MALMÖ, Sweden – She didn't hear the shot, but she saw the pursuit.
The young man came hurtling out of the housing estate towards her and then dived into a huge grove of trees behind a kiosk.
"He was hiding right behind us among the trees," remembers Greta, who lives in the small town of Tyringe, deep in the countryside of southern Sweden. "The hitman, a little guy, went the other way." Greta’s name has been changed for her safety.
The man, known as “Musti”, was the most high-priority target in a loose-knit group of gangsters based in Malmö, a 90-minute drive away, who a group of veteran criminals, calling themselves, "the Alliance”, were seeking to wipe out.
The shooter had ambushed Musti outside the apartment his mother had bought him two months earlier, hoping to get him away from gang life.
He was lucky.
"At exactly the same time as I saw him, I ducked, and the shot fired," Musti, now 24, told police after the shooting. "I don't know what sort of powers I've got from God, but it all happened at the same time."
The hitman fumbled, dropped the gun with its long, heavy silencer, then picked it up, aiming it at Musti's head from five metres away. But the gun jammed and Musti bolted.
To a casual observer, it was just another shooting in the turf wars between small-time teenage drug dealers in and around the city of Malmö. The Swedish city sits across the bridge from the Danish capital Copenhagen that was at the centre of the hit Scandi-noir drama The Bridge.
Malmö has in the last 25 years come back from the industrial slump that followed the collapse of its shipbuilding industry, and now boasts a booming gaming industry and a thriving tech scene, alongside a diverse population a third of whom were born abroad.
But a wave of shootings and grenade attacks has also made it the centre of a surge in gang violence across Sweden.
Sweden is the only country out of 22 EU countries studied by the Swedish National Council of Crime Prevention where deadly shootings have risen since 2000, with the annual death toll climbing steadily from 17 in 2011 to 48 in 2020.
In the five years up to the end of 2020, there were 227 shootings in Malmö, 36 of them deadly.
The shootings have also burst out of the suburbs, with several high-profile executions taking place in middle-class areas of the city, making them a key issue in the run-up to this September’s general election.
Ulf Kristersson, leader of the opposition Moderate Party has blamed shootings on “immigration and failed integration”.
What made the attack on Musti different from the other 50 shootings in southern Sweden in 2020 was that just weeks after it happened, the Swedish police gained access to encrypted messages sent through the EncroChat service, whose servers French police had hacked.
So when those ordering the attack began making plans to finish the job, police could follow every move.
VICE World News has gained detailed access to the EncroChat bust and the court case which has shown that, rather than being caused by low-income immigrant youth in the city's troubled housing estates, many of these shootings were ordered by sophisticated drug smugglers in their mid-to-late 30s.
"The extent to which some of these hits are organised was a bit of a surprise," said Manne Gerell, Associate Professor in Criminology at Malmö University. “People thought that it happened, but most people expected it to be less common.”
This month marks the final days of the trial of the 15 men – accused of being the Alliance and their associates – for their alleged involved in the plan to murder Musti and several others, which has been ongoing since October.
In the courtroom in January, you could tell those accused of being Alliance commanders from the foot soldiers at a glance. One of the alleged leaders was wearing a smart, tight-fitting jumper, another wore trendy glasses and his hair tied back in a ponytail. They would slip in unnoticed at any party of late-30s Malmö creative professionals.
The case also undermines the claim that crime in Sweden is down to immigrant “clans”. The Alliance and their contractors are made up of people with Swedish heritage, as well as from a variety of different Middle Eastern, African and European countries.
According to Patrik Andersson, the superintendent who heads the intelligence division for the police in southern Sweden, Malmö’s problem with gang crime comes down to imports of drugs, primarily cannabis, cocaine and amphetamines.
"Everything that comes into Scandinavia comes in from the south, either via the ferries, or by the bridge, and is distributed up to Stockholm, to Gothenburg, to Norway, and Finland, so it's like a hub," he said.
The attack on Musti was part of a broader plan to wipe out the members of the circle around Amir Mekky, now 24. Over the preceding five years he brought new brutality to the city's drug conflicts after a leader of the notorious M-Falang gang was murdered in 2016, leaving a power vacuum that younger gangsters rushed to fill.
Mekky, a Danish citizen with Moroccan heritage, was the leader of a gang of drug smugglers and contract killers known in the Spanish city of Málaga as Los Suecos, “The Swedes”, who carried out two bomb attacks and two brutal shootings in Spain in the space of four months.
With contacts in Morocco, links to the Dutch-Moroccan gangster Ridouan Taghi, Mekky had since 2016 taken a big slice in the drug market, both in Sweden and beyond.
A relative of Mekky’s in Finland was arrested while receiving several hundred kilograms of cocaine from the Stockholm ferry.
But the contract on Musti was not really about drugs, but revenge.
The year before, he had been held by police suspected of arranging the getaway car for the hitman who gunned down Karolin Hakim, a newly qualified doctor in a relationship with veteran criminal Naief Adawi, in August 2019.
The shooting shocked Sweden. Hakim, 31, was shot dead while holding her two-month-old baby in her arms.
Police believe they were aiming to kill Adawi, who was affiliated with an Alliance member, but shot the wrong person.
Musti was released due to lack of evidence. But prosecutors believe Adawi, now 38, was still hungry for revenge after the death of his girlfriend.
"They chose to murder a woman, so now they're going to have me in the game," pledged “Stiffherb”, the EncroChat alias police have linked to Adawi. "Vengeance is coming," he wrote in another message.
Adawi had been jailed in 2010 for planning Denmark's biggest-ever bank robbery, taking €10 million (about £8.5 million) from a cash transport company.
He was not the only powerful figure to want Mekky and those around him dead. In June 2018, a young man was kidnapped in Malmö, and then returned three days later, dazed, bruised, and with a Star of David cut into his back.
The man's half-brother was Daniel Johansson Petrovski, a friend of Adawi who police suspected of being one of Sweden's biggest drug smugglers.
Known as "Dani the Jew" or “Dani J” (despite not being Jewish), and described in the EncroChat messages as "our Swedish friend," Petrovski lived a life far from Malmö's troubled suburbs.
He had rented an apartment in the city's landmark Turning Turso tower, and in recent years, had operated from a high-rise apartment on the Barcelona beachfront, an Azimut 43s motor yacht worth €230,000 (about £195,000) floating in the marina outside.
During the two and a bit months that the Swedish police had access to EncroChat before the service shut down because of the police operation on 12 June 2020, Petrovski travelled to Aruba, a Dutch-controlled Caribbean island just off the coast of Colombia, and also back to the Netherlands.
It's no coincidence that Petrovski and Mekky were living in Spain.
"You have the connections to South America, to Lebanon, and to Morocco, where all the drugs come from, so it's essential to be established in Spain," Andersson, the senior cop in southern Sweden, said.
The sheer scale of Petrovski's operation - and his large cash reserves - made his family a target for kidnap by Mekky and his cronies.
"In Sweden, the only people who use physical cash today are the criminals, so if you want to get money, you have to get it from other criminals," said Andersson. "I think they saw [Petrovski's brother] as an easy target because blood is thicker than water, and we assume that they got paid. But then the revenge came a few weeks later."
Twelve days after the kidnapping, a gun pummelled round after round into the Malmö cyber café where Mekky was hanging out, killing three people and injuring three others, including Mekky.
Swedish police believe that the murders of Karolin Hakim, and of the record producer Flemur Beqiri, an old friend and associate of both Petrovski and Adawi, were both retaliation for the attack on Mekky. Beqiri was shot near his house in Battersea on Christmas Eve, 2019.
And in the spring of 2020, the members of the Alliance wanted to wipe Mekky out for good.
"I want to kidnap his father," wrote the EncroChat alias Waterbee, which police have linked to Petrovski. Petrovski's lawyers say prosecutors need to prove he sent all the messages from the Waterbee alias. "I want to leave his head in the middle of Stortorget [Malmö's main square]....because that's exactly what he said he would do to my brother when he had him."
When Mekky was finally arrested in Dubai and extradited to Spain, a third member of the Alliance, with the alias Sonictin, reached out to his Spanish associates.
"You have guys who can kill a person in Malaga Prison?" he wrote, before sending a picture of Mekky. "They took him. I want to kill him.”
The Alliance certainly has funds.
"We've got to have cash and pieces [guns] for this war," Petrovski is alleged to have written under the Waterbee alias in a message to Sonictin, one of his associates, at the end of April. "Without pieces, we're done for".
At one point in the chat, Sonictin ran through the prices on the heads of Mekky's associates for a contractor: 600,000 kronor (€60,000, £48,000) for Musti, 500,000 kronor for the other five targets. He tells another that he and Petrovski will share the bill.
"I don't pay for attempts, or like last time, for jamming revolvers," he wrote to one. "Let them either injure them or kill them. Then they can come asking for money."
According to one of Musti's neighbours in Tyringe, he stayed in the flat in the southern municipality for nearly a month, quarrelling loudly with his girlfriend.
But the group still struggled to execute the hit, although that didn’t stop one of the men planning to take control of the drugs market in Musti’s local city.
“You always have the drugs underneath the surface," said Andersson, the superintendent, "because that's the income for both parties."
After the jammed gun incident, a 27-year-old man with the EncroChat alias Rocktoxic agreed to arrange the next hit, but when it was supposed to happen, he claimed someone had smashed the windscreen on the getaway car and stolen the weapon.
In court in November, he admitted that this had been a lie, that he had been playing a double game to avoid being on the hit list himself.
As the case enters its final stages the defence will try to argue that this means that, at in the cases where Rocktoxic was involved, no murder was really planned.
This is not the only problem for the prosecution.
"Our defence is that what is in the messages does not constitute preparation for a crime," argues Markus Bergdahl, Petrovski's defence lawyer. "Under Swedish law, you have to either pay directly for a gun, for example, or you can supply a gun yourself. Our client doesn't handle anything except a phone."
Discussing severing the head of your rival's father and leaving it lying in the main city square might not be enough.
"It may be bad to say, 'I want him dead, or I want him killed', but it's not criminal."
The verdict is expected later this month.