New Zealand's Violent Gangs Try to Clean Up Their Act

New Zealand’s spectacular landscape, the setting for the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, attracts thousands of overseas tourists each year. Yet, few of those visitors realize that despite the beautiful mountains, volcanoes, and fiords, the country has a darker side: an entrenched gang culture.

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The first Hells Angels chapter outside California was set up in Auckland in 1961, and nowadays New Zealand is home to dozens of gangs. Violent confrontations between groups such as the feared Mongrel Mob and Black Power are common, with bystanders at risk of being caught in the crossfire.

But some New Zealand gangs are now trying to re-brand themselves.

Some leaders have publicly rejected violence and urged their members to embrace mainstream values such as schooling. The president of the Mongrel Mob chapter in Hastings, Rex Timu, says he rejects teenage would-be recruits, telling them to “go away and get an education.”

Gangs are attractive to young people who are seeking a sense of family, status, and protection, says sociologist Jarrod Gilbert. A gang can provide a career through selling drugs. Some New Zealand gangs are dominated by indigenous Maori, one of the country’s most disadvantaged populations. The Maori people suffer high levels of poverty, unemployment, and family violence.

Sully Paea, a veteran youth worker in Auckland, agrees that many gang members come from difficult social backgrounds. “They’re angry kids who have been abused,” Mr. Paea says. “Often they’ve grown up without a dad.”

Paea tries to offer teenagers an alternative to gang life, running boxing and hip-hop dance classes for troubled youth. “We try to get them engaged by doing fun stuff,” he says.

Both the Mongrel Mob and Black Power – the latter is unrelated to the US movement – were formed in the wake of post-war Maori migration to the cities. However, gangs have a strong presence in rural areas as well. A few months ago, Mongrel Mobsters fired a shotgun during a weekend rugby match in the small country town of Wairoa, reportedly because Black Power members were in the crowd.

Authorities have tried to curb gang activity over the years, but with little success. A recent attempt by one local council to ban the gangs’ motorcycle-style “patches” – emblems worn on clothing and flaunted in tattoos – was deemed illegal by the High Court of New Zealand.

Jason Hewett, a senior police officer, believes government bans are pointless. He led a crackdown on youth gangs in Auckland in 2066. “Gangs have always existed and you can’t legislate them away,” he says. “We banned murder centuries ago, but it’s still commonplace.”

In some parts of the country there are families made up of three generations of gang members. It is the original members – mellowed by age, having children, or serving jail terms – who are leading the push for reform.

Government agencies are working with gang leaders to combat social problems believed to be at the root of gang involvement. Mane Adams, the president of Black Power in Napier, near Hastings, receives government funding for a program to stop the manufacture, distribution, and use of methamphetamine, or “crystal meth,” a popular drug in New Zealand. “I don’t see myself as a gang leader, rather as a role model or mentor,” Mr. Adams says.

But the continuing violence – including the shooting of a Black Power member a few months ago in the university town of Dunedin – suggests that the gangs’ reformist message is not getting through. Greg O’Connor, president of the New Zealand Police Association, is cynical about the gangs’ new approach. Mr. O’Connor calls it “pure PR," noting that those advocating change have not renounced their gang membership. “If they’ve still got a patch on their back, they’re bound to the ethos of the gang,” he says.

“There’s an acknowledgement that things have to change,” says Edge Te Whaiti, national coordinator of the Mongrel Mob’s national Notorious chapter, which has a particularly brutal reputation. “We all want the best for our kids.”