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Image by Stuff
Harry Tam is a long-time member of the Mongrel Mob.

Gang membership is on the rise. Stuff speaks to experts, leaders and gang members about why young people are joining gangs across New Zealand and how to address the violent consequences. Georgia-May Gilbertson reports.

Even a nationwide lockdown did nothing to slow the rise of New Zealand’s gangs last year.

At least 900 people joined a gang in 2020, an increase of 13 per cent on the year before(external link), according to police figures. In Hawke’s Bay alone, the birthplace of the Mongrel Mob, police have recorded a 58 per cent increase in recorded gang membership last year.

Experts and gang members have told Stuff the influx has been made up mostly of younger men, and their arrival has heralded a more aggressive gang culture.

In Hawke’s Bay, gang tensions have flared as membership has soared. In December, there were two separate drive-by shootings within days, with one victim turning up bleeding from a gun wound at a local medical centre(external link).

In response, police raided properties across the region, arresting seven people and seizing a haul of drugs and firearms(external link).

The region encountered street warfare in Taradale(external link) last year, shots were fired at a Napier medical centre and at Wairoa Police Station, as well as a policeman’s house(external link), all crimes linked to a rise in gang activity.

Mongrel Mob member Harry Tam said the evolution of gangs had been shaped by wider socio-economic pressures, particularly the growth of casual work, and lower wages and longer hours that made work less attractive to young people.

“There is little incentive for people to take up unskilled labour and their opportunities to take up higher education or training is limited because they are unlikely to get financial support from their large impoverished whānau, thus their ‘legitimate channels to success’ is limited,” he said in an interview.

Recent recruitment of younger members usually involved those who had been subjected to state care, he added.

“If we’re talking about more recent times, urban drift certainly had a big impact in terms of families and income and the last 30 years you've seen the globalisation of gangs,” he said. “What I saw in New Zealand is gangs switched from a more passive recruitment to a more active recruitment.”

Tam described the younger gang members as those who were “disconnected from modern society”, and brought up where gang life and its existence was normalised.

“Their parents and grandparents have never worked, they've been on the benefit because they're either unskilled or low-skilled. The economics doesn't make it worth their time,” he said.

Image by DOMINICO ZAPATA/STUFF
Members of Black Power and the Mongrel Mob stand side-by-side in a show of unity.

The growing number of people being remanded in prison, projected to outnumber people serving time by 2029(external link), created overcrowding, which in turn fuelled prison violence, Tam said.

“Prisons are a fertile recruitment ground for gangs and the increase in prison violence is a factor for people to join gangs as a means of protection.”

Like Tam, Black Power life member Denis O'Reilly said there needed to be more Government funding to reduce tensions among rival gangs, as well as to help members get jobs.

“A few years ago, we got 30 Black Power fathers and sons and 30 Mongrel Mob fathers and sons together for three days. Out of that we had an agreement of the way we would behave.”

But O'Reilly said events like those took effort and dedicated resources. “The Government needs to decide to invest in these events or in prison. Somehow we’ve got to come back to a more optimal balance and I don’t think we’re doing that at the moment.”

Every Friday during the Covid-19 lockdown, O'Reilly said police deputy commissioner Wally Haumaha​ would convene a teleconference of gang leaders.

“We figured out during that, if there was trouble occurring, we would be able to intervene, communities who needed food got fed, we were able to intervene in domestic violence and all sorts of stuff,” he said.

But not all relationships with police were positive and O’Reilly said people were still arrested simply for wearing gang colours or “looking like they were in a gang”.

Hawke’s Bay Detective Senior Sergeant David De Lange said gangs had always held an attraction for younger people.

“Police have a strong focus on prevention through partnerships, and much of what we do aims to achieve better outcomes for people in our community. This includes disrupting gangs, lessening their influence and stopping harm,” De Lange said.

Jarrod Gilbert,​ a Canterbury University expert on gangs, said there were a number of reasons why young people joined gangs, but the main factors were they wanted a sense of family or “brotherhood”.

“Either their biological family are either gang-related or they have been so dysfunctional that they’ve got to find what most people are lucky enough to enjoy at home – but they have to go out and search for it,” Gilbert said. “They’ve been kicked about from pillar to post, they've been neglected, and mistreated.”

Another reason for joining was a “sense of status,” he said.

“It gives you a sense of mana. When you put that patch on you can puff your chest out, your shoulders go back and you become something.”

Tam agreed, saying that for some young people the commercialisation of gangster rap had glamourised gang life.

“These young people are often raised without the presence of their fathers or other positive male role models. So their view of gangs are predominantly shaped by the mass media, marketing and exaggerated glory by their peers,” he said.

Plus, Gilbert said, leaving gangs could be difficult, especially because of the physical marks they made -- such as facial tattoos. Although getting a tattoo wasn’t compulsory, there was a “pressure” for young people to get one, he said.

“Young people, no matter what their background also tend to not think too far ahead and can often make some really regretful decisions,” Gilbert said. “It doesn’t just mark you for the gangs of today, it clearly marks you for the rest of your days – it acts as a powerful bond to keep them in the gang.”

‘Anyone can get a patch’

One younger gang member, Pacer Mccauley​ said that gangs, and what that meant, was misunderstood by the public.

The Waikato Mongrel Mob​ member, who was patched two years ago, described his upbringing as “privileged”, but felt he’d found a family within the gang and received his patch 2½ years ago.

Image SUPPLIED by Pacer Mccauley
Pacer Mccauley has been a patched member of the Mongrel Mob for two years.

“I felt outcast from my family. They felt like a different gang to me and I didn't feel welcome within my family.”

Mccauley said he had no friends or family members who were associated with the gangs and became involved while doing security work. “I was able to link up with one of my good mates who I didn’t even realise was part of the mob, and he pointed me in the direction.”

The main reason he joined the Mongrel Mob was to prove that the members “were not bad people”, he said, denying that gang prospects needed to prove themselves by committing violent acts.

“Certain individuals are bad, but if you came across me on the street you wouldn't even think I was a mobster. I've played golf my whole life.”

VIDEO AND MORE IMAGES AVAIALBLE(external link)

Gilbertson, G M 2021, 'New Zealand gangs on the rise: Why young Kiwis are getting patched', Stuff,  2 January, accessed January 22 2021 from stuff.co.nz.

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