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).
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.