".
These are facts that mainstream politicians have avoided discussing openly for years. The question is: How do you solve a critical societal problem, especially one that is literally maiming and killing people, without talking about it openly?
Even the Swedish government, however, has realized that it is time to tackle the gang violence, which, with its waves of shootings and bombing, is fast derailing Swedish society. Some commentators have likened the situation to a state of war. The government therefore recently presented a new initiative that seeks to tackle the gang violence. The government proposal, however, never specifically mentions who is mainly behind the gang violence and that its own migration policies have in large part created the situation in which Swedish society now finds itself.
The proposals to tackle gang violence include: More detentions for those who commit serious crimes, faster prosecutions, better opportunities to access the assets of criminals, increased investments in schools and social services in "vulnerable areas", more social services in the evenings and weekends in "vulnerable areas", stricter penalties for those recruiting young people to crime, stricter penalties for weapons and explosives offenses and better witness protection programs.
Ulf Kristersson, leader of the largest opposition party, the center-right Moderate Party, criticized the government for not suggesting harder crackdowns on gang crime. The Moderate Party would have liked to see larger investments in the police, doubling the penalties for gang criminals and a system of visitation zones, among other things.
One might ask whether it is likely that the government's rather mild proposals for tackling gang violence will make enough difference at this point. Gang crime has become extremely violent and extremely serious. The Nigerian gang Black Axe, for instance, engages in drug-trafficking and prostitution and also operates extensively in Italy, where Italian police have described it as using "urban guerrilla warfare which continued for days at a time" to maintain territorial control. Swedish police estimate that the gang, which has been establishing itself in Stockholm for the past five years, seems pretty thoroughly entrenched. "In my opinion," said the head of police squad, Lennart Karlsson, "this is one of the world's most effective crime syndicates. So unfortunately for us, they probably have a pretty bright future."
In addition to Black Axe, There are approximately 50 other criminal gangs, encompassing around 1,500 criminals, operating in Stockholm, according to recent information from the police. Stockholm is currently going through a wave of shootings; by the beginning of August there had already been 58 this year. According to the police's expert on gang violence, Gunnar Appelgren, the harm is considerably more serious today than it was five years ago, because the criminals now make greater use of automatic weapons.
It does not seem likely that any of these hardened criminals will be swayed much by "increased investments in schools and social services in 'vulnerable areas'", as one of the government proposals suggests. Maybe some of the other proposals will improve the situation, but a far harsher crackdown on gang violence might regrettably be needed.
John Richardson is a researcher based in the United States.