CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand—If this country’s spectacular nature reserves are the peaceful Shire of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Hobbits in Middle Earth, its notorious ganglands are our Mordor.
The Bay of Plenty’s official tourism website gushes about the region’s “breathtaking views, beachside relaxation and year-round sun.” And New Zealand often is seen as an oasis of heavenly peace in a troubled world, its gorgeous sweeping mountain vistas made famous by Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies. But an influx of foreign criminals and drugs is fueling a rash of violence across the country as gangs battle for control of lucrative turf.
KNOCKING ON THE MONGOLS’ DOOR
AK47s, submachine guns, a half dozen Molotov cocktails and a powerful homemade bomb were just the highlights of the stash of drugs and guns seized from the New Zealand chapter of the Mongol Nation biker gang earlier this month.
The series of raids executed across the picturesque Bay of Plenty were the culmination of “Operation Silk,” a six month undercover investigation by New Zealand’s National Organized Crime Group designed to disrupt the distribution network of New Zealand’s most dangerous gangs. Seventeen alleged Mongol members were rounded up and put in the dock to face nearly 300 charges for narcotics, weapons, and money laundering.
“Money from their illicit activities is used to fund lavish lifestyles, all the while the people they are preying on and their families are suffering,” Superintendent Greg Williams, who oversaw the raids, told The Daily Beast.
The Mongols’ South Island headquarters can be found at a derelict sawmill on the outskirts of the city of Christchurch. Their clubhouse walls are built of rusting corrugated iron covered in flaking slime-green paint. I count five cars parked on an overgrown lawn, some of them missing bumpers, license plates, and in one case, a door.
Painted on the sawmill roof is the faded phrase “Tourist World,” a relic from when the building sold arts and crafts to visitors. It is an odd location, planted opposite a large army base, and just a few minutes’ drive from one of the country’s biggest prisons.
I paid a visit to see if anyone will talk about the recent raids. At the rusted gate that serves as the entrance to their turf, a young man with bloodshot eyes nods me inside, but notes “no one’s going to be talking to you about the Bay of Plenty.” I poke around for a few minutes, but as I go to enter the main clubhouse, a gaunt white man with a wispy grey beard and a loose black hoodie blocks my path.
“Yes, I very much do mind you going inside, and it’s a no comment for anything you’ve got to ask,” he says as he squares up to me and motions me to leave. I’ve overstayed my welcome.
THE METH INVASION
Gangs have been a feature of New Zealand life for decades. Drawing their recruits from deprived and alienated communities, often from the Maori and Pacific Island population, they’ve controlled New Zealand’s drug market for some 50 years.
The 1970s and 1980s saw explosions of violence, mainly between New Zealand’s two most notorious gangs, the Mongrel Mob and Black Power. But they stuck mostly to selling marijuana and dabbling in prostitution.
“That all changed when the Hell's Angels bought meth over about 20 years ago,” says Jared Savage, a New Zealand investigative journalist who specializes in organized crime. “Meth really hit the right parts on New Zealand’s taste buds.”
Geographically isolated, with a small population that only just hit five million and a tough customs force, New Zealand traditionally has not been seen as a profitable target for the smuggling of hard drugs. Meth, which could be cooked at home from mostly over-the-counter ingredients, changed this. Then, once a market was established, local outfits could start importing higher quality product, often from Triads in Southeast Asia.
The gangs that control this deadly trade are numerous—the government lists 34. They have a range of supposedly frightening names that sometimes veer into the cartoonishly evil. Depending on what part of the country you live in, you could score your fix from Satan’s Slaves, Devil’s Henchmen, Greasy Dogs, or Storm Troopers. A particularly odd one calls itself Sinn Fein, as if Irish nationalism somehow takes interest in the nondescript Upper Hutt district of the New Zealand capital, Wellington.
However, “The Mob” and “Power,” as locals know the Mongrel Mob and Black Power, still dominate the trade, and their numbers have been growing steadily over the past few years. Police documents obtained by the New Zealand Herald showed that there were over 7,000 gang members in New Zealand as of December 2019, up 50 percent in three years.
“Young people with limited options often look up to them,” Savage tells me. “They see these well dressed, muscular men, wearing trendy leather jackets, with good looking girlfriends taking over the VIP areas of the flash clubs and think, ‘Damn, I want to be like them!’”
“The girlfriends and wives,” one gang member tells me, “actually play an important role in running the gangs.” Some even attend business schools to help run the outfit professionally. Gangs will put their money in elaborate trust schemes in the names of their partners so that the money is difficult to seize if they are incarcerated.
They also have press operations. Louise Hutchinson, a spokesperson for the Waikato chapter of the Mongrel Mob, stresses the “sense of community” the gangs bring to deprived neighborhoods.
The senior members wear elaborate patches stitched into their clothing. All New Zealanders recognize the gaping-mouthed Bulldog of the Mongrel Mob, or the raised first of Black Power—a gang of predominantly Maori and Polynesian members. The Mongols’ patch features a cartoon of Genghis Khan astride a motorcycle. Other signs of gang membership include ornate tribal tattoos that can completely cover the face.
But the dominance of these gangs in the New Zealand underworld has been diminishing, with the arrival of the ruthless, well-funded and internationally connected Australian gangs.
In April 2018 an act of appalling brutality brought the issue of the gangs back into the spotlight. Thugs associated with the Comancheros, the most feared Australian gang, lured a rival gang member to a street in Mangere after a dispute over drugs.
They made him kneel on the ground before killing him with a shot to the head. They turned to his wife, making her beg for mercy. Then they shot her anyway and left her to die. She somehow survived. Sentencing the perpetrator to life imprisonment, a judge described it as “an execution of a defenseless person.” Local gangs were as concerned as the police, telling investigating officers, “That’s the Aussies, that’s not what we do, you know that.”
When the Mongols, also an Australian outfit, set up a base in Christchurch, local gangs smashed up a barbershop and a tattoo parlor whose ownership was associated with the new arrivals. The Mongols struck back by pumping nearly a hundred bullets from military grade weapons into a house believed to be a meeting place of the local Mongrel Mob.
Five children in the house were, miraculously, unharmed. Locals reported later hearing exchanges of gunfire in the streets.
The Comancheros and Mongols established themselves in New Zealand after Australia deported them, Williams told me. And their presence has caused a strain in the normally warm relations between the Antipodean nations.
A 2014 change in Australian law allowed New Zealand citizens, many of whom had lived in Australia since they were children, to be deported if they committed a serious crime. These deportees have been known as the “501s,” after the clause in the legislation that allows for the removals. Many had no family in New Zealand, and no means of social or financial support. But the ones that concerned the government the most were members of Australia’s most notorious gangs.
At a press conference in February, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern publicly upbraided her Australian counterpart Scott Morrison over the issue of deportees, suggesting just how seriously the government takes the problem.
“Australia is well within its rights to deport individuals who break your laws… but send back genuine kiwis,” she told a visibly uncomfortable Morrison. “Here you have a cohort of individuals who have grown up believing they are Australians.”
Detective Sergeant Ray Sunkel, speaking to a police conference in 2019, told the audience, “Intergang conflicts in New Zealand tend to be resolved through negotiation—the rival gangs meet, strike an agreement and one side will pay restitution, often in drugs. But in Australia grievances tend to escalate, leading to firebombings, kidnappings, and shootings until the gangs run out of puff, as animosities simmer on. That’s the mentality they have brought with them.”
While the local 501 branches were founded by the deportees, they quickly began to recruit locals, including “repatching” disaffected members of the existing gangs. One member of a rival gang told me that while the local outfits traditionally select from prisons, the new arrivals mostly take younger, fresher recruits from the streets.
Jarrod Gilbert, a University of Canterbury academic who is a renowned expert on gang culture says that “the Australian gangs are defined by a complete disregard for the existing order. Rather than knocking on the door of the existing gangs, they came over here and planted their flag and said, ‘We’ll do what we want.’”
THE COMING OF THE CARTELS
Not everyone fears the new arrivals. For one senior member of Black Power the fact that the police have been making such well publicized arrests is evidence that these gangs are incompetent rather than a real threat: “They think New Zealand is a soft target. But the police are picking them apart with ease. Now they are going to do real prison time here and the gangs who run them will show them who they’re really dealing with.”
The member, a muscular Maori man in his mid-40s who has stepped back from active gang activity, notes that this isn’t the first time a foreign outfit has tried to muscle its way into the territory of local gangs.
“We’ve had the Rebels come over from Western Australia, the Hell's Angels pitch up from America. None of them have been able to establish a real presence here because they don’t know the land and they don’t know the people.”
What concerns him instead is the growth in Latin American cartel activity. “You might not believe it, but the cartels are here, on the ground, in New Zealand. We’re seeing cocaine come into New Zealand in unheard of quantities. And the meth they bring is much better than anything cooked here. You can sell a pinch of it for thousands.”
Superintendent Williams said that the police had intelligence that showed “the CJNG (Jalisco New Generation Cartel) and the Sinaloa cartel importing methamphetamine” into New Zealand and that New Zealand was stepping up its cooperation with overseas law enforcement to “disrupt supply lines and build cases against international offenders.”
He also noted that “we are seeing cocaine imported, but our wastewater shows that it is not substantial”—referring to a testing method used by drug cops to estimate the usage of a particular substance in a population. Still, a 2018 operation saw a Serbian and a Croatian man arrested after trying to bring 56 kilos of cocaine in a container ship out of South America.
The police insist they have the violence under control. A police spokesperson told The Daily Beast “this will not be tolerated in New Zealand. We will continue to do everything in our power to demonstrate to anyone engaging in organized crime that they will be caught and held accountable. New Zealanders deserve to be safe and feel safe.”
Some gang members have been having regrets, especially over the introduction of meth into New Zealand society. My Black Power source recalled returning to his home town and meeting victims of this “terrible drug.” He described how "they can’t stop talking, their hands keep shaking, with deep rings around wide, bloodshot eyes from a lack of sleep. The worst addicts are literally wasting away.”
Sonny Fatupaito, leader of the Waikato Mongrel Mob, recently announced he was leaving the national leadership to focus more on the way gangs could support local communities. Speaking for him, Hutchinson told me that “we are now about the whanau (Maori for family). Our members come from the most deprived parts of society, many from foster care. We have now all seen what meth is doing to our young people, and we want to put them on the right path.”
Police and politicians aren’t all convinced the gangs are on the road to Damascus. When Fatupaito invited former Leader of the Opposition Simon Bridges to meet in October 2019 to discuss criminal justice issues, for instance, he was rebuffed and told “until you and your gang hand over your guns and stop all involvement in drugs and violence, I have no interest in meeting with you.”
But there is a sense growing that the arrival of the overseas outfits is providing an opportunity for communities to work together with local gangs and law enforcement to address issues of poverty, violence and addiction. Even the most hard-bitten members can feel this.
The Black Power member I spoke with now works with at-risk young people to divert them from the lifestyle of the gangs and the poverty-to-prison pipeline. He says he’s been receiving requests for help from the most unlikely of places.
“One guy, a real tough guy from the Mob who I’d had a fight with in prison came up to me a few weeks back. I thought I might have trouble, but then he asked me, ‘Hey, mate, I know you’re working with the kids now. I’m worried about my nephew; he’s going the wrong way. Can you help him out?’”
“Of course I can bro,” he replied.