Stockholm-Police in Sweden say they’re struggling to control criminal “clans” exercising their own form of justice, amid an escalation of violent crime in what has long been a tranquil and safe country.

With close family loyalties and little regard for the authorities, a few dozen criminal gangs now wield considerable influence over some of Sweden’s disadvantaged neighbourhoods, say experts.

Shootings, bombings and grenade attacks have become regular events in cities and towns across the country. Media outlets report on drug wars, blackmail, and witnesses too fearful of repercussions to testify.

“Have you seen the movie ‘The Godfather’? Then you know what it’s like,” journalist Johanna Backstrom Lerneby, who wrote a book about one of Sweden’s most infamous crime families, told AFP.

Gang members tied to the family Backstrom Lerneby wrote about recently made headlines in Sweden when, during a feud with a rival gang in August, they set up makeshift roadblocks, stopping cars and asking to see passengers’ ID cards.

One young man interviewed by broadcaster SVT, who would not give his full name but claimed to be involved in the car checks, said the controls were set up to “protect residents and children in the area”.

The feud came to a halt in late August -- but not because police arrested any suspects.

Instead, members of several gangs met at a Gothenburg hotel and agreed to end hostilities, effectively ending the strife overnight.

“It’s very frustrating, because it is a good solution in the short term... but it was resolved in the wrong way,” local police officer Fredrik Terje told SVT, deploring that authorities had been sidelined as criminals set the agenda.

The problem of these “criminal clans” has made headlines since early September, when deputy police chief Mats Lofving told Swedish Radio there were at least 40 family-based criminal gangs in Sweden.

“Far from everyone wants to be a part of Swedish society,” Lofving said, adding these families had come to Sweden solely for the purpose of committing crime, bringing with them their own parallel systems of government.

Lofving said these families were making their way into business and politics in order to wield more formal influence, primarily in disadvantaged suburbs, many of which have a large proportion of residents with immigrant backgrounds.

Sweden has struggled to integrate many of its immigrants, with thousands failing to learn the language proficiently and find jobs in its highly skilled labour market. 

“Those who live in these vulnerable areas are often relatively poor people who don’t have a choice, even if they wanted to move away,” Backstrom Lerneby said.

The violence has also harmed innocent bystanders. In early August, a 12-year-old girl was killed by a stray bullet in a drive-by shooting in Stockholm, sparking an outcry over the ruthless violence.

In early September, Prime Minister Stefan Lofven called the criminal gangs a “poison in our society that we need to get rid of”.