Police, researchers, politicians and even gang members themselves will tell you that gangs play a significant role in the drug trade in this country, but the focus and reputations of some of New Zealand’s infamous ethnic street gangs seem to be changing. Some sparks will fly as these and other gangs come up against the government’s Gang Action Plan. Keri Welham reports.
In 1980s New Zealand, gang culture was visible, intimidating and fiercely violent. The predominantly Māori street gangs rode around in Fords, displaying patches and extensive tattooing, locked in seemingly endless battles with rival gangs.
There are still gangs in New Zealand, and it appears the violence among newer gangs is even fiercer, but the scene has certainly changed in the last 30 years.
In 2016, many among the formerly fearsome indigenous ethnic gangs are rewriting the rules around what it means to belong.
There’s Wellington Black Power, which is proudly P-free and has secured naming rights for a November film festival as a way of building relationships with the capital community. The first film will be 2013 US documentary How to Make Money Selling Drugs. There’ll be wine, appetisers and a moderated discussion of the film.
Then there’s Waikato’s Tribal Huk gang, which started making sandwiches for hungry schoolchildren in 2011. By 2015, it was providing free lunches at 31 schools and had launched the Kai 4 the Future Foundation. Last month, the Tribal Huk announced it would give P dealers 24 hours to get out of Ngaruawahia, with mixed results.
And there’s Te Kai Po Ahuriri, of Palmerston North’s Stormtroopers gang, whose community spirit was discovered when he was filmed by his wife Missy feeding the homeless on simple home-cooked meals created from his own leftovers.
And there’s senior Mongrel Mob leader Dennis Makalio who launched the Facebook New Zealand ‘P’ Pull campaign to draw together those who want to lobby for better rehab and detox facilities for meth users.
These initiatives are happening against the backdrop of a government-run Gang Action Plan, which, in part, aims to support those living in gang communities.
But in many instances, the gangs are not waiting for government support – they are taking control of their own makeover.
Canterbury University academic and author Dr Jarrod Gilbert is an authority on the lifestyle of the roughly 4,000 people who belong to gangs in New Zealand.
When considering gangs, many New Zealanders’ first thought will be of the country’s indigenous ethnic gangs such as the Mongrel Mob and Black Power.
Next up are the outlaw motorcycle gangs such as Australia’s Rebels, whose foray into New Zealand in recent years was followed by international heavyweights the Hell’s Angels and the Bandidos from the US. Smaller clubs, such as the Greasy
Dogs and the Native Sons, have established deep roots in regional communities across New Zealand. And then there’s the newest presence – the LA-style street gangs, which are gaining high profiles and large followings in urban centres.
The film festival, the sandwiches in schools and the Facebook campaign all suggest a changing emphasis for some
New Zealand gangs. Gilbert says the indigenous ethnic gangs – which he calls the “patched gangs” – started to move away from the violent crime that had defined them after the last of the big turf battles in the 1990s.
Three factors have led to the change. Firstly, many gangs were moving into more profit-driven crime and wanted to keep a low profile. Secondly, it was likely all available gang territory had been allocated as a result of the turf wars, and gang boundaries had stabilised.
But Gilbert says both those explanations pale in comparison to the third explanation: age.
“It’s simply the fact the guys had aged, and there are now old men in the gangs,” he says.
"Old men don’t tend to be as violent or involved in as much crime after 40.
Their criminality tends to reduce."
The community-minded efforts of gangs such as the sandwich-making Tribal Huk illustrate “the maturing of the scene”. And it’s precisely this ageing gang population that has led to the birth of the latest generation of New Zealand gangs.
“A lot of rebellious teenagers don’t want to join a gang where the membership looks like their father.”
Dr Jarrod Gilbert
The LA-style gangs have flourished in response to a demand for gangs that fitted a 21st century definition of cool.
Rather than the scruffy appearance of the patched gangs, whose desire was to drop out of society, the LA-style gangs seek a fashion-conscious, ostentatious place in society.
Gilbert says New Zealand’s LA-style gangs appear willing to utilise extreme violence to make a name for themselves.
Those inclinations are not tempered by paternalistic older members as they might have been if they’d joined the patched gangs.
The LA-style gangs are also hypermaterialistic – they want to emulate the flashy cars, clothes and accessories of their gangsta heroes. To access that kind of cash, gangs will pursue profit-driven crime with greater vigour. Gilbert points to the Killer Beez – the country’s best-known LA-style street gang – which was founded by Josh
Masters, a part-time rapper with his own record company. The gang boss was sentenced to more than a decade behind bars in 2012 for drug-related offences.
With the traditional patched gangs fading in prominence, these new gangs are stepping forward unchallenged. And they look set to prove more violent, more visible and more heavily engaged with profit-driven crime than ever before.
If that’s the case, why does the Gang Action Plan seem so focused on the indigenous ethnic gangs?
Gilbert says, "We’re always a step behind, aren’t we? There’s a revolution on the streets, and we are missing it."
The woman responsible for steering the multi-agency Gang Action Plan effort is Detective Superintendent Virginia Le Bas of New Zealand Police. A small multiagency team has been working on the plan.
The team reached the key milestone of establishing a Gang Intelligence Centre last December.
Le Bas says the Gang Action Plan is a tool in the fight against the drug trade.
“Drugs require a network. We know gangs provide a network … That’s something they’ve always done, or do.”
At a New Zealand Drug Foundation Speaker & Soup session in August 2016, Le Bas said, “By no means do I say that every single gang member is involved with that [drug dealing], but there is a … number that are.” The outlaw motorcycle clubs are among those Police say are heavily pursuing a drug-dealing agenda.
In a Police Association column in May, long-time president Greg O’Connor said,
“The Head Hunters and Hell(s) Angels are applying business models in new “markets” around the country and divvying up the spoils. Specifically, it involves moving in an advanced guard, identifying key local crime figures and groups, and training them.”
In January, Le Bas told Fairfax Media:
“The Head Hunters have one strategy: They all report back to Auckland. They are organised.
“They are disproportionately represented in the manufacturing and distribution of methamphetamine around New Zealand. The Head Hunters come up regularly in many of our operations where we are investigating methamphetamine distribution throughout New Zealand.”
She went on to say: “It is obvious that the Head Hunters have connections with Asians involved in organised crime. We believe this is how the gang is getting the precursors to methamphetamine from Asia.”
In implementing the plan, Le Bas takes her lead from a speech Finance Minister Bill English gave on social investment in September 2015. In it, he said roughly 1 percent of all five-year olds – about 600 Kiwi kids each year were statistically likely to cost taxpayers an average of $320,000 each by the time they were 35. Some would cost more than $1 million each.
“We have a system that does reasonably well in meeting the needs of 80 to 90 percent … But it can struggle in dealing with the most vulnerable New Zealanders,” the Deputy Prime Minister said at the time.
The government committed to the Gang Action Plan with a cabinet paper in October 2014. The paper had a clear focus on the families of gang members: “Almost half of the serious offences committed by gang members are family violence related.
A high proportion of gang members’ children experience multiple incidents of abuse or neglect.”
The plan brings together 10 government agencies. Like the relentless campaign to change attitudes to smoking tobacco, Le Bas warns it may take 25 years to effect real change.
So far, the action plan is most recognisable for a marked spike in drug seizures in 2016, such as the $17 million of methamphetamine – 17 kilograms – seized by Police and Customs following a seven-month investigation involving a member of the Thailand chapter of the Bandidos.
Le Bas is unapologetic for the plan’s early focus on drug seizures.
“We’ve always said we need to look at supply and demand. Every time we take out a seizure, it’s a positive.” Just two community programmes have been launched under the plan.
The first involves the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) trialling approaches with gang-associated whānau, such as focusing on the wider social issues that impact young people and increasing educational achievement. The pilot is based in the Bay of Plenty and East Coast and will cost $1.1 million and last two and a half years. The pilot was announced on 1 March 2016 – the same day MSD released a report that estimated the long-term cost to the taxpayer of gang members and their children through their contact with MSD and Child, Youth and Family (CYF) was $714 million.
In October 2016, the government announced a $50,000 youth leadership and mentoring programme to help steer up to 20 young Hawke’s Bay people away from gang life.
Kim Workman says he’s seen Police-led strategies with the dual enforcement and support focus fail before. The problem, he says, is an imbalance in favour of the enforcement side of the equation while the social strategy is never properly resourced, prioritised or coordinated.
Workman is a one-time Police officer who has studied delinquency and offender reintegration at top US universities and held a number of high-ranking New Zealand public service roles such as Assistant Secretary (Penal Institutions) with the Justice Ministry.
He says gangs “will respond really well to opportunities to legitimise themselves”.
He has been a keen observer of growing moves towards that legitimate lifestyle. He points to the Notorious Mongrel Mob chapter, which in the past decade has helped quell street violence, build preschool centres and, with the Salvation Army, run drug treatment programmes for gang members using meth.
And he recalls the three-day hui in January 2011 at the Otatara Pa Reserve, near Taradale. The topic was Fatherhood, Gangs, Drugs and Choices. The attendees included 40 affiliates of Black Power and the Mongrel Mob. It became known at The Otatara Awakening.
“The hui was highly successful,” he wrote in a blogpost, “with a number of those attending being inspired to persist with making changes in their own lives, and those of their whānau and community.”
He also has a management degree and is in the final month of a social work degree. Ryder helped establish a new Black Power chapter in the capital two years ago, based around a common desire to be meth-free.
We saw what meth was doing to our bros."
He says members of his chapter don’t sell meth, and they don’t use it.
“We don’t engage in anything around meth. I know of people who are making a profit from selling meth. My challenge to them [is] stop selling that shit to us.”
Ryder runs randomised drug tests on every member of the chapter; utilising the gang’s considerable knowledge of drug testing work-arounds to ensure no-one can cheat. Only one man has left as a result of the hard line on meth – he was struggling to kick the drug and told his ‘brothers’ he didn’t want to damage the meth-free reputation of the chapter.
Ryder says there’s an old saying that Black Power don’t cry. Yet, as he talks about his chapter, he describes a gang where men quietly pad the hallways outside club meetings with their babies in prams, gently coaxing them to sleep. He says he’s seen gang members freely weep at tangi and shed tears of joy at their own weddings, the births of their children or when their kids get a certificate at school.
We do paint this picture of being tough, but in reality, we’re all human.
And members of his chapter regularly don hairnets and gloves on weeknights to prepare hāngi meals for fundraising. He laughs. The gang’s wares still come wrapped in tinfoil, but the product of choice is now a hot meal.
“Selling drugs kinda gets you in the shit and hurts everyone,” Ryder says. “So, let’s sell hāngi!”
The chapter bought a large hāngi cooker, which perfectly steams 140 meals at a time. The gang uses its collective might – the goodwill and manpower of a community numbering 75–100 people, including members, partners and children.
Other chapters around New Zealand are following suit with the hāngi and the meth bans, although Ryder admits Wellington was initially not particularly popular in the wider gang. “Because of our stance, we were one of the most hated chapters.”
Ryder is aware many people may be cynical about just how crime-free gang members want to be.
“It won’t be easy. There’s some people on both sides – government and gangs – [who believe] this is impossible. I remind them that’s what they said about women getting the vote. It will take ups and downs, but I can see it happening.”
So what has happened here? What’s with the hāngi trade and the tears of joy and the drug-free pledges? Ryder echoes Gilbert’s comments: gang leaders in the indigenous ethnic gangs have mellowed with age. Many of the established gang leaders would now be happy to see the one-time criminals among their ranks reinvented as taxpayers. Rule number 6 of the Wellington Black Power chapter is: “No self-defeating behaviours”. This includes any act that would warrant arrest. In two years, Ryder claims not a single member of this chapter has been arrested. He laughingly calls himself Black Power Wellington’s Crime Reduction Manager.
All of this is such a significant deviation from the indigenous ethnic gang norm of the 1970s and 1980s that one of the members of Ryder’s chapter recently felt the need to underline that he had no intention of becoming a Christian.
In 2010, when Police Minister Judith Collins addressed the New Zealand Police Leadership Conference, she said, “As Minister, I have a policy of not engaging with gangs. I won’t even knowingly meet with anyone who I know to be a gang member.”
Eugene Ryder believes hardline politicians like Collins have created a climate where government departments are reluctant to support any programme to do with gangs. Ryder claims gang offers to help Corrections rehabilitate their members behind bars have been refused because that would require an admission that gangs could be helpful.
“When they say wrap services around our families, we – the patched members – support those goals,” Ryder says. “We want [gang members’ families] to be contributors to society.”
But he says gangs will not support a Gang Action Plan that they believe aims to sever their ties with family.
“The whole kaupapa is not about getting us in a better place. It’s about isolating us from the rest of society,” Ryder says.
“I don’t think it’s a tool for gangs. It’s a tool for government agencies.”
Harry Tam has been in the Mongrel Mob for 43 years. For 20 years, he worked in the public service, rising to senior positions. He worked for the Youth Affairs Ministry, the Corrections Department and Te Puni Kōkiri (TPK).
He believes the Gang Action Plan has no intention of reaching gang members. Rather, he says it’s been developed around the belief men are criminals in need of increased punishment, women are victims of violence, children are vulnerable and information on all three groups can be collated to increase effectiveness of law and order efforts.
He says this “negative” approach has criminalised families, pushing them away from the rest of society and knitting the individual families and the gangs they affiliate with even closer together. Harry says New Zealand’s ethnic street gang culture can trace its genesis back to the boys’ homes and borstals where young Māori men first developed the brotherhoods to fulfil a desire for family. With that history in mind, attempts to isolate members from their families will serve only to reinforce their bonds.
“Hey kids, keep away from your Dad. What’s pro-family about that?”
Harry says New Zealand’s indigenous ethnic gangs are now into their third generation. In many cases, he says, that equates to three generations of people who don’t know how to work. If it’s social wellbeing and transformation the government wants, job offers alone are no longer the answer. Today’s social issues are too complex for such a simple solution. “[There’s] so much to unpack.”
The jobs gang members would be competing for are at the lower end of a low-wage, low-skill economy. Many gang members have never worked before and could lose their jobs in the first three months because of unfamiliarity with work practices and policies such as drug testing.
Rather, Harry believes the focus should be on investment in training and education so gang members can set their sights on roles paying something closer to a ‘living wage’. Unless jobseekers have the equivalent of NCEA level 4, Harry says they’re unlikely to earn over $45,000 – a threshold he says would encourage long-term beneficiaries to walk away from the certainty of a benefit.
But even education isn’t enough. Harry says the entire welfare environment needs to change. Hardline benefit reforms have pushed people into crime. What happens when someone loses their benefit but can’t achieve employment? “Use your imagination,” he says.
Children at the edges of society will, he says, grow up knowing how to dabble in the black economy and how to hold yourself in a prison visit. But they won’t know how to ace a job interview.
Harry says the poverty that is inherent in gang life challenges the stereotype that gang members are involved in dealing drugs.
“After 43 years being in the Mob, I’ve never seen a rich bloody gang member.”
Jarrod Gilbert agrees. He says gang members are much more likely to be involved in drugs than other members of society and are “important players” in the drug trade. “There’s no doubt about it.”
But most gangs are not organised around profit-driven crime.
The drug trade does not prop up gangs."
Gilbert says that, in his field research, he found gang members hail from the toughest sectors of poor society. Their lives are characterised by intergenerational unemployment, poor health, drug and alcohol abuse, family violence and overcrowded homes. Gangs offer children of these circumstances a family to belong to and status.
Harry has been working with MSD’s E Tu Whānau programme to deliver support to gang communities through a values approach. By the end of September, there had been eight local hui and one national hui, each attracting an average of 50 people drawn from 30 different groups.
The hui promote Māori concepts such as whanaungatanga or relationship building, knowledge of whakapapa and the building of mana and nurturing of others. Discussions range from education to drugs to violence. Harry feels the term ‘hard-to-reach Māori communities’ is a more accurate description of why these groups exist than the term ‘gangs’. People in hard-to-reach Māori communities are in poor physical, mental and spiritual health, have low health literacy and die younger than other Māori.
Even with the Gang Action Plan in place, progress to achieve improvements for gang communities is glacial. Harry says it took four months to get an application for a parenting programme through government funding processes.
Harry is hopeful E Tu Whānau’s work will be given wider support.
“There’s a growing appetite within these communities to try to do something for themselves,” he says.
“You’ve got to believe these communities want to change.”
The senior member of the Mongrel Mob’s Rogue chapter is sick of waiting for the government to provide help for communities impacted by meth. In desperation, Dennis and his wife Lizzie McMillan-Makalio (manager of Wesley Community Action in Waitangirua) have established New Zealand ‘P’ Pull – a Facebook page aimed at drawing together a community concerned about meth to collectively demand better detox and rehab services.
Dennis Makalio hopes New Zealand ‘P’ Pull will create enough political energy to influence government to focus on the “clean up” of the social mess P has created.
“It left addicts everywhere, it left broken families … When one person is on P, it affects the whole family and whānau.”
In late September, New Zealand ‘P’ Pull staged town hall-style meetings to make mayoral candidates aware of the fallout from meth in their communities. At one such meeting in Porirua on September 28, heavily tattooed Dennis Makalio addressed the crowd wearing a t-shirt that said “Don’t Meth Around”. People affected by addiction spoke and politicians cried.
“It’s been right under their noses for 16 years,” Makalio says. The New Zealand ‘P’ Pull campaign’s next target will be the 2017 general election.
It’s almost 30 years since Eugene Ryder earned his patch. He remembers the motivations clearly.
When I joined Black Power, I wasn’t going to something, I was getting away from something.
In the gang, he found men with backgrounds that were remarkably similar to his own. He adhered to the rules – some of them “bullshit”, some of them based on good values – and today he is tasked with enforcing a rule his chapter takes very seriously: the pledge to be P-free.
Like Harry Tam, Ryder is working with the E Tu Whānau programme. Ryder is employed by a not-for-profit called CART (Consulting, Advocacy and Research Trust), and it’s this organisation that is running the Black Power-supported film festival.
One of the focuses CART outlines on its website is work with gangs: “We see them as gatherings of citizens who want to make a difference. We share the knowledge and insight that taps into the underlying urge to realise their full potential, make real and lasting difference [in] the lives of their whānau, contribute to the community, and win acceptance as productive tax-paying citizens.”
While Ryder attends and supports the multi-community E Tu Whānau hui organised by Harry, some in his gang are not comfortable sharing a meeting space with Mongrel Mob.
Black Power-focused hui are under way so those long-held rivalries don’t get in the way of people accessing support.
Jarrod Gilbert says many in the ageing patched gangs are working hard to reinvent themselves as contributing members of society. As part of that, they’ve developed a keen awareness of the ravages of drugs such as P and – as part of their new focus on gang wellbeing – are taking steps to support their members. Given all they’ve seen in their gang careers, Gilbert says society should probably take heed when gang leaders like Dennis Makalio decide it’s time to launch a campaign against P. “When Mongrel Mob is starting to say something is not good for you,” Gilbert says, “we should all stand up and take notice.”
01 September 2020
The Drug Foundation has launched a school-based programme aiming to change the way schools approach drugs and alcohol. John McRae attended t...
30 August 2020
It’s up to us, the public, to make sure the government looks after our most vulnerable in a recession, writes activist and former Greens MP ...
11 June 2020
Lively debate from our great line up of panellists on whether the Cannabis Control Bill will help to protect young people
08 May 2020
Our Deputy Chief Executive Ben Birks Ang has contributed a chapter to a new book about supporting young people experiencing crisis and trau...
Back to top