Fifteen gangs are now operating in the Tasman district, with links to a rising tide of methamphetamine use and increased violence, police say.
Official information obtained by Stuff shows there are 167 patched and prospect members in the 15 gangs in the district, which covers the Nelson, Marlborough and the West Coast. That’s up from 124 a year ago.
That works out to be just over two per cent of the country’s gang members. The police Gang Intelligence Centre records that 25 gangs are represented in New Zealand with an estimated 7471 patched and prospect members, almost double the number of members compared to five years ago.
Information obtained from the Department of Corrections supported that growth, showing in the year ending June, 2020 127 gang-connected offenders had been remanded in custody and/or appeared in the Nelson District Court.
That number had increased year-on-year from 52 gang-connected offenders in 2014-2015.
Tasman District organised crime unit Detective Darrel Adlam said in the last decade or so, the influence of the international gangs, particularly outlaw motorcycle clubs, had been seen across the country.
Adlam said the Hells Angels, Outlaws and Bandidos were all examples of international gangs which had representation in the Tasman district. Their members had been known to travel overseas, or attempt to, in a bid to attend international meetings in Thailand, Europe and America.
Officer in charge of the Tasman District organised crime unit, Detective Sergeant Chris Roberts said it recently had a particular focus on one gang due to its involvement in crime and drug dealing, with nine individuals currently facing court charges.
“That had wider tentacles to non-patched member associations in the drug world and links outside the district. “It provides them with a better network for their criminal activity.”
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Police had received reports of increased gang presence in the district and Roberts said in some cases, it involved a small number of individuals who were highly visible.
There used to be a distinction between local gangs and international motorcycle clubs, but that was becoming less clear.
“We’ve now got Mongrel Mob members who openly ride motorcycles and have an MC badge on the back of their patch,” Roberts said.
Within Nelson Bays alone there were now three recognised Mongrel Mob chapters; Aotearoa, Whakatu and the Barbarians, all who were connected to other chapters in the North Island.
Their patches all featured the bulldog, but it varied in style.
In the last decade they had also become “a lot more organised”, holding regular meetings and dealing with a lot of assets and large amounts of money.
“They are employing people to deal with that side of their criminal operation,” Roberts said.
There were “strong links and plenty of proof” that the gangs were involved in the meth trade which was where the money was.
“I always argue that gangs don’t sell drugs, it is people that are aligned with gangs that sell drugs under the banner.
“A patched member then has some assurance that he doesn’t have his hands on the gear at any stage.”
That member might be looking after several dealers who were paying club fees. Dealers operating independently were sometimes “taxed” after being approached by a gang member and asked to contribute financially if they wanted to keep operating, which had happened in the Tasman District.
Drugs were usually sold on credit and when debt wasn’t paid, a gang member might take that person for a “boot ride”, which was exactly what it sounded like, before giving them a deadline within which they had to pay back their debt.
While police often heard about that crime and violence, a significant amount of it was unreported.
He said the kinds of things we used to hear about gangs doing in Australia and America were now happening here.
Gold-plated Harley-Davidson motorbikes, gang members dripping in jewellery and photos on social media showing gang-affiliation, wearing 77 caps or t-shirts with other gang insignia were becoming increasingly common.
“I guess if you were a lost youth that sees you could be sitting on a Harley and welcomed into a gang life and making all this money then maybe it is more attractive than it was,” Roberts said.
But with that came an increase in violence and the use of weapons, road trauma, fatal crashes and family harm.
Adlam said it was “more than just a coincidence” New Zealand along with Australia, had one of the highest rates of meth consumption in the Western world and the number of patched members was increasing.
“It might not be that every gang member is a drug dealer, but they very much have an influence in it.
“Some of them are profiteering out of it without even dealing it.”
Investigations that resulted in large asset seizures always had meth involved. While there were other commodities being sold illegally, like cannabis, meth remained the main commodity.
“You can get an ounce of methamphetamine and break it down into 28 grams or 280 points and potentially make something you can buy for $6000, into something that is worth $28,000,” Roberts said.
The price of meth fluctuated and while it was cheaper than it had been 10 years ago, it remained more expensive in the Tasman District than in other parts of the country which had “some bearing” on the number of gang members in the district.
“ Why else would they [Asian organised crime and Mexican drug cartels] bother sending stuff here? We know that they are source countries we are dealing with due to the the major importations being seized at the border.”
It was also the case that there was more “finished product meth” being seen in New Zealand. Five years ago, there were a lot more clandestine labs uncovered as people manufactured the drug, but that had dropped off quite significantly.
Roberts said there remained a strong need for enforcement and police were focused on targeting those who were supplying it, but there had been a shift towards focusing on prevention, too.
“Meth is not the root of every single evil, we had gangs, drug dealing and homicides well before the country was gripped with meth, Adlam said, “but is has an undeniable link into a lot of stuff that is going on.”
Adlam said the district hadn’t previously been home to multiple established gang chapters, unlike other parts of the country.
In Nelson, the Lost Breed Motorcycle Club was formed in the 1970s, the Epitaph Riders had a presence on the West Coast and in Marlborough there was the Lone Legion Motorcycle Club, all of which no longer existed, like many other regional gangs.
While there had always been members of other gangs in the region, they weren’t as established.
Some had defected to other gangs like the Head Hunters and Outlaws motorcycle clubs.
“It wasn’t really the case with the Lost Breed in Nelson, they really sort of moved on and disappeared. The Hells Angels members here were not Lost Breed members,” Adlam said.
“It is pretty evident that all those smaller, standalone, local groups have all been pushed out.”