For many in the international community, New Zealand has become a shining example of modern democracy – a leader in many contemporary issues from terrorism response, to indigenous treaties and banning conversion therapy. But one problem the country has not yet managed to overcome, is gang violence.
New Zealand has seen a recent explosion in gang violence, with gang membership growing at an exponential rate over the past decade. But unfortunately, government policies have been insufficient to manage the issue thus far.
In the late 1950s, Auckland became the stomping ground of about 41 ‘milkbar cowboy’ gangs, and Wellington of 17 such groups. By the early 60s, more established gangs like the Mongrel Mob and the New Zealand branch of the Hells Angels appeared.
Gang membership sat at about 2,300 in 1980, and it took a long 35 years for this to increase to 4,000 in 2014. But it only took 7 years for those numbers to double to over 8,000 in 2021.
Today, gang members are overrepresented in crime statistics, with gang-affiliated prisoners making up 35% of the prison population. And new explosions of gang violence have been detrimental to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s reputation at home.
In just three weeks spanning the end of May and beginning of June this year, Auckland saw no less than 23 drive-by shootings. The city has been plagued in 2022 by a tit-for-tat war between the Killer Beez and Tribesmen gangs.
Luckily, no one was injured in the conflict, and a truce was reached by the two sides on June 15th. But Kiwi police were not involved in the ceasefire negotiations, paralleling a resistance on the part of the government to discuss gang policy directly with gangs.
Mongrel Mob life member, Harry Tam, says gang violence in New Zealand has only declined when officials have pursued input from gangs themselves. He pointed to a need to address the socioeconomic roots of gang membership in government policy.
“We have seen three generations of disaffected youth growing up in an almost total void of pro-social input,” said Tam, “so why are we surprised to see unprecedented growth in gang membership?”
New Zealand government policy around gangs has been broad but shallow, ranging from recovery of criminal proceeds to the prohibition of gang patches in public spaces. The recent increase in violent incidents has prompted the Opposition to seek harsher legislation.
The National Party proposed a policy that would ban individuals from posting gang insignia on social media, though experts say such a law would be difficult to enforce. Party spokesperson Mark Mitchell has also said the Opposition was considering strict Australian anti-bikie laws. Aussie jurisdictions, including WA and Queensland, currently enforce narrow anti-consorting laws that prevent criminals from gathering together or even texting each other.
Jacinda Ardern has not voiced support for such legislation, saying “some of these shootings don’t require large gatherings to be a problem.” Instead, her government is pushing for stronger firearm regulation as a solution to gang violence. The Ardern administration’s 2022 budget included $94 million set aside for combating gangs and organised crime.
One thing remains clear – the landscape of organised crime continues to change, transcending national and technological borders, and enabling greater access to drugs and firearms. Governments should respond by revamping their gang policies to address deep-seated roots of criminal community, and evolving outcomes.
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