By John Acher
MALMO, Sweden, Feb 22 (Reuters) - A wave of execution-style shootings and a police station bombing in Sweden's third largest city have sparked fears that gangster violence is taking hold in a Nordic country widely seen as one of the world's safest places.
Only minutes into the new year, a 15-year-old was found with gunshots to his chest and one to his head outside an apartment block in one of Malmo's poorest and most troubled districts, where firefighters have occasionally sought police protection.
Eight killings have occurred across the city since a 36-year-old with links to organised crime was gunned down in a parking lot in May last year. The latest victim, a 48-year-old man, was found shot in a car at the end of January.
None of the murders have been solved, and now some newspapers are calling Malmo "Sweden's Chicago".
"Why don't police have better control?" national daily Svenska Dagbladet asked in an opinion piece, suggesting Malmo look to New York which slashed its crime rates in recent decades.
For their part, police refuse to reach the conclusion that the bomb at the police station and the killings were definitely linked, which would gangland violence is out of control.
"We believe it's linked to the prevalence of weapons. It is big. But I can't say why we have a larger share here than in Stockholm," Hans Nordin, Deputy Chief Commissioner of Police in the Skane region of southern Sweden, told Reuters.
With a population of just 300,000, Malmo is one of Sweden's roughest cities, long a base for smugglers because of its proximity to Denmark, with which it has been connected by a bridge since July 2000.
Roughly 40 percent of Malmo's population are first- or second-generation immigrants and one in three is unemployed, compared with a national rate under nine percent. Among young immigrants, the rate is nearly 40 percent.
Formerly a prosperous industrial town, much of the old industry has declined and jobs have vanished.
Gangs took root here decades ago, starting with motorcycle groups and increasingly dominated by immigrants, at first thanks to an influx in the 1990s of refugees of Balkan wars and then, over the past 20 years, immigrants from the Middle East, Africa and eastern Europe.
Along with the July 2011 killings of 77 people in Norway by right-wing fanatic Anders Breivik, the city's problems have helped to shatter the cherished image of Sweden as a refuge of safety and peace, sparking a national media debate, soul-searching throughout Sweden and street protests.
Dozens of police reinforcements sent in this year are still in the city.
"I'm thinking of leaving Malmo because it is getting more and more dangerous," said Henrik Hammar, 28, who stocks shelves at a grocery store and was awakened when a small bomb exploded at the police station in his neighbourhood at the end of January, close to where the latest victim was found.
"When it comes to shooting, we are used to that in Malmo. But not bombs," Hammar said outside the police station with a shattered window and a hole torn in its brick wall. The bombing happened in Fosie district, a centre of the violence.
The wave of killings since May is not the first to shake Malmo. Peter Mangs was arrested in 2010 on suspicion of three murders and 13 attempted murders over a seven-year period, a string of shootings on Malmo's streets targetting immigrants.
Luciano Astudillo, a Chilean-born former MP who was moved by the New Year's Day shooting to launch a campaign to say "Enough is enough," compared the crime wave to the violence that plagues Mexican border towns.
"We have the same problem here as in the north of Mexico though on a smaller scale," he said, pointing to the drug and weapons smuggling that pass through Malmo from Denmark on their way to the rest of Scandinavia.
"So it is logical for the gangs to gather here and fight each other," he said.
Astudillo said he hopes the protests he has helped lead, including a street demonstration by more than 6,000 people on Jan. 6, will make politicians notice what is happening.
"I don't think murders will become more and more frequent in the near future, but there is nothing that indicates things will improve a bit longer-term," said Tobias Barkman, a crime reporter at regional daily Sydsvenska Dagbladet.
"Society has fallen behind - with regards to the police and to the social situation. It's hard to see any rays of hope." (Additional reporting by Anna Ringstrom; Editing by Alistair Scrutton and Sonya Hepinstall)