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Gun Violence Epidemic Looms Large Over a Swedish Election

STOCKHOLM — The best years were ahead for Susanna Yakes and her 12-year-old daughter Adriana. The two danced to music all over the house and screamed together on roller coasters — more mature milestones like travel and love ahead were ahead.

“I could see it in her face, you know, when the rose is almost ready to open,” Ms Yakes said, adding that she was excited about the vivacious woman her daughter was becoming.

That all changed one night in 2020 when Adriana went for a walk with her dog and got caught up in a gang conflict outside a restaurant.

“It wasn’t until I lost my daughter that I knew there are different kinds of tears,” said Ms. Yakes, 34, who two years later still visits Adriana’s grave twice a week.

The murder of young Adriana, an innocent bystander, became a prominent part of a steadily growing epidemic of gun violence in Sweden, which now has some of the highest gun murder rates in Europe.

As Sweden votes in parliamentary elections on Sunday, gun crime looms large for a country more often associated with its high standard of living, women’s rights and hospitable asylum policies.

The arms issue, amid an energy crisis and rising inflation, has helped create an exceptionally close race – one that is intertwined with deeper questions about Sweden’s identity, a diversifying country and failure to integrate immigrants, especially those who arrived in Sweden during Europe’s migration crisis in 2015.

Other European countries like Germany with similar immigration levels have not seen the same increase in gun violence, and with many unresolved cases, researchers say more research is needed to understand the epidemic.

But the debate provided fodder for conservative parties in an already tense campaign, especially the far-right Swedish Democrats, a contender for Sweden’s leading opposition party that is using the violence to advance a long-standing anti-immigrant agenda.

The centre-left Social Democrats – who already rule without a majority in parliament – ​​find themselves in perhaps their most precarious position after a century of dominating Swedish politics.

The government also argues that more resources and employment should be devoted to integrating the segregated, immigrant-rich suburbs that surround the major cities where gun violence is concentrated.

But fearing losing more voters, it has capitulated to public concerns by adopting tougher crime policies, even as the far right and other conservatives are calling for even tougher steps.

“Too much migration and too weak integration have created parallel societies where criminal gangs have been able to grow and gain a foothold,” Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said last month, as she introduced measures to expand police powers and reduce penalties for serious weapons offences.

Such calls in the middle of the election campaign frustrated the victims of crimes for being used as political pawns, and residents of Sweden’s poorer neighborhoods felt marginalized by a nation that promised them equal treatment.

“Crime is also, to some extent, a matter of how we view immigrants and how we view the multicultural society,” said Magnus Blomgren, a political science professor at Umea University in northern Sweden, adding that the issue is now about undue importance. in a country with a changing demographic.

“We have a picture of what we are,” he said. “But that is changing.”

And for now, uncomfortable.

A fifth from Sweden 10 million inhabitants were born abroad — divided between European migrants and an increasing number migrants from countries such as Syria, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan in the past decade.

But in cities like Stockholm, Malmö and Gothenburg – where a higher proportion of migrants have settled compared to the rest of the country – the media and residents point to two separate worlds: a polished city center that symbolizes the wealth of the country, and poorer, ethnically diverse suburbs where police officers wear tourniquets to staunch gunshot wounds.

“Linking it to migration is in the interest of those interested in creating a very simplified reality and creating polarization,” said Amir Rostami, a sociologist at the University of Gavle. “We only see this very limited.”

From 2010 to 2018, the number of shootings in Sweden increased rapidly. The Police have recorded 273 shootings so far this year in what they expect could be the worst year ever in Sweden. The current record number of shootings was set at 379 in 2020.

In a country with strict gun laws, where licenses are usually limited to shotguns, criminologists have linked the shootings to the illicit drug trade and say they were fueled by a stockpile of thousands of firearms smuggled in from the post-war Balkans, Eastern Europe and the United States. Turkey.

But as the country neared elections, lawmakers turned to promises of order and calm, citing gang wars and riots in some Swedish cities.

That focus caused some migrants in neighborhoods outside cities like Stockholm to distrust authorities and feel like second-class citizens, even after decades in the country.

“We came with hopes and ambitions,” said Axel Shako, a London activist involved with the Fryshuset youth center in northern Stockholm. “The question should be for the politicians. We’re just doing our best.”

Victims of gun violence also say they are tired of watching lawmakers clash while little progress has been made in reversing the problem.

“When he died, I didn’t see the point of living,” said Maritha Ogilvie, whose son Marley Fredriksson, 19, who was black, was shot dead in Stockholm seven years ago.

Since then, Ms Ogilvie has campaigned for tougher sentences for gun crimes – but she believes programs to support young teens are equally important, frustrated by a system she says hasn’t done enough to protect people of color like her son.

“They’re trying to run a country they don’t even understand,” she said, referring to lawmakers despite their promises to address the issues. “Racist parties,” she said, were simply using the issue to gain voters.

For Carolina Sinisalo, the grief of a shooting that killed her 15-year-old son Robin and left her older son Alejandro partially paralyzed was almost unfathomable.

Ms Sinisalo, who lives in the Rinkeby neighborhood of Stockholm, which is known for the shootings, is performing for the first time this year as a social democrat for a local political office.

“The guns—it’s the tip of the iceberg,” she said.

“The main issue here is the schools and the opportunity to get a job,” Ms Sinisalo said, adding that despite supporting tougher gun violence laws, the tenor of the campaign had shocked her. “No one is born criminal.”

The cases remain unresolved. They join about 70 percent of firearms homicides that go unhandled in Sweden, and researchers say tackling them could help tackle the problem.

But police officers, who blame local gangs for the shootings, say they face challenges in getting witnesses to speak and gather enough evidence to prosecute suspects in the Swedish legal system, which doesn’t allow anonymous witnesses — something conservatives have. suggested to change .

That is little comfort to the families of the victims.

Stockholm has started to send more police officers and guards to areas where shootings are more frequent. One recent afternoon, a cop, Rissa Seidou, stopped to chat with passersby during a routine neighborhood patrol.

Inspector Seidou has lost sight of the firearms and funerals she has attended in recent years. Now she is working on a policy strategy that she believes will save lives: building ties with the local community to encourage residents to report unusual behavior to the police.

Inspector Seidou advises parents to send their children away if she thinks they are at risk of injury, and she organizes information sessions for parents about the Swedish legal system.

“For me, it’s not about getting more police officers,” said Inspector Seidou, adding that she was frustrated with the way the officers had handled the issue. “We have to put them to good use.”

Child offenders in Sweden are already getting less leniency for committing serious crimes, as the government said last month it would increase the penalty for serious gun crimes.

But social workers and youth organizations have called tougher sentences a patch solution that ignores the larger problem of inequality that divides Sweden, including better resources for school programs, job opportunities and mental health.

“I wish those questions were as urgent and as important as the issue of putting them in jail,” said Camila Salazar Atias, a criminologist at Fryshuset, a national youth organization that runs programs for at-risk children.

Juri Escobar knows from personal experience what needs to be done, he says. Mr Escobar, a former gang member, was serving a 10-year sentence for murder, blaming a difficult upbringing for leading him to that lifestyle.

“Heavier penalties will not work,” he said. “You have to give them an option, give them a treatment.”

Today he is walking Vision 24, a program he says is working with the police and social services in Stockholm to help about 30 men break free from criminal groups each year. More recently, he gets calls from smaller towns in Sweden.

“Nobody wants to live this life,” said Mr. Escobar.

Christina Anderson contributed reporting from Malmö, Sweden.