The future of gangs in New Zealand

by Philippa Tolley / 21 January, 2019
Best of Radio NZ 2018

Ruggard learnt to sew so he could make the gangs patches. Photo: Supplied/Jarrod Gilbert

Gangs have been a feature of New Zealand society for more than half a century. After a period of stagnation and almost decline, membership appears to be once again on the rise. Insight's Philippa Tolley takes a look at what future lies ahead.

Gang member, Ruggard hunches over an industrial leather sewing machine, carefully crafting patches for a new chapter of the Mongrel Mob in Hastings, called Fatherland.

It's a skill he taught himself after deciding the black, white and red emblems would mean more to members if they were sewn by a fellow mobster or even themselves, rather than ordered from a shop.

One of those Ruggard taught to sew his own patch is Tamiana, a prospect who is about to become a proper member. It's something his father, who died in the last year, wanted for his son and Tamiana has brought his father's ashes along to the patching.

He described the Mongrel Mob as his life, and said while earning membership into the gang as a prospect was a hard road, he'd managed to pull through. Tamiana agreed there is criminality in the gang scene, but denied prospecting was all about crime, although he laughs when asked if he'd admit if it was.

But personally when it comes to brushes with the law, Tamiana said he was "clean as a whistle".

Tamiana and Ruggard shared their stories at the patching ceremony with gang expert and Canterbury sociologist, Jarrod Gilbert, who had been included in the event and was able to give a glimpse into a closely guarded world.

Dr Gilbert described the patching ceremony as similar to a wedding or a 21st in the non-gang world.

"When the patching moment comes, the vice president hands the patch up to the president, the prospect comes forward and the president helps him on with a leather jerkin adorned with a newly sewn patch, gives him a hug and says 'You're in'."

For Tamiana, the emotion bubbled to the surface as he described his feelings after the patching.

"It makes me feel proud. My dad would be happy. He wanted to see the bulldog on my back. I love the Mongrel Mob, it's my other family, I love my family, comes first eh, but Mongrel Mob, that's my family."

A number of leaders in this chapter and other senior regional leaders speak strongly against methamphetamine and family violence.

Information released by the Gang Intelligence Centre shows how significant the involvement of gang members in crime actually is.

From a current list of nearly 6000 identified members or prospects, nearly 1200 have been convicted of methamphetamine offences in the four years between 2014 and 2017. Nearly 5000 have been convicted of assaults and intimidation in that time, including grievous and serious assaults. There have also been 15 homicide convictions.  

Gang Intelligence Centre Manager, Cathy Toi- Cassidy, said gangs were increasingly profit driven. Photo: RNZ Insight/Philippa Tolley

Gang Intelligence Centre Manager, Cathy Toi-Cassidy, said gangs were increasingly profit driven. Photo: RNZ Insight/Philippa Tolley

The centre's manager, Cathy Toi-Cassidy, said there had been changes in the landscape and members were often now driven by a desire for flash motorbikes and "bling".

"We're seeing an increase in transnational activity ... it's very much profit driven, a lot of these changes. We still have our traditional gangs, as well and the traditional gang way of life ... but it's drugs, and violence often comes with drugs ...There's no doubt that New Zealand gangs are throughout the New Zealand drug market, whether it's production, distribution and also users," she said.

In prison, Corrections' chief custodial officer Neal Beales said gang members were over represented in violent offences committed while on remand or serving time.

"In 2017 we know ... incidents involving violence between prisoners or prisoner assaults on staff, 61 percent of those involved a gang member," he said.

And gang members, prospects and associates make up about a third of the prison population at any one time.

Jarrod Gilbert said it was a given that many gang communities and gang members were far more criminally inclined than the average person.

But he warned against "falling into a trap" with drugs, for example, and believing that the gangs dominated the drug trade in New Zealand when he said the data doesn't bear that out.

"There are some difficulties associated with that as it means we can be a bit blinded to firstly the other groups and people involved in the drugs trade in New Zealand and secondly we begin to see the gangs as organised crime groups and tackle them with tougher and tougher laws ... and we won't get to the root cause of the gangs."

The traditional drink from the boot. Photo: Supplied/ Jarrod Gilbert

The traditional drink from the boot. Photo: Supplied/Jarrod Gilbert

Police Minister Stuart Nash said it was unrealistic to try to eliminate all gangs, but he wants to "go incredibly hard" against gang leaders who are running drug operations.  

He said about 700 police staff would go into the organised crime squad, something he described as "a massive increase in resource."

But police and Corrections also want to keep communication channels open and Chief Corrections Officer Neal Beales said the prison service had a gang engagement strategy that operated both on the inside and outside.

"This isn't about us saying we have all the answers, you just do as we say because we think we know better than you. Part of successfully working towards a better future for these guys is to understand their world more and you can only do that if you engage with them. It doesn't mean we endorse, support or encourage their lifestyle, but we do need to understand."

*Gang recordings used in the Insight programme were provided by Dr Jarrod Gilbert.

Insight is on Apple Podcasts: subscribe here - or head to Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

This article was originally published on Radio NZ.

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