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The rise of gangs in Dunedin and Otago has caught the eye of the police, who estimate more than 100 patched members and prospects are spread across several gangs.
In Oamaru, a gang originating in South Auckland in the early 1970s is attempting to gain a foothold in the town.
It is believed several patched members of the Barbarian Stormtrooper Aotearoa gang have relocated to Oamaru from Christchurch in an effort to establish a presence south of the Waitaki River.
As unwelcome as this rise in gang members is in the South, there is something of an inevitability about the situation. The search for companionship, family and friendship often draws the troubled young person into what they perceive as a better and more exciting way of life. Being a gangster has an appeal for some.
Earlier this year, it was estimated New Zealand had more gang members than soldiers. About 6000 members or prospects were lining up to join one of 25 listed groups.
The Hell’s Angels, Head Hunters, Nomads and Killer Beez all have a presence in New Zealand. Black Power and the Mongrel Mob have ruled the roost for nearly 50 years.
In the 1990s, there were frequent clashes between Black Power and Mongrel Mob members in Dunedin — either outside the Dunedin Court building or in the Octagon. The clashes were, although short-lived, often violent and meant changes were made to court appearance days. The Alexandra Blossom Festival was also another battle ground for gangs.
The undercurrent of gangs still remains in the city, although it is not as prevalent as it once was.
The Australian Government has been deporting back to New Zealand known and convicted criminals, people often without any support in their country of birth.
Among those arrivals have been gang members and their first instinct is often to join up with people of the same ilk.
The new arrivals have no jobs, hardly any money and no prospects of returning to family life. Police say three-quarters of the country’s gang members are Maori, despite Maori making up only 15% of the population.
Black Power leaders are now actively encouraging new members to study or take full-time jobs. Leaders are now prohibiting gang rapes and campaigning against methamphetamine use. Social members of the gangs say they genuinely want a better future for their children.
There is still a stigma associated with even the most apparently well-meaning of social gang members. The uniforms, the patches, the vehicles or motorbikes are designed to show unity and support.
Despite the best efforts of police and gang leaders, there will always be some of the more violent gangs breaking away and seeking turf for their own nefarious activities.
The South should be worried about the rise of gangs, particularly the more destructive ones made up of younger members who show less empathy towards their victims.
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.
The rise in New Zealand’s prison population has provided a recruiting ground for gangs. Nearly all inmates are said to turn to gangs for protection in prison and some gang leaders insist on face tattoos for prison recruits to ensure loyalty on release.
Police Minister Stuart Nash says it is unrealistic to try to eliminate gangs but he wants full measures taken to stop gang leaders involved in the drug trade.
It is likely beyond the influence of local authorities and the public to stop the spread of gangs within their communities.
Jobs are available for those who want them, particularly in construction and building. Being part of a workforce may be the incentive needed for gang members turning towards being a productive part of the community.