Over the past four years, dozens of outlaw gang members have returned to New Zealand on the back of Australia’s anti-bikie laws. Police are worried their presence will add to the illicit drug trade and increasing gang violence in towns and cities across the country. Donna-Lee Biddle reports.
In a quaint rural town, nestled in the heart of the King Country, a Toyota Hilux blazes down the main street with a flag emblazoned with a bulldog.
The ute with the men in red barking out the windows like dogs.
They’re largely ignored by patrons visiting the op shop and Four Square.
Te Kūiti may be the shearing capital of the world, but it’s also long been home to the King Country chapter of the Mongrel Mob.
For years, the community and the gang have lived alongside each other without incident.
That was until a gang member returned home from Australia, leaving residents fearful with reports of standover tactics and extortion.
Residents say gang members demanded cash from businesses and people, in some instances threatening families unless they pay up.
A Te Kūiti resident who works with the town’s youth, and asked not to be named, knows all four men involved in the standovers, and says a lot of the offending was driven by methamphetamine.
She said the men were good people, driven by their addiction.
All four have been arrested on different charges and their cases are before the courts.
But it’s not the local gang the youth worker is concerned about, it’s the threat of deported outlaw motorcycle (MC) members recruiting small town youths, who are drawn in by the flashy bikes and gold jewellery that the gang members are fond of plastering all over social media.
Mum-of-four Tamie Tapara-Wehi, who is the niece of a returned gang member, is worried about what the future has in store for her children, and says youth need more to do.
On returning to Te Kuiti recently after a decade in the Hawke’s Bay, she realised the town hadn’t changed much at all.
Tapara-Wehi is involved in a few different community groups and wants to see more opportunities in sports, arts and music to help prevent the youth in her hometown being drawn into gang life.
Like Te Kūiti, several other small towns are home to longstanding gangs, such as Kawerau and Whakatāne in the Bay of Plenty.
And it’s these small towns, plagued with poverty and influential youth, that are prime targets for outlaw gang members looking to induct new muscle to their cause.
Between 2015 and 2018, there were 1580 people deported from Australia to New Zealand.
Of that number, 51 were identified as being a gang member or affiliated to a gang.
The list is not exhaustive, so there could have been more gang members, police say.
Gang members deported from Australia to New Zealand for failing to meet good character grounds, have been nicknamed the ‘501s’ after the section of the Australian Migration Act that enforced their deportation.
The largest number of deported bikies were the Rebels Motorcycle Club with 18 members. The Comancheros, whose members often posed in social media posts in front of customised motorcycles, had 15 members deported, while the Hells Angels had five members sent back to New Zealand.
Several other MC gangs, Including the Lone Wolfs, Bandidos, Nomads, Finks, Mongols, Rock Machines, Highway 61, and Odins Warriors, had one or two members deported.
Police have long held concern around the impact of these MC members in New Zealand, National Organised Crime Group detective sergeant Raymond Sunkel, said.
“New Zealand gangs have always been involved in all levels of the illegal drug trade, ranging from bringing drugs into the country through to their distribution at a street level.
“There is little doubt that any gangs establishing themselves here will contribute to the drug trade.”
Sunkel said the highest concentration of gang members were in cities, but there are always reasons to set up and establish in more remote parts of the country.
“When gangs establish themselves in smaller regions it can cause members of those communities to feel less safe due to the perceptions that inevitably come with organised crime.
“Most gangs in New Zealand are actively recruiting, and social media is without doubt a key component to this.
“It is a matter of making your club appear attractive to men within New Zealand who have a natural tendency to gravitate towards the kind of lifestyle that gangs offer -the display of wealth and a ‘cool factor’ is part of this recruitment strategy.”
And it’s not only police trying to deal with the influx of deportees.
At a gang hui, the head of the Waikato Mongrel Mob, Sonny Fatupaito, made a bold proposal for his gang’s traditional rivals Black Power to collaborate against the international gangs.
“The internationalisation of the gangs in Aotearoa isn’t new.
“However, the establishment of international gangs has significantly increased with the Australian government’s deportation policy.
“They are here and they are setting up chapters.”
The deportees will likely face isolation which will no doubt be socially challenging for them, Fatupaito says.
“They come with international networks and codes and our gangs social systems here have agreed terms of engagement.
“The devil you know is always better than the devil you don’t, so the best chance of combating the high risk factors around the influx is for the indigenous gangs and those with longevity to maintain the status quo.”
Keeping an eye on the changing gang landscape from across the ditch, is Dr Carl Bradley, who up until recently taught criminology in Melbourne at the Australian College of Applied Psychology.
Bradley has also published on outlaw bikers and the response by Māori to colonisation.
He said although internationalisation of gangs wasn’t new in New Zealand, what we’re now seeing is MC gangs, like Hells Angels, who were very small in numbers but quite powerful through their alliances, moving into areas and taking over well established one-chapter outlaws such as the Mothers MC of Palmerston North.
2020 Harley-Davidson LiveWire first ride review: Harley’s electric future is bright The traditional formula of Harley-Davidson is something like this: Take a massive V-twin engine and wrap a motorcycle around it
“I call it the shadow landscape, the gang landscape. It’s something you wouldn’t know about unless you were paying attention, but those boundaries are getting stretched and they’re probably going to start getting renegotiated – and it’s not going to be peaceful.”
Bradley said New Zealand is going through a second phase of internationalisation, where the Australian-based gangs are now setting up, like the Rebels and the Comancheros.