It looked like a scene from a Hollywood heist movie. Three expensive, late-model cars (stolen, of course) race through a deserted shopping mall in the early hours of the morning. CCTV footage shows the cars followed close behind by a swarm of teenagers on foot, their faces concealed by hooded jackets – the clothing of choice for New Zealand street gangs.
Their objective is an electronics store, where one of the cars smashes through the front doors. The robbers load their bags with cellphones, tablets and laptops and within minutes have fled with their booty, leaving behind a shaken cleaning lady who had to leap out of the cars’ path.
The raid was planned and executed so slickly as to be almost worthy of admiration. It happened last month at Ormiston, in the south-eastern suburbs of Auckland, in a stylish mall that has been hit by four ram raids in the year since it opened.
Since then there have been others, sometimes several in a single night. The businesses targetted range from high-end fashion shops to liquor outlets and humble convenience stores (‘dairies’, in New Zealand parlance) in the suburbs. In one raid, police apprehended an 11-year-old driver.
The Ormiston raid, whose perpetrators were so cocky they posted their own video online, was emblematic of a crime wave sweeping New Zealand. Shootings and stabbings are also commonplace as gangs fight for dominance of the lucrative methamphetamine trade.
Even in isolation, this epidemic of criminal activity would be disturbing. But when considered in conjunction with other depressing trends – an overwhelmed health system, failing infrastructure, an intractable housing crisis and rampant inflation, to name just a few – it creates a picture of a society teetering on the brink of dysfunction.
The technical term for what ails New Zealand is that the government’s wheels are falling off. Labour’s grand ideological ambitions consistently outstrip its ability to deliver. Small wonder that opinion polls show a pronounced swing in favour of an uninspiring National party opposition.
Belatedly waking up to the realisation that public alarm was ramping up over crime, Jacinda Ardern’s government last week did what Labour governments typically do when confronted with a problem: it threw money at it – $550 million, to be precise – with a package of measures that looked rushed and half-baked.
Gun crime is rampant. A much-vaunted crackdown on firearms following the Christchurch mosque massacres in 2019 has been exposed for what it was – a piece of political theatre aimed at giving the impression of decisive action.
While law-abiding gun owners obediently queued to surrender their weapons, illegal firearms proliferated. Last year set a record for gun violence.
One of the most brazen shootings, attributed by the police to a feud between the Mongols and Head Hunters gangs, happened in the five-star Sofitel Hotel on Auckland’s waterfront. More recently, three men were shot in downtown Wellington in an apparent tit-for-tat feud between the Mongrel Mob (not to be confused with the Mongols) and the King Cobras over a stolen motorbike.
It’s not only gang members who are being shot. Last November, three police officers were wounded in a shootout near Auckland that ended with the death of the gunman.
Parts of Wellington, which not long ago rejoiced in Lonely Planet’s tag ‘the world’s coolest little capital’, are virtually no-go zones after dark, and Auckland’s no better. In the 12 months to March, police recorded 1,971 assaults, 148 aggravated robberies and 1,666 thefts from stores in downtown Auckland. Sunny Kaushal, spokesman for a group of beleaguered small business owners, described the city centre as a crime hub where criminals had no fear of the police.
Then there are the motorbike gangs. In one particularly shocking incident, members of the Tribesmen gang attacked and critically injured a motorist after he accidentally clipped one of their bikes and made the mistake of stopping to see if the rider was alright. In scenes reminiscent of a Mad Max movie, an estimated eighty Tribesmen had been terrorising drivers by riding three and four abreast, cutting across lanes, blocking the highway and trying to force drivers off the road.
Such displays of intimidation by bikie convoys are relatively common. In a gang funeral procession near Wellington, members of the Mongrel Mob took up all three lanes of a freeway and provocatively took a circuitous route through the suburbs, causing maximum disruption. It was not so much a display of grief as a triumphal show of strength.
In the face of such encouragement, it’s hardly surprising that New Zealand gang numbers have spiralled. Police data shows that gang membership doubled between 2016 and 2021, from 4,400 to more than 8,000. Eighteen recognised gangs were listed in Auckland alone.
What’s caused the surge in crime? A key factor is ‘501’ deportees: career criminals born in New Zealand who in many cases spent virtually their entire lives in Australia but have now been dumped back in the country of their birth. They have not only boosted the ranks of New Zealand gangs but upped the ante in terms of violence and the scale of criminal activity. Thanks, Australia.
A proliferation of government-provided emergency housing is another contributor. Stories abound of gang members in emergency accommodation terrorising fellow residents and rendering neighbourhoods unsafe, even in the heart of Wellington. The lakeside city of Rotorua, previously a jewel in New Zealand’s tourism crown, has been described as a dumping ground for social welfare beneficiaries and a ‘slum’ where violence is rife.
Frontline police do what they can but often seem overwhelmed and, at worst, impotent. They are not helped by a police commissioner, Andrew Coster, whose defining characteristic – perhaps modelled on Ardern – is his apparent eagerness to appear empathetic. Coster’s boss, Police Minister Poto Williams, is hopelessly out of her depth and the public knows it. In a recent poll, even Labour voters said she was soft on crime.
That phrase ‘soft on crime’ took on a new meaning last year when it was revealed the government had given $2.75 million to a methamphetamine rehabilitation programme. What, you might ask, could possibly be wrong with that? Only that the rehab scheme is run by the Mongrel Mob – one of New Zealand’s biggest and most violent gangs, and itself heavily implicated in the illegal drug trade.
The government’s explanation was that gangs were best placed to deal with drug addiction, but to an increasingly anxious and highly sceptical public it was one for the ‘You couldn’t make this up’ file.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.
You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10