Hand Grenades and Gang Violence Rattle Sweden’s Middle Class
In the Stockholm suburb of Varby Gard, it was not unusual to see the figure of a 63-year-old man pedaling a bicycle home after the end of his shift as an aide for disabled adults, hunched against the icy wind of a Swedish winter.
Daniel Cuevas Zuniga had just finished a night shift on a Sunday last month, and was cycling home with his wife, when he spotted a spherical object lying on the ground, stopped and reached down to take it in his hand.
It was an M-75 hand grenade. Manufactured in great numbers for the Yugoslav national army, and then seized by paramilitaries during the civil war in the 1990s, the grenades are packed with plastic explosives and 3,000 steel balls, well suited for attacks on enemy trenches and bunkers. When Mr. Zuniga touched it, he set off the detonator.
The shock wave was so powerful that Mr. Zuniga’s wife, Wanna, riding ahead of him, was blown off her bicycle and sprawled on the ground, mottled with shrapnel wounds. She turned and tried to crawl toward her husband, she told a reporter later, but the police, who had been patrolling nearby, kept her back.
Weapons from a faraway, long-ago war are flowing into immigrant neighborhoods here, puncturing Swedes’ sense of confidence and security. The country’s murder rate remains low, by American standards, and violent crime is stable or dropping in many places. But gang-related assaults and shootings are becoming more frequent, and the number of neighborhoods categorized by the police as “marred by crime, social unrest and insecurity” is rising. Crime and immigration are certain to be key issues in September’s general election, alongside the traditional debates over education and health care.
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Part of the reason is that Sweden’s gang violence, long contained within low-income suburbs, has begun to spill out. In large cities, hospitals report armed confrontations in emergency rooms, and school administrators say threats and weapons have become commonplace. Last week two men from Uppsala, both in their 20s, were arrested on charges of throwing grenades at the home of a bank employee who investigates fraud cases.
An earlier jolt came with the death of Mr. Zuniga, who on Jan. 7 picked up the grenade, which the police believe had been thrown by members of a local gang targeting a rival gang or police officers.
Paulus Borisho, 55, was in his kebab shop around 50 feet away, and the explosion made his windows shudder. He ran outside to see a thin column of black smoke rising. Mr. Zuniga lay on the bike path, curled on his side.
Like many of his neighbors in Varby Gard, Mr. Borisho had sought asylum in Sweden to escape a war. He knew what a grenade sounded like. As a commando in a Lebanese militia, he had handled grenades, and remembered the strict protocols he complied with, locking up the weapons for safe keeping the minute he returned to camp.
That a grenade should be found on the sidewalk outside a kebab shop, a few steps from an elementary school, was difficult for him to take in.
“Now, when I think of the future, I am afraid,” he said. “I am afraid for Europe.”
Illegal weapons often enter Sweden over the Oresund Bridge, a 10-mile span that links the southern city of Malmo to Denmark. When it opened, in 2000, the bridge symbolized the unfurling of a vibrant, borderless Europe, but in recent years it has been more closely associated with smuggling, of people, weapons and drugs.
The influx of heavy weapons has caught Sweden’s criminal justice systems unprepared.
The border with Denmark is open, with insufficient personnel to search every vehicle entering the country. Hand grenades were, until last year, classified as “flammable products” rather than weapons, so sentences for detonating them were mild. The police are struggling to gather information in immigrant neighborhoods, and clearance rates for gun homicide cases have fallen steadily since the 1990s.
“We have lost the trust from the people who lived and worked in this area,” said Gunnar Appelgren, a police superintendent and specialist in gang violence.
Sweden’s far right-wing party blames the government’s liberal immigration policy for the rising crime, and will thrust the issue to the fore in the fall campaign.
Last year, Peter Springare, 61, a veteran police officer in Orebro, published a furious Facebook post saying violent crimes he was investigating were committed by immigrants from “Iraq, Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, Somalia, Syria again, Somalia, unknown country, unknown country, Sweden.” It was shared more than 20,000 times; Mr. Springare has since been investigated twice by state prosecutors, once for inciting racial hatred, though neither resulted in charges.
Even President Trump weighed in on the issue, saying that after taking in “large numbers” of immigrants, Sweden was “having problems like they never thought possible.”
Police officials are more likely to attribute gang violence to a failure of integration, citing a recent study of a Swedish street gang that found 24 percent of its members were ethnic Swedes, and 42 percent had been born in Sweden.
But they, too, see an urgent problem.
Affixed to the wall in Mr. Appelgren’s office in Stockholm’s Police Headquarters is a chart showing the increase in the use of hand grenades. Until 2014 there were about a handful every year. In 2015, that number leapt: 45 grenades were seized by the police, and 10 others were detonated. The next year, 55 were seized and 35 detonated. A modest decrease occurred in 2017, when 39 were seized and 21 were detonated.
Mr. Appelgren has watched the trend apprehensively, calling it an arms race among gangs.
“I think we’re going to see, if we don’t stop it, more drive-by shootings with Kalashnikovs and hand grenades,” he said. “They throw rocks and bottles at our cars, and they trick us in an ambush. When will it happen that they ambush us with Kalashnikovs? It’s coming.”
Much of the problem is the supply of surplus weapons. The Dayton peace agreement, which ended the Bosnian war, required paramilitaries to disarm and decommission their arsenals. Sellers in Bosnia and Serbia have networks in Sweden’s diaspora and are so eager to unload excess grenades, often rusted from decades in storage, that they throw them in free with the purchase of AK-47s, Mr. Appelgren said. In Sweden the street price of a hand grenade is 100 kroner, or $12.50.
“It’s odd,” said Manne Gerell, a lecturer in criminology at Malmo University. “I don’t know of any Western country with a similar use of hand grenades. Our hypothesis is that they are used to send a message. Not so much as a weapon, as a tool for intimidation. You don’t need perfect aim. You are not trying to kill a particular person.”
As for Mr. Zuniga, on the January morning when he spotted the object in his path, he had finally made a big decision.
Sweden had been good to him. He had emigrated from Chile in 1985, as part of a wave of left-leaning Chileans allowed into Sweden by Olof Palme, a liberal prime minister and passionate opponent of Chile’s authoritarian president at the time, Augusto Pinochet.
Mr. Zuniga found work as a health aide, most recently caring for adults with severe disabilities and Alzheimer’s disease. He was a genial bear of a man who called everyone by a nickname — Bandito, Diablo, Loco, Feya — and no one, not even the stone-faced Swedish head nurses, could resist him.
But lately, Mr. Zuniga had complained that he did not feel safe in his neighborhood.
Varby Gard has produced a street gang, the Varby Gard Network, which the police have been monitoring for two years. It is led by a Tunisian man and populated by first- and second-generation immigrants from Finland, the Balkans and Africa, said Lars Broms, a detective who is investigating Mr. Zuniga’s death. Intent on protecting its monopoly on the local drug trade, it is fluid and loosely organized, but like other suburban gangs in Sweden, it is developing quickly, he said.
“Give them 20 years, and we’ll have the same as in L.A.,” Mr. Broms said.
On Tuesday, the police arrested two 18-year-old men on suspicion of throwing the grenade that killed Mr. Zuniga.
Mr. Zuniga had complained about the changes in Varby Gard, frustrated that the police did not have better control, friends said. A music lover, he no longer went out to concerts at night, said Hugo Garrido, 60, a close friend.
“Crime is increasing and increasing, and they aren’t doing anything about it,” Mr. Garrido said. “It’s denial. Swedes are very good people and they want to change the world. They want the rest of the world to be like Sweden. And the reality is that it’s completely different.”
So Mr. Zuniga, who was nearing retirement, had planned his exit, squirreling money away to build a house in Thailand, where his wife’s family lived. He told friends he planned to go in April.
Instead, on a recent Sunday his mourners streamed into an unadorned stone-colored chapel in a Stockholm cemetery, overflowing the pews and standing in the aisles. A light snow was falling outside. His son, Daniel, sent a note from Chile, calling him “my old sea wolf.”
His daughter, Natalia, said she would give anything to drink one more cup of coffee with him. Wanna, a tiny woman with hair nearly down to her waist, stood at the foot of the coffin, her face stretched into a mask of grief. After that she collected herself.
“He reiterated that if he died, I must return to Thailand,” she said of her husband. “He didn’t want me to live here after he died. He told me to sell the house and just leave.”
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