Desperate Times, Desperate Measures? Sweden’s Attempt to Curb Gang-Related Violence

By: Jakob Lindelöf and Stijn Willem van ‘t Land
Picture Credits: Frankie Fouganthin, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons


Gang violence in Sweden reached new lows last year. Three people were killed in just twelve hours at the end of September 2023, a record high in monthly killings since 2016. One of the victims was an innocent woman in her twenties who died in a bomb attack in the student city of Uppsala. The same evening, two men were shot in Stockholm: one was killed, and the other was injured. Elsewhere in the capital, an 18-year-old victim was shot dead during football training. The most recent tragedy was the murder of an innocent bystander, when a 39-year old man was killed in front of his 12-year old son after confronting a gang. Sweden has been struggling with high homicide rates for years. The year 2022 saw a record number of fatalities: 62.

As the country finds itself in a crisis following the recent series of crimewaves, the government has been hard pressed to come up with policy solutions to fight the ongoing violence. The new conservative government that took power in October 2022 has implemented various changes to laws that assist the authorities in combating organised criminal groups (OCGs). Since then, the government and parliament have discussed and proposed additional measures aimed at curbing gang-related violence in the country. However, the proposed measures are not without controversy. Some of the policy options on the table infringe on citizens’ basic human rights, such as the right to privacy, the presumption of innocence, and equality before the law.     

In this contribution, we take inventory of the measures implemented and proposed by the Swedish government and parliament to combat gang-related violence. We reflect on the tension between the possible efficacy of the proposed measures and the implications for the rule of law in the country. In sum, we conclude that while it may be tempting to adopt drastic measures in efforts to curb the most excessive gang-related violence in the country in the short-term, some of the measures significantly infringe on the rights of its citizens and might even be counterproductive. Closely studying the successes and failures of the government and law enforcement agencies in Latin American and European counterparts with a long history of combating gang-related violence could help inform a nuanced and effective approach to Sweden’s own unique challenges.

The drug trade, gang feuds, and increasingly excessive forms of violence

The violence in Sweden stems from rivalries between various criminal gangs that engage in the drug trade. The escalation in violence in late September 2022, for example, began with the assassination of a rival gang member, which led to a spiral of violence and retaliatory bombings. The recent string of attacks in September 2023, authorities believe, resulted from the splintering of the so-called Foxtrot-network — a criminal gang that rose to power in the late 2010’s and focuses on the trade in narcotics — and the subsequent war that two different factions within the former network are currently waging against each other. 

The Swedish public and the government are increasingly worried because of the sharp increase in gang-related violence in the country. By November 15th, 2023, Swedish police reported a total of 337 shootings since the start of the year, fifty of which were fatal. Even though fewer shootings took place than in the previous year, 2023 saw a sharp increase in the use of explosives to target rival gang members. By November 2023, Swedish police had reported a total of 140 detonations since the start of the year compared to ninety detonations the previous year. The number of failed detonations had almost doubled to 52 and the number of prepared explosives found rose from 68 to 130.

Comparing levels of gun violence in Sweden to that of other European nations, the fact that the country is facing a serious issue also becomes apparent; Sweden is clearly an outlier. Whilst other European countries have seen a decline in gun violence in the last 10 years, Sweden has seen an increase. According to a report by the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention (Brå), deaths by firearm average 1.6 per 1 million inhabitants per year in the entire European Union, while Sweden averages at 4 deaths per 1 million inhabitants per year.

The evolving nature of the violence also creates a sense of urgency to act — both amongst the public and in parliament and the government. The violence increasingly extends to extra-group bombings and targeted killings aimed at people who are not directly involved in criminal networks themselves. Criminals no longer only target rival gang members, but also rival gang members’ families. Innocent bystanders, who have no connection to any gang, are also frequently — quite literally — caught in the crossfire, as bombings regularly occur in residential areas or at public businesses. In 2023, the amount of innocent people injured or killed by gang violence doubled compared to the previous year. Over the span of 10 years, a total of 106 people unconnected to gangs have been killed or wounded.

Bomb detonated at Gyllenstiernsgatan 4, Östermalm, Stockholm on January 13, 2020.

Picture Credits: Frankie Fouganthin, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Lastly, another concerning development is the recruitment of minors in excessive gang-related violence. Swedish police estimated in 2021 that a total of 1200 minors were part of criminal gangs, and in 2022, a teenager murdered a 31-year-old in broad daylight at a shopping mall in Malmö. Children themselves also fall victim to gang violence. A 16-year-old was recently detained on suspicion of the murder of a 15-year-old. Authorities believe the crime to be related to an ongoing gang war in Stockholm. In four other incidents related to organized crime, children aged fifteen, fourteen and one as young as thirteen were found deceased in apparent gang-related execution-style killings.

Measures implemented by the Swedish government to counter gang-related crime and violence

Thus far, the Swedish government has introduced legislation in three different areas to combat the violence related to organised crime groups in the country. The first set of laws that have been introduced focus on interdiction and deterrence. These new laws include longer sentences for gang-related crime, the abolition of reduced sentences for multiple simultaneous convictions (thus effectively increasing sentences), and the criminalisation of the recruitment of minors into gang-related crime. Another set of legislation focuses on the use of crown witnesses that can be used to testify in criminal cases in return for reduced sentencing.

Second is the introduction of a law that extends the authority and powers of the police. This law — in effect since October 1st, 2023 — widens the legal basis for the police, customs, and Säkerhetspolisen (the Swedish Security Service) to employ surveillance for a wider range of crimes. Previously, this form of intelligence gathering was limited to issues of national security, such as terrorism, but the legal framework for surveillance has now been expanded to cover gang-related crimes. With the new law, the authorities are allowed to monitor citizens without probable cause. The legislation also allows authorities to monitor not only those who are not considered suspects, but also people suspected of potentially committing a crime in the future. Suggestions for future legislation also include extending the legal framework for the police to use bugging devices

The impact of the introduced measures on levels of crime and the rule of law

The policies to increase minimum sentences for criminals have been part of the government agenda since the coalition was formed in October 2022. The question remains, however, if the government’s tough-on-crime attitude will have the desired effects. Studies conducted in the United States have shown that punitive prison sentences do not reduce recidivism in convicted criminals and are, in fact, counterproductive, as they promote and perpetuate criminal behaviour. According to Dennis Martinsson, a lecturer at Stockholm University, policies aimed at deterrence might also be ineffective, since those already involved in serious criminal activity like large-scale drug trade and targeted killings are unlikely to be dissuaded by laws that punish them for recruiting children into criminal organisations.

Several of the policies that have been introduced have serious implications for the rule of law in Sweden, too. The use of preventative monitoring of those who have not yet committed a crime is frequently criticised by human rights advocates, as it conflicts with and erodes a core principle of the rule of law: the presumption of innocence. Furthermore, when it comes to surveillance, proportionality is frequently cited as being a key factor in determining its legality. Recent rulings from the highest courts in Europe, for instance, emphasise the necessity for mass surveillance practices to be deemed proportional in order to be lawful. Usually, the proportionality principle in the case of mass surveillance applies only to issues of national security or similarly compelling state interests. Experts also point out that the recent suggestions to use enhanced biometrics technology for surveillance purposes might rub with data protection laws and can have far-reaching consequences for the privacy of Swedish citizens.

The introduction of crown witness programmes — where a person implicated in a criminal case turns against their accomplices by serving as a witness for the state — comes with its own challenges in relation to the protection of basic human rights, like the right to life. State protection of human and social rights is usually covered in definitions of the rule of law. Under EU law, Sweden has the positive obligation to safeguard the lives of those within its jurisdiction. By introducing crown witness programmes, the Swedish government can potentially jeopardise the lives of its citizens, since criminals frequently target crown witnesses in assassination attempts as a form of reprisal, or to hinder ongoing trials. 

A recent case in the Netherlands highlights the vulnerability of crown witnesses. To intimidate the crown witness and hamper court proceedings, three people in the close circle of the crown witness in the so-called Marengo-trial were murdered: his brother, his lawyer, and his personal advisor. The investigation into the security situation around the victims led to a devastating report by the Dutch Safety Board (Onderzoeksraad voor Veiligheid) and parliamentarians accused the government of falling short in their obligation to protect its citizens.

In Sweden, the crown witness in murder case that took place in 2020 has recently stated that, despite having a protected identity, he now fears for his life. Next to having serious implications for the protection of human rights, the programmes can effectively be rendered useless, as the potential risks to the lives of crown witnesses and their families — if they do not receive adequate protective measures from the authorities — may disincentive people to come forward.

Additional proposed measures and their potential impact on crime suppression and the rule of law

The Swedish government and parliament are contemplating additional repressive measures beyond those that have already been implemented. One proposed measure involves incarcerating violent youth offenders aged 15 to 17 in prisons instead of youth homes. The Swedish government is also considering granting police the authority to establish visitation zones in specific areas, allowing them to conduct stop-and-searches without reasonable suspicion for a limited amount of time. The most extreme proposition involves deploying the military to combat gang violence, even allowing the use of lethal force.

These policy options, too, have been scrutinised by experts, with some expressing concerns about the tension between some of the proposed policy options and the rule of law in Sweden. For example, concerns about the impact of incarceration on young offenders’ well-being and uncertainties about alignment with Swedish law have been expressed. Swedish law stipulates that the best interests of the child shall be of primary consideration of general courts. In cases concerning custody, residence, and contact, the court decides on the best interest of the child. The board tasked with scrutinising the legal reform that allows underaged offenders to be incarcerated in prison facilities were unable to determine whether the proposed policy aligned with the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The proposition to introduce visitation zones has faced similar scrutiny. The idea to introduce such visitation zones is borrowed from Denmark, where the police have had the power to conduct stop-and-searches since 2004. In Denmark, however, experts point out that the efficacy of these stop-and-search zones has never been proven. Similarly, in New York City, stop-and-search programmes have long been criticised for their supposed lack of efficacy. In New York City, the fundamental idea of equality before the law is also affected by the programmes, as stop-and-searches there generally go hand-in-hand with racial profiling by the police.

Non-Violence by Swedish artist Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd as it stands in Malmö, Sweden. Since 1993, this bronze sculpture — also known as The Knotted Gun — has been the symbol of The Non-Violence Project, a nonprofit organization that promotes social change through violence-prevention education programs.

Picture credits: Håkan Dahlström from Malmö, Sweden, via Wikimedia Commons

Of these proposals, the use of military personnel to assist the police raises the biggest concerns. This policy is particularly controversial when it comes to the deployment of personnel alongside police ‘on the ground’ and the authorisation of the military to use lethal force. Researcher Pontus Winther of the Swedish Totalförsvarets forskningsinstitut recognises the potential benefits of deploying the army when it comes to providing logistical assistance or assistance with gathering intelligence to the police. However, Winther also expresses reservations. His apprehension aligns with that of other researchers, who all argue that problems might arise if the military is employed in a law enforcement context, because of the different paradigms law enforcement and the army act under when it comes to the use of force. Law enforcement agents, they argue, are trained to use lethal force as a last resort, whereas soldiers are trained to eliminate threats as soon as possible. The historical use of the military to address drug-related crime in Latin American countries also suggests caution. While the nature and extent of violence differ, human rights violations following involvement of the military in law enforcement in those countries have generally had a negative impact on the rule of law. Repressive measures and crackdowns on drug trafficking organisations often widened the gap between citizens and the government, providing easy opportunities for organised crime groups to exploit societal frustrations.

Crime control, proportionality, and preserving the rule of law: a tightrope

Controlling crime while trying to uphold the rule of law forces Swedish policymakers to maintain a careful balance. Given the politicised nature of the current crisis, the government might be tempted to come up with “quick and dirty”, myopic responses to combat the gang-related violence in Sweden. While short-term interventions against groups committing the most excessive violence are necessary, experts suggest that long-term considerations should focus on realistic aims, such as constraining violence by gangs, rather than eliminating all drug-related crime altogether.

By keeping a long-term strategy in mind, the government can also effectively incorporate concerns raised by experts, which highlight the potential long-term effects on the rule of law that some policy options like visitation zones and mass surveillance might have. In addition, if the government chooses to lean on interventions that might jeopardise the safety of its citizens, like crown witness programmes, it could prove to be productive to consult colleagues in the public prosecution in Italy and the Netherlands to discuss lessons learned on how to provide adequate protective measures for witnesses and their families. 

The police in one Swedish municipality have already taken initiative to learn from outside of the country. The municipality of Södertälje is currently exploring a pilot programme in which Swedish police officers will be trained by colleagues in Italy. To combat  financial crime and the infiltration of criminality into local administration and politics, the Södertälje police will start cooperating with the Italian anti-mafia police.

In general, perhaps the best approach in finding the right balance between the preservation of the rule of law while effectively combating violent gang-related crime, is learning from the experiences of other countries struggling with gang-related crime. Sweden can benefit from closely studying the successes and failures of the government and law enforcement agencies in countries like Colombia, Mexico, and Brazil, and closer to home, Italy, Belgium, and the Netherlands, to inform a nuanced and effective approach to the country’s own unique challenges while limiting the negative effects on the rule of law. 

Long-term strategies and lessons from counterparts

In conclusion, the Swedish government faces the daunting task of addressing immediate crime concerns while safeguarding the rule of law. The government seems to be moving fast, proposing and implementing policies that have serious consequences for basic human rights principles like equality before the law, privacy, and the presumption of innocence. The effects of these measures on crime control are sometimes also unclear. As the government is pressured to act, the possibility of overreaction looms. The implemented and proposed policies must be carefully evaluated for their potential long-term consequences on both crime suppression and the rule of law. Drawing lessons from counterparts with extensive histories of dealing with crime-related violence can provide invaluable guidance as Sweden tries to tackle its current crisis.

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