Sweden at the forefront of Europe's battle with gangland violence

PM-in-waiting Magdalena Andersson plans to tackle bombings and shootings

The fight against Europe's criminal underworld has an unlikely new flag-bearer.

Gangs have blighted countries across the continent, from traditional mafia heartlands in Italy to clans operating in Germany.

Now, Sweden is going into battle against the violent gangs bringing bombs and gunfire to the Nordic nation.

The struggle with Sweden's gangland will be at the top of Magdalena Andersson's in-tray if, as expected, she takes office in the coming weeks as the country's first female prime minister.

Ms Andersson, who will replace Stefan Lofven as prime minister if she is confirmed by Parliament, has pledged to leave “no stone unturned” to root out the gangsters behind a surge in gun crime.

At least 35 people have been killed this year in gang violence – with 10 shot dead in August alone.

The authorities say Sweden is the only country in Europe with a steadily rising rate of gun deaths.

After securing the leadership of the ruling Social Democrats, Ms Andersson said that “society must defend itself” against the gangs.

“We need a full-scale mobilisation to regain control from gangs that are holding entire neighbourhoods hostage,” she said.

But critics were not convinced that the government has a grip on the problem. Jan Ericson, an MP from the opposition Moderate Party, called for more police and longer prison sentences.

“We are more than 10 million people in Sweden. The criminal gangs consist of a few thousand people,” he said. “We are stronger than the gangs if we just decide that now it must be enough.”

Swedish gun epidemic

An explosion in Gothenburg this week triggered a fresh wave of discussion about gang crime – although it later proved seemingly unrelated.

Rival gangs have used explosives and firearms to settle scores, with blasts occurring frequently in cities such as Stockholm and Malmo. Police counted 107 explosions last year.

The new prime minister will “step out and meet a Sweden where gang crime, bombings and murder with firearms are part of everyday life,” wrote newspaper columnist Petter Birgersson.

Officials say that eight out of 10 gun deaths take place within the criminal underworld. Ministers recently adopted a 34-point plan to tackle the gangs. This would allow police to read encrypted texts and search people’s homes more easily.

Interior Minister Mikael Damberg linked the spate of shootings to wider social deprivation and failed integration policies.

“A large part of the underclass in Sweden today lives in these segregated residential areas where shootings primarily take place,” he said.

“Society must crack down on gang criminals who limit the freedom of so many others – but also create a more cohesive society where no one is left out.”

German clan chaos

Violence and money-laundering by criminal gangs have kept police busy in various parts of Germany, including the capital Berlin.

Police in western state North Rhine-Westphalia said they had seized more than €4 million ($4.6m) worth of cash, property and cars in the past year.

Authorities said there were 112 Turkish and Arab gangs operating in the state, with more than 3,800 people suspected of various crimes. Many suspects had roots in Lebanon, said officials.

German gangs have been linked to spectacular crimes, including the theft of a giant gold coin and a jewel heist at a museum in eastern city Dresden two years ago.

In one case, the Al Zein clan is thought to have fraudulently claimed nearly $500,000 in benefits and spent its funds on weapons and luxury items.

Mahmoud Al Zein, nicknamed the Godfather of Berlin, was deported to Turkey in January. Two other people were reportedly arrested at a family villa this week.

A man is led away by police with a blanket over his head during a raid in Berlin, Germany, Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021. Police cracked down on clan crime in Berlin and the surrounding area with a major raid on Thursday morning. (Christophe Gateau/dpa via AP)

Dutch kidnap fears

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte was said this week to have received extra security because of fears that drugs gangs are planning to kidnap him.

Mr Rutte cycles to work but there are fears that he has been shadowed by a gang known as the “Mocro Mafia”. It gets its name from Moroccan groups involved in drug trafficking.

Authorities would not be drawn on threats to Mr Rutte but have promised a purge of organised crime since an investigative reporter was shot dead in July.

The Netherlands faces significant problems from the narcotics trade. The port of Rotterdam is a major hub for cocaine smuggling, while Amsterdam was accused in an official report of giving free rein to “a motley crew of drugs criminals, a ring of hustlers and parasites".

Belgian drugs hub

The Belgian port of Antwerp has become increasingly important for the drugs trade, rivalling trafficking hubs in southern Europe, such as Portugal and Spain.

Europol says cocaine shipments from Brazil and Colombia often arrive directly in Belgium. At least 65 tonnes of the drug were seized in Antwerp in 2020.

Belgian authorities say crime gangs of Moroccan and Albanian backgrounds are involved in shipping cocaine from the port.

There have been reports of underworld threats to Bart De Wever, the mayor of Antwerp and a Flemish nationalist politician, who has spoken out against the drugs gangs.

Spanish police raids

Spanish authorities claimed victory this week after a drugs bust that saw 61 people arrested, and more than 4,000 kilograms of cocaine and a cache of weapons seized.

Gangsters from Serbia, Croatia and Montenegro used bases in Spain to help them smuggle cocaine between South America and the Spanish coast.

The cartel had branches across Europe and sold luxury cars to raise money. Two alleged senior figures were held in March while said to be preparing for the arrival of a shipment.

Spain previously announced that 280 criminal groups had been identified and dismantled during 2019, with raids seizing more than 2,000 vehicles, 173 boats and four aircraft.

Italian mafia scene

Rome’s Casamonica clan was last week officially classified as a mafia organisation, with five of its top members jailed for up to 30 years each.

Family members have boasted in wiretapped conversations of rivalling the famous mafia gangs of southern Italy, such as the ‘Ndrangheta.

The court found Casamonica mobsters guilty of drug trafficking and extortion. They are thought to have links to Colombian narcotics gangs.

Rome’s mayor Virginia Raggi promised last month that “the fight will go on” against the family, which has its roots in the Roma and Sinti community.

Mobsters elsewhere in Italy are thought to launder money through tourism companies, siphoning billions off one of the country’s flagship industries. More than 4,000 businesses were at risk of infiltration, according to one report.

Updated: October 4th 2021, 7:06 AM
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