THE picturesque wine country of Hawkes Bay is hardly a classic gangland. Tourists come here to ogle art deco buildings or slurp merlot. But its less affluent suburbs are divided between bitter rivals: Black Power and the Mongrel Mob, New Zealand’s biggest gangs. This underworld occasionally rears its head, with, say, gunfire at a rugby game, or an assault outside a winery.

For a sleepy country, New Zealand has a peculiar problem with gangs. Police count over 5,300 members or “prospects” lining up to join one of its 25 listed groups, which together makes them a bigger force than the army. Unlike counterparts in other countries, they thrive in rural areas as well as cities. Almost a quarter of people living in the shabby bungalows of Flaxmere, a suburb in Hawkes Bay, are said to be linked to Black Power.

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Bikers such as the Hell’s Angels have a presence in New Zealand, but Black Power and the Mongrel Mob have ruled the roost for almost half a century. Their members “stick out like dogs’ balls”, one admits, because they sew patches onto their clothes and brand themselves with dense tattoos. A clenched fist is the symbol of Black Power; a bulldog or the Nazi salute “Sieg Heil” are the marks of the Mongrels. Both gangs are predominantly Maori. In all, police say three-quarters of the country’s mobsters are Maori (they make up just 15% of the population as a whole).

For decades the groups fought ruthlessly for turf, beat and raped women, and pushed wannabe members into violent crime to earn their stripes. When the economy slumped in the 1990s, mobsters sold drugs from houses known as “tinnies” and demanded protection money from other criminals. Today prison officers say that “ethnic gangs” work as methamphetamine distributors for more organised biker groups and foreign syndicates. They keep the prisons in business, filling about a third of cells and accounting for over 14% of all murder charges, according to police.

Locking gang members up has arguably exacerbated the problem, by turning jails into recruitment grounds. Gang colours and insignia are banned behind bars, but “nine times out of ten” inmates will “turn to a gang just for protection”, explains Mane Adams, a heavily inked boss of Black Power, who has served two sentences himself. Some leaders have taken to tattooing the faces of prison recruits, to guarantee fealty when they are free.

But if the authorities have not done gangs much harm, methamphetamines have. Mr Adams began campaigning against the drug after a comrade disembowelled himself in meth-induced psychosis. A smattering of gang leaders have tried to ban members from using them, after seeing paranoid henchmen turn against each other. Yet when officials conduct tests in gang-members’ homes, they are still more likely to find traces of the substance than not.

Reform-minded gangsters swear that they are cleaning up in other ways. Black Power prohibits the lurid gang rapes that once occurred on an almost weekly basis. Leaders say they now criticise, rather than joke about, domestic violence. Women linked to the gangs claim their lives are vastly improved. Street battles, too, have grown less frequent.

By almost every measure, life is still worse for Maoris than other New Zealanders, but gangsters insist that, thanks to a strong economy, criminality is no longer a prerequisite for survival. Many Maoris claim to join as much for whanau, or family, as for money, power or thrills. “People have this idea we are all rapists and murderers and methamphetamine cooks. But not all gang members are criminals,” laments Eugene Ryder, a leader of Black Power in Wellington. He requires his underlings to study or take full-time jobs.

Jarrod Gilbert, an academic, believes that gang life has “fundamentally changed from what it was”. Neil Campbell, who heads the Maori division of the Corrections Department, agrees that some “pro-social” gang members really “do want better for their children”. Perhaps the best proof of the gangs’ rehabilitation is the rise of new, more destructive rivals. The bling-obsessed teenage members of the new outfits are unpredictable and violent—just as the mellowing members of the Mongrel Mob and Black Power used to be.

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