Haven of peace, Iceland faces an unprecedented rise in violence

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 used to reading about murder in its famous Icelandic crime novels than in its morning papers.

For Icelanders, a gun symbolizes sportor the hunt“, explains the sociologist Helgi Gunnlaugsson.

It is very strange to the Icelandic mind if 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 rate, strong education and social welfare systems, fair wages, and absence of social class tensions.

Only four people have been shot to death in more than two decades. But there have been four shootings in just over a year, including a fatal one. 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 related to organized crime, according to police.

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

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

In February, two separate drug-related shootings occurred in Reykjavik within two days of each other, one in the city center.

The gang violence is similar to what has already been seen in other parts of Europe.

What is fashionable in Europe takes between five and ten years 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 guns in special lockers since late 2015, following bloody attacks by right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik in Norway in 2011.

Only a small number of policemen, 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, and the number of such incidents has increased nearly sixfold since 2014.

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

If he has no explanation for the increase in violence, the Home Secretary plans to equip the police with stun guns.

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 nearly half the European average, according to the European statistics agency Eurostat.

a safe country

Studlar, a government-run youth treatment center for youth ages 12 to 18, 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 passed 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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