Iceland doesn’t really appear to have much crime. It’s not the largely crime-free society it was a generation ago, but all the same, it’s still a pretty peaceful and safe place. In reality that sweeping opening statement needs to be revised. Iceland does have a growing amount of crime, but it’s mostly low-end crime that generally doesn’t involve people getting hurt. There’s plenty of petty crime, quite apart from traffic offences and the unique Icelandic driving culture.
The way the banking system has turned out in the last few years demonstrates that white-collar crime abounds, or did until recently. While on the surface everything looks placid enough in this little island, a night out will tell you that there is more dope and illicit booze around than ever before. Business isn’t going to be harmed by the government’s joyful pre-Christmas announcement of hikes in the prices of booze, ‘baccy and petrol, probably giving purveyors of moonshine and weed a much-welcomed bonus in case the thirteen Yule Lads (Iceland’s own version of Father Christmas) don’t turn up bearing gifts.
Since the events of 2008, when the collapse of the three main banks became a pivotal event in Icelandic history, there is far less money about, and unemployment is higher than it has ever been. Prices have gone up and the cost of living in general has gone through the roof. Rates of mugging, housebreaking and acquisitive crime have escalated.
The latest stunt is to drive into a garage with ‘borrowed’ plates on a car, fill up, and then simply drive off without paying. The numbers are recorded on CCTV and the mystified owner of the car those plates belong to gets a call from the police, which is when it turns out that the car that goes with those numbers isn’t a boy racer’s jalopy with tinted windows and a boombox in the boot, but some old couple’s miniscule Fiat. By then it’s too late and the police have better things to be doing anyway.
The fuel scam is just the tip of an iceberg and it won’t last long. Soon enough filling stations will expect you to leave a credit card at the desk before you can use the pump, and before you know it we’ll all get used to one more petty inconvenience.
It’s only recently that Iceland has seen serious, major crime, committed by the coterie of whizzkids who, allegedly, managed to bankrupt the entire national economy. Until now, crime has tended to be a clumsy, amateurish affair, although the massive influx of foreign labour in the years before the crash also brought the country to the notice of organised crime from Eastern Europe.
What Iceland hasn’t seen is gun crime – yet – although there are guns everywhere. Pretty much everyone knows someone who shoots geese, ptarmigan or even reindeer for the pot. Even many city dwellers make a point of spending a few days shooting every year. It’s not so much the opportunity to fill the freezer with free food – as once you’ve paid for cartridges, diesel and everything else, it’s probably cheaper to buy a plucked and ready-for-the-oven bird – as the elemental back-to-nature thrill of the hunt in designer camouflage.
Icelanders are no strangers to guns, at least, not legal weapons that are used by people who have an idea what they’re doing. Occasionally there’s an incident, normally an alcohol-related argument that gets out of hand in which an old shotgun is produced, triggering a callout for the police armed response unit. But so far that’s as far as it’s gone. Until now. A shooting incident a few weeks ago in Reykjavík was something a little different. There have since been some arrests and the police have laid their hands on a small arsenal that included dozens of knives and a few firearms.
While the going was good, the series of privatisation-mad pre-Crash governments had little fondness for the public sector and preferred to keep the police and law enforcement on a tight rein. As a result the police and the prison system as a whole had already been strapped for cash even before the Crash hit like a sledgehammer, forcing massive cuts to law enforcement, health, education, you name it. It’s not as if the police are awash with resources or manpower, just when they have to deal with a whole raft of emerging problems.
It’s an open secret that there have been illegal handguns in Iceland for a good while. In fact, it’s extraordinarily difficult to own a handgun legally. It’s undoubtedly a ‘when’ rather than an ‘if’ question of whether or not someone will use one of these cached pistols in anger as a punishment or to settle a score.
The latest weapons bust coincides uncomfortably with biker gangs finally gaining footholds in Iceland after a long resistance that included a bunch of visiting foreign gang members being turned back at Keflavík airport. One of them now is reportedly set to sue the Minister of the Interior on the grounds of some kind of discrimination, but I doubt somehow that the Minister in question is losing much sleep over that. He probably has a few more headaches to deal with right now – like working out what to do with a prison population that has never been larger and is only set to grow.