You may be hard, but you'll never be Maori hard.
Photos by Brett Cammell
Yeah, yeah, New Zealand is a stunning country and the vast majority of Kiwis are intensely proud of their heritage and customs. And ok, they’ve given us Kate Sylvester and Karen Walker, two of the most gracefully talented fashion designers we’ve seen, plus hip hop artists like King Kapisi and the Lost Tribe. But don’t forget: New Zealand is also home to some of the hardest, most reckless gangs in the entire world, ever.
This goes way back. Even in the early 1800’s, the Maoris had major issues. They warred constantly and practised cannibalism. Members of the various tribes distinguished themselves by covering their entire faces with elaborate decorative tattoos (called ta moko). In fact, when the first discoverers landed in New Zealand, they were so impressed with ta moko that they took to beheading tribal chiefs—who obviously had the baddest designs—and selling them to souvenir collectors in London. When the Maoris found out that sailors would pay good money or exchange guns for a little thing like a tattooed head, they began inking the faces of slaves and beheading them. Kind of an early antecedent to counterfeit Bart Simpson t-shirts. In 1831, head importing and exporting was outlawed in New Zealand and Australia, but hey, by this stage the fear of decapitation ensured that the popularity of the moko was at an all time low anyway.
Fast track a century or so and evidence of these conflicts still exists. In 1961, Auckland became the second place in the world (after California) that the Hells Angels established themselves. They are now one of the smaller of the 50 major gangs which operate in New Zealand. The Mongrel Mob, clocking in at around 2,000 members, and Black Power, currently 1,000 strong, are the largest. Out of New Zealand’s 4,000,000 people, it’s estimated that around 18,000 are part of the growing gang network.
Filmmaker Brett Cammell recently completed a rare documentary on the Mongrel Mob and said it was an “attempt to get an insight into the kind of people they are, the way they think and their aspirations.” The upwardly mobile Mob agreed to the film in a bid “to improve their public image”. Not long afterwards, most of the people he had spoken to were back in jail. Cammell wasn’t too surprised. “Occasionally you do get a ray of sunshine, a gang member that makes good, but not terribly often”.
One such sunbeam we came across was Pauly Fuemana, one of the founding members of OMC (Otara Millionaires Club). Pauly, along with his brother Phill and friend Ermehn escaped their gang roots to focus on music. Pauly struck gold when he released the quirky 90s hit ‘How Bizarre’. Remember that one? The song went double platinum in New Zealand and Australia and sold over 100,000 copies. Internationally it went to number one in eight countries and was the most played song on United States radio stations during 1997. Pauly still lives off the royalties.
In order to get into a gang, prospects must prove themselves via an initiation process. According to Cammell, this “generally involves either taking the rap for one of the senior gang members or committing a crime themselves”. To earn respect, new members are going to have to do some time. “Prisons are a training ground for young members. They all end up in there together and learn their trade,” says Cammell. Despite the prospect of jail, recruitment remains high.
It was during the 80s that gangs really grew in size and power. Huge dudes wore black leather and sported patches on their backs with the gang name and insignia, gallivanting around committing murder and rape while the police meekly said, “Uh… guys? Come on, guys.”
Police enforcement didn’t get serious until the mid 80s, when the government introduced sponsored work programs, paying gang members large amounts of money to do a range of community services (and giving them vehicles to travel around in). This didn’t quite go according to plan. In many cases, gangs outsourced the work and used the cars and newfound wealth to grow their network. At the same time, speed was becoming more widely used by the general population. By the mid-1990s, gangs had established themselves as the main source of the drug throughout the entire country.
It only takes about 12 hours to make a $10,000 batch of speed, and as the gangs got richer they got wiser. It didn’t make sense to draw unnecessary attention when business was going so well. Factions started working together—black studded leather was traded for black suits and patches were removed. The gangs established their own system of policing whereby they would impose fines on anyone who attracted attention to their intricate set-up. Cammell recalls: “incidents of gang rape, murder and robberies decreased while ‘behind the scenes’ drug crimes went up.” And the suits? Not entirely effective camouflage. “You can’t easily disappear when you have Mutherfucker tattooed across your forehead or Mighty Mongrel Mob across your cheek”, says Cammell.
Like most drug dealers (not the smartest gene pool), gang members got high on their own supply. That’s why they got careless. In the late 90s, police were uncovering speed labs at the rate of just a few a year. In 2002, 147 illegal labs were discovered and shut down. During one police inquiry, 30 gang members were arrested on charges ranging from possession of illegal firearms to drug trafficking. Within hours of receiving bail, some of these astute businessmen were apprehended again for dealing.
Today, gang activity is at an all time high. The Black Power, Mongrel Mob, Highway 61, Outlaw’s, Bandidos, Road Knights, Magogs, Titans, Greasy Dogs, Headhunters, King Cobras plus about 40 more equally creatively named gangs, begrudgingly work together to move high quantities of methamphetamines to eager clients. Gang members generally pass on systems and beliefs to their children and most have 2nd and 3rd generation members.
One thing the Maori gangs can’t get the hang of is dealing ecstasy, which is imported and often requires trips overseas for sourcing. The prevalence of criminal records amongst gang members makes it impossible for them to acquire a visa or passport and so this is left up to the cleanskins—white middle class entrepreneurs. Who knows what the situation now would be if ecstasy was the peddler’s drug of choice. Groups of massive loved-up Black Power dudes getting all gushy about how much they like the Mongrel Mob boys just doesn’t seem a likely scenario. In fact, with over 200 years worth of grievances to consider, I would say that this is the least likely scenario yet.