They began heading for the shopping mall exit when they saw the police. One of the four gang members, a local rapper called Lelo whose music videos venerate handguns and violence, turned to exchange pleasantries with Mike, an officer with the Swedish police.
Lelo and Mike have history. During a recent riot outside the mall that prompted a killing that could easily have led to another six, Lelo was among 32 arrested. In his subsequent court appearance, Mike had to intervene as Lelo’s posturing threatened to boil over.
“Now we get along, say a few words to each other. It’s important because you don’t know when you’re going to bump into them next. Here, everyone knows everyone,” Mike smiled. Here is Hjällbo, a grid of tower blocks and faded flats on the outskirts of Gothenburg.
Hjällbo is also dominated by the city’s most brutal criminal network, an organisation that openly challenges the state and whose gangland lifestyle not only threatens to reshape Swedish politics but also to undermine its democracy.
Once one of the most peaceful countries in Europe, Sweden is plagued by the worst rates of deadly gun violence in Europe, 10 times higher than Germany. Its problems offer a warning of what can happen when integration fails.
As Sweden searches for solutions to its surge in gangland violence, an obvious question emerges: how did one of the world’s most open societies incubate such a vicious subculture?
Five miles south of Hjällbo’s shopping mall, the threat facing Sweden is evident on the laptop of Erik Nord, the urbane head of Gothenburg police. Sitting in his office overlooking the city’s bustling port, the 60-year-old presses “play” on a video.
CCTV in a barber’s tracks several men getting haircuts. Two figures dressed in black enter. In English, one says, “stand back.” The intruders point handguns at a man’s head. Nine shots, over three seconds, are recorded by the CCTV audio. The gunmen leave. Moments later, their target rolls off a chair and hits the floor with a thud.
A former homicide detective, Nord revels in catching murderers. Of the 10 killings in his city this year, nine are solved. July’s barbershop assassination is the exception. Nord believes he knows who ordered it, but the execution was probably perpetrated by young men eager for status in Gothenburg’s underworld. Money was not the motivation. Nord believes they probably got as little as 30,000 kronor (£2,500) for the daylight hit. Status, a promotion in a gang hierarchy, is the ceiling of ambition for some of the 1,000 criminals affiliated to Gothenburg’s 10 or so gangs.
Police worry that there is little to distract Hjällbo’s youngsters from gravitating towards the area’s notorious criminal network. Mike describes seven-year-olds whistling warnings to drug dealers when he approaches. Decent money can eventually be earned as a lookout – fledgling steps in a criminal career.
Hjällbo’s young gang recruits exist in an environment of exclusion; failing schools, joblessness and poverty. Integration into mainstream Swedish society appears minimal at best. Hjällbo’s 9,000 residents are almost all immigrants: nearly three-quarters of them were born abroad.
For Hjällbo’s teenagers who provide a conveyor belt of gang recruits, the nearby city barely exists.
Anna Byström of Young East, which helps vulnerable youngsters in locales such as Hjällbo, was struck how during a visit to London, pockets of deprivation sat beside relative wealth. By contrast, Hjällbo’s segregation is complete, cut off from Gothenburg by forest and hills.
“Some of the youths think that the city centre or the seaside doesn’t belong to them,” said Byström. Many Gothenburgers view Hjällbo as a ghetto, a parallel society they will never experience for themselves.
One of Lelo’s most popular tracks is aptly titled Ghettobarn. Its video, featuring Lelo in a bulletproof vest, is mostly filmed in a basement with Hjällbo City sprayed on a wall. Alongside is the outline of a handgun.
An unsubtle threat, it is meant to be taken seriously. Hjällbo is the turf of the Ali Khan criminal network, Gothenburg’s most ruthless gang. Originating in Lebanon, the clan has fostered a reputation for retaliation. Murder, extortion and extreme violence are linked to family members.
So aggressive is the network that Ulf Merlander, police superintendent for north-east Gothenburg, admits rivals are privately pleased because its violence shifts the focus from them.
His officers only began patrolling Hjällbo relatively recently. Five years ago, faced with hostility from Ali Khan members and a silenced community, police entered for specific operations and quickly retreated.
Now they patrol in pairs around the clock. As dark fell, the Observer joined two officers on a mission in Hjällbo, shouting hej to young people returning from football practice, monitoring the central square where dealers like to operate until the early hours.
The officers knew they were being closely watched. “If anything happens, from out of nowhere you can be surrounded by 25 or so,” said Mike’s colleague Mia.
Mike said the gangs tried to intimidate: “They might mention they know who you are, what time you leave at night from the station. The key is to stay calm and talk with them.”
The risks are real. Earlier that day a Gothenburg court heard details in the trial of a 17-year-old accused of killing a police officer in the city in July.
On the patrol went, towards Skolspåret, back to the car park where Ali Khan affiliates usually hang out. Hjällbo seemed quiet. “It might seem peaceful but below the surface there is violence. Just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not there,” Mia said.
Many fear that violence has become normalised in Hjällbo. Merlander, who controls a vast area where up to 500 known criminals operate, believes thuggery is woven into the community’s fabric. “We have a lot of domestic violence, violence in schools. Kids are seeing guys shooting and stabbing. They see violence everywhere.”
To try to quantify the issue, Byström’s group commissioned research into youngsters who lived in places such as Hjällbo: 85% had either suffered abuse or witnessed violence at home or school. “It was staggering,” she said.
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On the other side of Sweden, Johan Olsson, head of the police’s national operation department in Stockholm, was dealing with the shock waves from another high-profile gangland killing. Einar, Sweden’s most streamed artist on Spotify in 2019, was murdered: one bullet to his chest and one to his face. His killers have not been caught.
After death threats and an incident last year when he was kidnapped, beaten and photographed by a rival gang, many felt Einar’s murder was almost telegraphed. Certainly, at 19, he fitted Olsson’s victim profile. “Many of them that we talk to don’t expect to be old, they don’t expect to reach 30. The life of these young men is short, nasty and brutish. It’s a very, very grim environment.”
Stockholm’s tumult is partly generated by a very different criminal landscape to the mafia-style Ali Khan network that controls Hjällbo. Much of it is characterised by a chaotic individualism of shifting allegiances, sudden betrayals and pervasive nihilism.
It is not rare for criminals who once pledged allegiance to lead an ally into a dödsfälla – deathtrap. “Things change quickly, [gangs] are very quick to work together, then they fall out. Or they are suddenly challenged by someone from a layer below. You have to build your own reputation, you constantly have to make yourself respected,” said Olsson – in other words, perpetrate escalating acts of violence.
“They live life more in a Hobbesian sense than a Sicilian mafia offensive. It’s an extremely individualistic culture,” said Olsson.
As in Hjällbo, geographic segregation, social exclusion and lack of cultural integration for immigrants provide fertile ground for gangs. Olsson says identity is also a driving issue. The most violent offenders, he says, are seen as occupying “no-man’s land”. He adds: “They don’t obey the rules of their parents’ generation and they haven’t really integrated into Swedish society. So they make up their own level of social capital.”
Olsson’s forces have recorded significant successes this year. Evidence from the police infiltration of encrypted services such as Encrochat have helped to arrest more than 500 people. But the drivers of gang recruitment run deep. Others moved quickly to take their place. The networks bounced back. “We haven’t really managed to push the threat back,” concedes Olsson.
Assessments suggest the threat emanates from a relatively small number of young men, about 9,000 linked to 500 gangs. Yet they carry the potency to shape Swedish politics.
Hours before Mike and Mia began their patrol around Hjällbo, the country’s prime minister, Stefan Löfven, resigned, his credibility punctured by the gang violence. On Monday his successor, Magdalena Andersson, was voted in after pledges to end urban segregation and “smoke out” the gangs. When elections are held next year, both the centre-right and nationalist parties will undoubtedly focus on gang violence, pinning the blame on immigration.
A change in leadership is unlikely to temper the global forces propelling the violence. More drugs are available and more people are using them. Over the summer, Nord’s officers measured the presence of narcotics in Gothenburg’s sewers. Large quantities were detected regardless of how wealthy or poor the district. “A lot of drugs were coming through,” he said. He remembers how small cocaine seizures used to raise street prices. Now, a 100-kilo bust has scant effect. Sweden’s criminals have decamped to Spain to source larger quantities more directly from South American importers. Earlier this month a shootout between Gothenburg gangs in Marbella left a man fighting for his life. Last month Spanish police arrested seven members of two armed Swedish gangs in Málaga.
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Trouble flares swiftly in Hjällbo. In May shopkeepers, exasperated with drug dealers linked to junior Ali Khan members, decided to beat them up.
Riots soon swept Hjällbo, with 150 men seen fighting near the mall. Two days later, during Sunday lunchtime, a gunman assassinated a 44-year-old shop owner with a bullet to the head. Shocked witnesses dragged the killer from his getaway bike.
“They would have beaten him to death unless a police officer arrived firing his gun to save him,” said Nord. Fearing further Ali Khan revenge, Hjällbo shopkeepers contacted family members in Essen, Germany, for backup. Police tracked 20 individuals heading north, stopping them at the Øresund Bridge – with fresh rounds of tit-for-tat retaliation.
Nord knows this year’s gang murder tally in Gothenburg could be significantly higher. “We’ve had three murders with handguns [gang killings]. It’s quite low. It could have been 10.” Yet police had noticed something new during the rioting. Normally during disorder in Hjällbo, gang members would stop fighting and turn on the authorities. This time, even the Ali Khan footsoldiers obeyed officers attempting to restore peace.
For Merlander, it was confirmation his strategy had paid off. Faced with an impenetrable community cowed by the Ali Khan clan, the state had largely abandoned Hjällbo. No one spoke to the police. Intelligence, the golden currency of crimefighting, was non-existent. “During a previous riot in 2016, people shut their curtains. Now they opened their windows and screamed ‘arrest the bastards’,” said Merlander.
This turnaround had been built on old-school policing, he said – pounding the streets in uniform, talking to everyone, including the Ali Khans. Officers were told to memorise the names and backstory of at least 100 gang members. Some can recite the details of more than 300.
“If you address criminals by their name, you become human. Their behaviour changes,” said Merlander. Simultaneously, he began hounding the Ali Khan network. Meetings were held with its patriarch, 64-year-old Imam Hashem Ali Khan. “I told him that ‘we’re going to chase you’. I wanted to be very transparent. It gives them a chance to change.”
Merlander, who has worked Hjällbo’s streets for 18 years, testified in court against the Ali Khan clan, accusing them of terrorising the area throughout that period. Although the patriarch escaped jail, the community had been served notice that a new boss was in town.
Where once his officers coped with an intelligence vacuum, Merlander says they now receive so many tip-offs it is impossible to sift through them all.
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No one knows when, how – or if – the violence will end, but Hjällbo’s trajectory offers a glimmer of hope. Yet Sweden’s famed openness still presents barriers to policing. Issues such as privacy override calls for increased investigative powers.
Nord’s detectives are denied ready access to the CCTV network, along with ANPR (automatic number-plate recognition) technology and even access to traffic cameras. Only recently have they been able to tap phones. Yet winning back the trust of Hjällbo’s residents offers a back-to-basics reminder for UK policing, struggling with a loss of trust, particularly among black communities.
Byström argues that the next steps need to focus on reducing segregation, improving education and prevention to cut gang recruitment. “We need to reach families much earlier.” Other issues need investigating, she adds. For instance, no one truly knows the numbers of women and girls drawn into the orbit of Gothenburg’s gangs, or the dangers they face.
Back on patrol, Mike and Mia move away from the mall following the meeting with Lelo and associates. “We want to communicate with them so they understand this is our territory,” she said. Loosening the grip of the Ali Khan network will, they appreciate, take time. “There’s no quick fix, this will take at least one generation,” Mike says, crossing the bridge high above Hjällbo’s tram station.
Graffitied on its sides, the most prominent part of Hjällbo, are the words: See With Us You Be Smiling. It is the title of Lelo’s latest release – a statement that the gangs and not the state offer reward.