Mongrel Mobs? The Gang Crackdown in Aotearoa

The new National government’s law and order push will destroy gangs’ positive role as family and cultural institutions.

In July 2023 New Zealand’s media reported hundreds of gang members from the notorious Mongrel Mob descending on the small town of Ōpōtiki. Footage from the day reveals leather-jacketed gangsters resplendent in affiliate patches, some with facial tattoos, on motorcycles roaring down the main strip. The Mongrel Mob Barbarians had gathered for a tangi (funeral) of a fallen comrade; that his death had occurred during a stoush with staunch rivals Black Power that included homes torched and shots fired drew widespread media and political attention.

Then Opposition leader and now Prime Minister—Chris Luxon of the conservative National Party—took the opportunity to bolster his ‘tough on gangs’ stance, a position that contributed to his election win the following October. In response to the tangi, his party released a media statement saying the Mongrel Mob had ‘effectively take[n] control of the town’, warning of the ‘grave threat to New Zealand society’ such gangs are said to pose.

Taking aim at his election opponents, he claimed that Labour’s ‘inaction’ on gangs during their incumbency since 2017 had led to a 66 per cent rise in gang membership, stating, ‘alarmingly, gangs are now recruiting around twice as fast as the police’. At odds with Luxon’s moral panic, however, Ōpōtiki mayor David Moore took a more measured approach. ‘It’s become a political football’, he said. ‘I’ve got an eighty-year-old mother who drives around town like nothing has happened; if you walk into any shop they might say it’s been a bit noisy, but that’s about all’.

New Zealand’s gangs have long been fodder for the media and politicians, a convenient embodiment of an ‘other’ on which to blame society’s ills. Yet while criminal activities are carried out by elements in some of New Zealand’s myriad gangs—including drive-by shootings and a lucrative methamphetamine trade—the Ōpōtiki mayor’s relaxed comment reflects a cultural landscape in which gangs are just as much part of New Zealand’s social fabric as the All Blacks.

In the post-Second World War period, New Zealand’s gangs became embedded in predominantly Māori and Pacific Islander communities. They are unique in their multigenerational and familial membership: some of the oldest gangs—such as the Mongrel Mob—can count five generations of membership in some whānau (families). Also unique to New Zealand’s gangs has been the state’s role in the gangs’ early emergence. Punitive child welfare policies directed towards predominantly Māori communities saw many young boys interned in abusive institutions, emerging in their late teens in protective gang clusters inspired by 1950s and 60s American road movies, often minus the motorcycles. The predominance of Māori and Pacific Islander members in gangs, coupled with assimilationist policies, has meant that New Zealand’s gangs have acted as cultural incubators and provided a semblance of whānau in response to such punitive child welfare policies.

Of course, not all Māori and Pacific Islander whānau are allied to gangs, and gang composition also reflects New Zealand’s multicultural demographics, including a cohort of disaffected Pākehā (Europeans). According to a July 2022 parliamentary report, 77 per cent of gang members are Māori, with police reporting in April 2023 a 10 per cent increase in gang membership in under a year, bringing the total number of members to 8875 across thirty-three gangs, as listed in the National Gang List.

Without a nuanced understanding of the history of gang formation and the social and cultural context of gang membership, however, Luxon’s ‘tough on gangs’ rhetoric will do little to address the criminal element that does exist, and may exacerbate the very ‘problem’ of increased gang membership that he hopes to resolve.

Criminals or communities?

In the media release published after the Ōpōtiki tangi, Luxon launched the National Party’s policies for combating what he referred to as the ‘grave threat’ of gangs: the banning of gang insignia, or ‘patches’, in public; police powers to prevent gangs from gathering and communicating; tougher sentences for gang affiliation; and the creation of ‘young offender military academies’.

Criminologist Juan Tauri told this author that the familial nature of gang membership distinguishes New Zealand’s gangs from others around the world and makes preventing gang members from gathering and communicating impossible. ‘One of the key differences [in New Zealand] is the whānau-based nature of the ethnic gangs … A lot of Mongrel Mob chapters are whānau oriented’. He said that in some families this can include up to five generations of gang membership, of the same and other gangs.

Tauri also disputed the government’s statistics on gang members, saying official numbers are inflated because of the inclusion of gang ‘associates’ and that gang members are never removed from the list even if they stop being active in a gang. He even said, ‘I was on the list of associates because I have family in the Mongrel Mob and in Black Power and I had done policy work with them’.

The whānau-based nature of gang membership means that Luxon’s tough on gangs policy can be interpreted as ‘tough on whānau, a view held by Bonnie Maihi, a PhD student and daughter of a former Black Power rangatira (leader). ‘Tough on crime is tough on families … If you talk about tough on crime, that’s what you are really talking about’. She said that the multigenerational gang experience forms a deep, shared history for some Māori and Pacific Islander families: ‘You don’t want to hear the government say gangs won’t exist anymore. It’s like saying our history and our family won’t exist anymore … That’s part of our whakapapa [genealogy] now. That’s part of who we are. You can’t take that away’. Maihi says that the political rhetoric about gang membership is ‘becoming more linked to being Māori’.

This association of gang membership and Māori ethnicity cements the image of the Māori ‘gangster’ and dangerous colonial ‘other’, only confirming one of the reasons for gangs existing in the first place: Māori peoples’ disconnection from mainstream society, which is intricately related to New Zealand’s history of abusive state-run borstals—largely Māori boys’ homes—which historically fed the early formation of the gangs.

Made by the state

Emerging out of postwar state- and church-run institutions, early gangs such as the Mongrel Mob, the Stormtroopers, King Cobras and Black Power were a social and cultural response to shocking physical, sexual and cultural abuse perpetrated upon predominantly Māori and Pacific Islander children.

After the Second World War, government intervention in Māori communities notably escalated as high urban migration from rural regions saw increased contact with police and child welfare. Thus from the 1940s to the early 1970s, Māori children were about three times as likely as Pākehā children to appear before the courts for offences such as ‘neglect’ or being ‘not under proper control’.i The state’s solution was to send these ‘delinquent’ children to boys’ homes. An estimated 655,000 children were placed in state- or church-run institutions, with more than a third suffering abuse. Māori children are estimated to have been taken into state care at ten times the rate of non-Māori during this period, so that by the late 1970s, approximately one in every fourteen Māori boys and one in every fifty Māori girls was living in a state institution. Pacific Islander children were also overrepresented after migration from Polynesia began in the early 1970s.

It is from these institutions that the early gangs such as the Mongrel Mob emerged, with 80 to 90 per cent of early gang members said to have been in state care. ‘By the early to mid 1960s [Māori] were being heavily criminalised’, confirmed Juan Tauri. ‘It is really through the borstal system that we see the antecedents of the Mongrel Mob and Black Power. The vast majority of those initial members had all gone through the borstal system, and from there to prison’. The abuse inflicted by the state created the conditions for the violence and anti-social behaviour for which many of the gangs would become notorious.

In 2018 Jacinda Ardern’s government established a Royal Commission into institutional abuse. In stark contrast to Luxon’s policy, the Royal Commission sought to engage directly with gang rangatira to better understand the historical underpinnings of gang membership. It was a rare occasion where gang rangatira would meet government representatives to kōrero (talk) as equal participants, not as criminals and outsiders.

The Royal Commission

Fa’afete’ ‘Fete’ Taito is one of those men who journeyed along the pipeline from boys’ home to gang membership. The son of Samoan migrants, Taito grew up in a violent home from which he would run away regularly, until he was interned in Ōwairaka Boys’ Home in Auckland. Here the violence and other forms of abuse would escalate, including forced boxing matches and sexual advances from housemasters. Taito felt that the state took away his Samoan identity, identified as he was simply as a ‘New Zealander’. ‘With a stroke of a pen they took away my identity right there’, he told this author.

The experience of the boys’ home had a profound impact. Leaving it at eighteen, he joined the King Cobras, where he found belonging and re-discovered his culture: ‘joining a gang wasn’t a negative to me at all … The majority of them were Pacific Islanders. And that was me too. The positive about being there is you have a sense of belonging. The King Cobras gave that to me because there were lots of Samoans there’. But along with the positive sense of belonging came a dark side too: violence and crime, which resulted in ten years of methamphetamine addiction and eight years of prison.

No longer a gang member, Taito now works as a liaison between the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care and gang rangatira documenting the abuses suffered by gang members.

The Royal Commission hui (meeting) held in February 2023 was instigated by Mongrel Mob leader Sonny Fatupaito, a controversial figure in New Zealand’s gang landscape. The 67-year-old served six years in prison for manslaughter and recently saw his second-in-command locked up for methamphetamine trafficking. Yet his chapter of the Mongrel Mob—Mongrel Mob Kingdom—also runs trauma therapy sessions in Māori maraes (meeting places) and stood guard in front of a local mosque after the Christchurch terrorist attack. It also spearheaded a vaccination program during the COVID pandemic, approved by former Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

‘I’m not here to entertain or to say that “we’re different” or “we are trying to be good people”’, he told this author.

My whole focus is to heal these men to make sure they are as best they can be and to push them back to their maraes [traditional meeting places] because state care—they took all that away. They were dealt with morals and principles that weren’t theirs. So you’ve got to decolonise the mindset.

Contrary to Luxon’s approach of excluding and isolating gangs—a failed approach of successive governments—Fatupaito instead advocates increased engagement, saying the Royal Commission hui should be ‘just the beginning’. For him, ‘To have something you’ve never had before, sometimes you’ve got to do something you’ve never done before’.

Cultural incubators

Nayda Te Rangi knows what it’s like on the receiving end of a traumatised gang member. She joined the gang scene in Wellington in the 1970s and recalls experiences of acute violence against women and instances of sexual assault. ‘You always had your alarm on, if you thought something was going to happen, like rape or blocking [gang rape ] … From the time that gangs were created, women were seen as a hunk of meat’.

Te Rangi would eventually form Aroha Trust, a women’s group assisting underprivileged women, predominantly from gangs, and confronting gang rangatira about their behaviour towards women. While not excusing the behaviour of the older generation of gang members, Te Rangi understands the abuse those same men had suffered as children in the institutions: ‘They’ve been raped as well. And not just once or twice, but all the time they were in [state] care … What that would do to a person. These are broken men’.

Te Rangi says the government needs to understand not only the traumatic history of gang members but also the role gangs have played as resistors against assimilation. ‘A lot of those who went through state care don’t have a connection to their whānau [family], their hapu [clan] or their iwi [tribe]’, she said. ‘They see their kaupapa whānau [extended family in a gang] in a positive light because that’s all they know’. Like Juan Tauri’s, Te Rangi’s family was part of the postwar urban migration of Māori, and along with increased contact with the authorities, assimilation had an impact on her engagement with Te Reo (Māori language) and tikanga (culture). ‘I would hear my parents speaking Māori to each other but we were never taught’, she said:

This was the Pākehā world [and speaking Māori] wouldn’t get you anywhere. We all grew up hearing that … I was really surprised when I found out from long-time friends that they were fluent Māori language speakers. But they just wouldn’t kōrero Te Reo Māori because you don’t want people to think you’re a dumb-dumb black Māori from the country, so you didn’t.

Like Taito, she says that the gangs provided an opportunity to reconnect with her culture that the mainstream didn’t at the time, with lasting positive effects:

If you go to a tangi, of say a Mongrel Mob member, and you’ve got lots of other gangs there—whether they are Pasifika or Māori—and the Pasifika one will get up and speak their language, which is really respectful, and is wonderful to hear and see … There’s no longer that shame of being Māori or Pasifika. We are not embarrassed to speak Te Reo like how we used to be. When you speak Te Reo Māori it changes you. This is what tikanga [Māori culture] does—it gives everybody their own respect and mana [spirit].

* * *

The journey from state care to gang membership continues to be an oft-travelled route for many Māori and Pasifika today. While making up only 15 per cent of the country’s population, Māori make up 52 per cent of the prison population, continue to be overrepresented in child welfare and are more likely to live beneath the poverty line. Pacific Islanders—who began migrating in the 1970’s from countries such as Samoa, Tonga and the Cook Islands—are also overrepresented in the same statistics.

While the current child welfare agency Oranga Tamariki has recently been investigated for historical abuse, and while young people are likely not joining gangs in the numbers Luxon suggests, youth crime remains a persistent issue. Yet Luxon’s ‘solution’—forcing young people, who will largely be Māori and Pasifika, into ‘military-style academies’ will not be the answer. The proposal has already been met with disgust by the men who were previously forced into similar regimes in the borstals and who were subsequently abused, as they testified to the Royal Commission. The tough on gangs approach demonstrates a short-sightedness that will likely exacerbate the gang’s place as society’s ‘other’ and serve to perpetuate anti-social behaviour.

The alternative is for the government to take responsibility for the state’s role in gang formation. Providing trauma-informed justice approaches and reforming current child welfare practices would alleviate the historical burden of state abuse and help close the pipeline of state care to prison and gang membership. Gangs should be engaged as legitimate members of the community—as in the case of the Royal Commission—and the mana that gang rangatira hold in their communities acknowledged. This is the starting point for dissuading disaffected young people from entering the criminal world, whether in gangs or not.

One example of supporting the existing gang leadership in affiliated communities has been the highly successful Mongrel Mob-run methamphetamine addiction program Kahukura, which has seen a third of participants remain drug-free since completing the eight-week marae-based program. Harry Tam, an affiliate of the Notorious Chapter of the Mongrel Mob and son of Chinese migrants, has worked with what he calls ‘hard to reach’ communities for decades and was instrumental in establishing Kahukura. He believes it is vital for government to understand that gangs are communities, and not always criminal, and for the gang community to itself be ready to change. ‘You can’t say: “that’s what the policy should be”. What we should say is: “policy should be based on supporting communities that are ready”’.

By contrast, Luxon’s policy is counterproductive. It is impossible to police and creates the perception that it is an attack on Māori and Pacific Islander communities. It will only exacerbate the ‘them and us’ sentiment seemingly on the increase in contemporary New Zealand. Luxon is unlikely to reverse his position, to which Juan Tauri says, ‘it’s just a “vote winner”’, and that Luxon must know ‘deep down that is not going to work’. For him, ‘the criminalisation of gangs stifles any meaningful response [from government]…[For policy to] work, it has to be a social development approach’.

Or, as Mongrel Mob Kingdom rangatira Sonny Fatupaito told this author: ‘To have something you’ve never had before, sometimes you’ve got to do something you’ve never done before’.

i Bronwyn Dalley, ‘Moving Out of the Realm of Myth’, New Zealand Journal of History, 32(2), 1998, pp 189–207.

About the author

Alister McKeich (Ali MC)

Alister McKeich aka Ali MC is an international academic, writer and photographer. His work focuses on human rights, criminology and the ongoing impacts of colonisatio

More articles by Alister McKeich (Ali MC)

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