Week in Review

‘Gang crackdown’ wins votes, doesn’t solve problems

As the number of gang members rises and meth floods the country, politicians are reverting to the well-worn promise to crack down on gangs. Laura Walters reports on why the discussion needs to change.

The number of gang members and organised criminals is rising but experts say politicians' promises to “crack down on gangs” miss the broader context and are unlikely to get results.

The past eight years has seen the number of patched gang members rise, with police figures putting the total at 6735.

Australian and overseas gangs are setting up chapters in New Zealand, including the Rebels, Comancheros, Bandidos and now the Mongols.

Meanwhile, cheap meth is flooding into the New Zealand market, and despite record seizures, wastewater data shows every community in the country is affected by the drug.

While the Government has been working on bolstering police numbers as part of its promise to add 1800 extra cops, including expanding the dedicated organised crime squad, the Opposition says the latest figures prove the Government’s approach isn’t working.

National leader Simon Bridges is calling for a crackdown on gangs, saying the Government has been “soft on crime”.

He is also putting pressure on Police Minister Stuart Nash to speed up work on Firearms Prohibition Orders, which aim to give police further powers to stop weapons getting into the hands of known gang members, and those in organised crime syndicates.

Bridges is not alone in his view on gangs. In 2017, ahead of the election, now-Police Minister Stuart Nash promised to “smash the gangs”, which included a suggestion of cutting all benefits to gang members.

Successive governments have had gang strategies, which have come with multi-million dollar price tags, but the ‘smash the gangs’ approach has thus far been ineffective.

“Ostensibly, it’s about the drug methamphetamine, but in large part, it’s actually more about the politicians’ drug of choice: votes.”

On the other side of the debate, it’s not unusual to read headlines about social initiatives set up by gangs, in the communities where they have caused or exacerbated harm.

The case of the Tribal Huk gang making sandwiches for its Ngaruawahia community has been well-covered, and came as the Waikato town struggled with meth problems. And last week, Bridges publicly turned down an invitation from the Mongrel Mob Kingdom chapter to meet with them, and see the work they are doing in their community.

Any efforts to do good, and move away from selling and manufacturing meth, should be supported. But the head of the Police national organised crime unit says the evidence shows most of these efforts are not genuine.

Experts who spoke to Newsroom all say policing gangs and holding those who do harm to account is an important part of addressing the problem.

But the simplistic rhetoric around cracking down on gangs misses important context about gang culture, the changing face of organised crime, and the social issues that underpin New Zealand’s gang problem.

'As predictable as a clock'

University of Canterbury director of criminal justice Jarrod Gilbert said there was nothing new about opposition parties rolling out the ‘crack down on gangs’ and ‘tough on crime’ lines to garner support.

“The first and most obvious thing about the discussion is it’s predictable… It is as predictable as a clock,” Gilbert said.

“But equally predictable is the fact that the debates that stem from that tend to be pretty unnourishing, and measures that have been enacted in the wake of them have tended to be dismal failures.”

The “political grandstanding” tended to simplify and sensationalise the problem.

Gangs, organised crime, and meth addiction are all complex issues but at a time when the public should call for cool heads, the hustings showed anything but, he said.

“Ostensibly, it’s about the drug methamphetamine, but in large part, it’s actually more about the politicians’ drug of choice: votes.”

Like many who spoke to Newsroom, including a long-time gang member, Gilbert said these groups were a result of a wider social concern.

“And if we ignore that, again we’re on a highway to nothing, because we will not enact policies that are effective.”

“Basically what you’re dealing with here is intergenerational trauma that’s being passed on. And you can trace this back to colonisation – arguably, I’d say colonisation has never stopped."

Many gang members within New Zealand are used to living “hand to mouth”, struggling with social, economic and health problems.

These issues don’t just affect gang members, they affect their partners, children, whānau and wider communities.

“When we attack them, we’re not just attacking gang members, we’re attacking the communities within which they live. Which are, of course, our most deprived communities, and overwhelmingly Māori communities.

“We’re not lifting people up, we’re trying to smash them down. Well, that’s all well and good in one sense, but it’s not effective social policy.”

One long-time gang member said issues that are driven on a social basis could be suppressed.

“Basically what you’re dealing with here is intergenerational trauma that’s being passed on. And you can trace this back to colonisation – arguably, I’d say colonisation has never stopped…

“As long as we keep looking at problems through the same lens, we don’t get to solve the problem. We just continue dumping good money after bad.”

A changing landscape

While the political rhetoric on gangs has stayed the same, the landscape of organised crime is rapidly changing.

Bridges pointed out gang numbers had risen by 1400 under Nash’s watch, rebutting the police minister’s claim he was “winning the war on gangs”.

But the factors leading to the rise in numbers and an increase in meth use started before Nash was in charge.

Everyone who spoke to Newsroom pointed to the establishment of the Rebels motorcycle gang here as the pivotal moment.

In 2011, the Australian gang touched down and started an active recruitment drive.

This was a change from the passive recruitment, and drawn-out prospecting process, seen by the somewhat dwindling New Zealand gangs in the years prior.

“You’ve got prestige, you’ve got money, you’ve got women, you’ve got brotherhood, and you’ve got a raison d’être.”

Police national organised crime national manager, Detective Superintendent Greg Williams, said the Rebels, and subsequent motorcycles gangs setting up chapters in New Zealand, have brought in a different tradecraft, and a different way of marketing.

They use social media to post pictures of gang members wearing bling, working out, and standing with expensive motorbikes and cars.

The Comancheros are known for their pictures with Rolls Royce and Range Rover cars.

It provided an image of a cool lifestyle to young Kiwis.

University of Canterbury sociology professor Greg Newbold said men had always joined clubs in an effort to gain “brotherhood”, and the same thing drove people to join gangs.

“You’ve got prestige, you’ve got money, you’ve got women, you’ve got brotherhood, and you’ve got a raison d’être.”

As this active recruitment and social media marketing led to the patching of more young people, at a more rapid rate, the Mongrel Mob and Black Power spoke about working together to drive the Australian gangs out of the country.

“All that bling, all those Rolls Royces, and flash cars and motorbikes – every single dollar of that, we say, comes from the misery of our people."

Williams said it was all about controlling market share.

Domestic gangs started muscling up in order to protect their patch.

Wastewater data showed the flow-on, with the use of meth steadily increasing since 2014. And the latest United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime global drug report found New Zealand reported the dismantling of, on average, 61 methamphetamine laboratories per year over the period 2013–2017, with a fluctuating, upward trend.

While New Zealand still has one of the highest retail prices for meth in the world, the rapid decrease in price over that time showed how much of the drug was coming into the market.

Authorities have been making record seizures – 1200 kilograms since July – but the drug continues to flood the market.

About $500m to $600m a year is generated by organised crime in New Zealand; about $4m a week in cash, in Auckland alone.

“All that bling, all those Rolls Royces, and flash cars and motorbikes – every single dollar of that, we say, comes from the misery of our people,” Williams said.

“We’re talking about real social deprivation happening in homes across this country right now. Where children aren’t being fed – this is no exaggeration – not being clothed because their parents have been addicted to methamphetamine.”

Gangs and organised crime aren't the same thing

Part of what is missing from the discussion about meth and gangs, is the understanding of the broader aspects of the globalisation of organised crime.

While overseas gangs are coming to New Zealand, Kiwi gangs have also been exporting.

The Mongrel Mob now has chapters around the world, including in Taiwan, Russia and New York.

Meanwhile, transnational organised crime groups from Asia and North America, including the cartels, are looking to New Zealand.

Organised crime syndicates have been setting up cells here. And many of these groups are highly sophisticated; the type of criminals who wear suits, not back patches.

"We ought stop talking about cracking down on gangs and start talking about cracking down on organised crime."

Gilbert said this type of organised crime could not be addressed by focusing on “hand-to-mouth” patched gang members.

“When we focus on patched gang members, we lose sight of the numerous organised crime groups in New Zealand that aren’t in gangs… We ought stop talking about cracking down on gangs and start talking about cracking down on organised crime.”

This view is shared by gang leaders in New Zealand.

Waikato Mongrel Mob Kingdom Chapter president Sonny Fatupaito and Black Power life member Denis O'Reilly similarly told Stuff that politicians needed to recognise the difference between organised crime and gangs.

Not every gang member is a criminal and not every criminal is a gang member.

What are police doing?

Williams said police were tackling these issues from every angle.

The national organised crime team works with Customs and overseas law enforcement to tackle transnational criminal groups and meth imports.

At the same time, they are looking at the financial crime, fraud and money laundering that flows from this criminal activity, as well as watching business people who are enabling criminals to buy property, businesses and other assets.

More than 7000 organisations are working together to identify and address organised crime in New Zealand, he said.

At a district level, police work with iwi to address issues in local communities.

These were sad situations, but there was a good result in terms of growing genuine partnerships in communities that have been impacted by drugs, poverty and violence, Williams said.

This included wrapping health and social services around all of those impacted by gangs, drugs and organised crime, in an effort to break the cycle.

Meanwhile, those working in this space were also trying to build the country’s resilience to organised crime, he said.

Everyone who spoke to Newsroom agreed the current issues facing New Zealand are complex and will not be solved by “cracking down on gangs” alone.

It would be a case of: do the same thing, get the same result.

The Police Association hosts its annual conference this week in Wellington, with the theme of The Changing Face of Organised Crime – something association head Chris Cahill said was a serious concern to police union members.

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