A haven of nations, Iceland faces 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 accustomed to reading about murders in its famous Icelandic noir novels than in the morning papers.

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

“It’s completely foreign to Icelanders whether you use guns to protect yourself or point them at people,” he told AFP.

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

Only four people have been shot to death in more than two decades.

But in just one year, there were four shootings, including one fatal.

In February 2021, a man was shot dead in a hail of bullets outside his home in the capital city of Reykjavik, and the killing shocked the entire country.

According to police, the murder was linked to organized crime.

“Criminal groups in Iceland are becoming more organized,” says criminologist Margret Valdimarsdottir.

“They have more connections to international groups than we’ve seen before, which could be a problem for our police force.”

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

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

“It will take five to ten years for what is fashionable in Europe to appear in Iceland,” said Runolfur Thorhallsson, head of Iceland’s elite police force known as the Viking Squad.

“Of course it worries us.”

– Unarmed Police –

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

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

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

The unit assists the police when weapons are reported, and the number of such incidents has increased almost six-fold since 2014.

“We are seeing signs that maybe people in this underworld are less hesitant about using guns. We are seeing more knives than firearms,” Thorhallsson said.

Unless he has an explanation for the increase in violence, the Home Secretary plans to arm the police with stun guns.

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

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

– Safe country

Studlar, a state center for juveniles aged 12 to 18, helps troubled teens with problems ranging from drugs to crime and behavioral problems.

Director Funi Sigurdsson said he is seeing a slight increase in violent incidents, with the center confiscating more and more knives.

He said that it was often clear to some young people, “by the age of six, they would be here.”

“If we had intervened well at the time, we could have prevented them from getting into this situation.”

Several individuals involved in settling scores between gangs passed through the center when they were minors.

Experts insist that while the rise in violent crime is a concern, the situation is not.

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

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