Haven of peace, Iceland faces an unprecedented increase in violence

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Long considered the “most peaceful country in the world”, Iceland’s tranquility has been shaken by a series of shootings and stabbings involving criminal gangs.

This country of just 375,000 people is more accustomed to reading about murders in its famous Icelandic noir novels than in its morning papers.

For Icelanders, a gun symbolizes sport“or hunting,” explains sociologist Helgi Gunnlaugsson.

It is very foreign to the minds of Icelanders whether one uses a weapon to protect oneself or to point at people.“, he told AFP.

Iceland has topped the Global Peace Index rankings since 2008 thanks to its low crime, strong education and social welfare systems, fair wages and lack of social class tensions.

Only four people have been shot and killed in more than two decades. But four shootings have taken place in just over a year, including one fatal. In February 2021, a man was shot dead in a hail of bullets outside his home in a neighborhood of the capital Reykjavik, a murder that shocked the nation.

The murder was linked to organized crime, according to the police.

Icelandic criminal groups are increasingly organized“said criminologist Margret Valdimarsdottir.

They have more ties to international groups than we’ve seen before, which can be a challenge for our police force“.

In February, two separate drug-related shootings took place in Reykjavik two days apart, one in the city center.

Gang violence is similar to that already seen in other parts of Europe.

It takes five to ten years for what is trending in Europe to appear in Iceland“said Runolfur Thorhallsson, superintendent of Iceland’s elite police unit, known as the Viking Squad.

Of course this is a concern for us“.

unarmed police

Iceland is one of the few countries in the world where the police are unarmed in their daily duties.

However, patrol cars have been equipped with handguns in special lockers since late 2015, following the bloody attacks by right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik in Norway in 2011.

Only a small number of police — the Viking squad — are permanently armed with semi-automatic weapons as well as bulletproof vests and ballistic shields.

The squad assists police when weapons are reported, with the number of such incidents increasing nearly sixfold since 2014.

We see indicators that maybe people are less hesitant in this criminal world to use guns. We are seeing more of an increase in knives than guns“said Mr. Thorhallsson.

If he has no explanation for the increase in violence, the Minister of the Interior plans to equip the police with tasers.

Police union leader Fjolnir Saemundsson welcomed the idea but called for more recruitment and training.

With 682 police officers in 2021, Iceland has one of the smallest police forces in Europe relative to its population, second only to Finland and almost half the European average, according to European statistics agency Eurostat. .

A safe country

Studlar, a government-run juvenile treatment center for 12-18 year olds, helps troubled youth with issues ranging from drugs to crime to behavioral issues.

Director Funi Sigurdsson said he has seen a slight increase in violent incidents, with the center confiscating an increasing number of knives.

He said that for some young people it was often clear “by the age of six that they would end up here”.

If we had intervened at the time, we might have been able to prevent them from finding themselves in this situation.

Several of the people involved in the settling of scores between the gangs came through the center when they were minors.

While the rise in violent crime has raised concerns, the situation is not alarming, experts insist.

It is important to note that Iceland remains a country with an extremely low crime rate“said Ms. Valdimarsdottir.

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