Ōpōtiki in the North Island; Timaru in the South. 

When it comes to gangs, they have something in common. 

But they also have nothing in common. 

The Detail today looks at the contrasting ways they’ve handled, and are managing, situations involving gangs – in Timaru’s case, imports sweeping in trying to establish a methamphetamine trade; in Ōpōtiki’s, a deeply ingrained sector of local residents who are, in one expert’s words, experiencing “a tsunami” of change. 

Ōpōtiki’s situation hit headlines after the killing and subsequent tangihanga of Mongrel Mob Barbarians president Steven Taiatini

The apparently laid-back or low-key way an influx of hundreds of gang members hitting the town was handled by authorities had politicians and commentators screaming in outrage –Mayor David Moore was criticised (and in some cases, roundly ridiculed) for urging respect for those mourning, and playing down the closing of local schools. 

He’s now media shy and wouldn’t talk to The Detail. However the Ōpōtiki District Council works closely with local iwi, and Te Whakatohea Māori Trust board member Te Kahautu Maxwell, along with Waiariki Whānau Mentoring board chair Waata Heathcote, gave us an insight into what’s happening in the town. 

“Not every single gangster deals methamphetamine,” says Heathcote. “Not every single gangster is part of an organised criminal group.” 

He says gang members in Ōpōtiki are whānau – and the question should not be how they are dealing with gangs, but how they are supporting them. 

Heathcote says there will always be a group of them who will “continue to do what they do” in their communities. 

“But there is a group – and a large group – that are looking and reaching out for change. We’ll just continue to reach out and help those who want to be helped. We can’t help those who are not ready,” he says. 

Heathcote says he will never tolerate any form of drug being pushed into communities. 

Drugs were at the heart of some stunning action in Timaru last month when ‘imports’ from Auckland, Christchurch and Australia moved into the headquarters of the relatively benign Devil’s Henchmen, forcibly patching it over to the Rebels. 

Within a week the Timaru District Council had done a deal with the Henchmen landowners, bought the land, got a hand from police who raided the club and made arrests – then sent in the diggers. 

A gang house being demolished by Timaru District Council, immediately after it bought the property in Meadows Road, Washdyke. Photo: Supplied / Timaru District Council

The HQ was bowled as about 100 locals looked on and cheered. 

It was the second time in less than a year that decisive action swept an unwanted element out of town. 

Mayor Nigel Bowen talks to The Detail about how they managed it, and why what they did won’t suit every situation. 

“We knew that the risk, if we didn’t move quickly, was that this new gang would get entrenched in our community…you’d see methamphetamine use sky rocket,” he says. “They’re not local people. They’re not coming here to build playgrounds.” 

Both towns know that social investment is the way forward – to avoid children growing into a generational behavioural pattern, not learning how to read or write, and being left on the edge of society where no one has really cared for them. 

“Until we get that mix right where we’re having that social investment,” says Bowen, “there’s a lot of work to be done.” 

Hear more about two very different gang towns by listening to the full podcast.

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