It is late afternoon in Wairoa, a country town in New Zealand's picturesque Hawkes Bay region, and the dying sun is raking the pavements with hard light. In the park, Lambton Square, several dozen teenagers are performing press-ups, warming up for their after-school rugby training.
The peaceful scene is a sharp contrast to three days earlier, when a rugby league match ended with members of a Maori gang, the Mongrel Mob, producing a sawn-off shotgun and firing into the air. No one was hurt, but the incident – apparently provoked by the presence of a rival gang, Black Power, among the spectators – terrified the Saturday afternoon crowd of mainly families.
These events, which occurred the weekend before last, may seem out of place in a town of 4,000 people and a country whose marketing slogan is "100 per cent pure". New Zealand, though, has an entrenched gang culture, and rarely a week passes without trouble erupting. Wairoa – 90 minutes' drive north of Napier, an Art Deco city popular with tourists, and one of the Rugby World Cup venues – is the latest flashpoint.
This is a side of New Zealand that World Cup fans – descending for the six-week competition, which begins on Friday in Auckland – are unlikely to see; indeed, most locals are never affected by it. But while it is mostly confined to the shadows – and in that sense the Wairoa shooting was unusual – it reflects the uglier aspects of a nation widely perceived as clean, green and safe.
Gangs thrive in areas with big Maori and Pacific Islander populations and high levels of crime, poverty and unemployment. Maori, in particular, are at the bottom of the socio-economic heap in New Zealand. They are also largely responsible for its shocking rates of domestic violence and child abuse – the country's "dark secrets", as a former Governor-General, Dame Silvia Cartwright, called them.
The issues were highlighted in the 1994 movie Once Were Warriors, set in the bleak suburbs of south Auckland. Seventeen years on, violence continues to plague Maori communities. Some sociologists blame the Maori "warrior culture", which they claim is glorified by the gangs.
Unlike in other countries, where they tend to be an exclusively urban phenomenon, gangs are active across New Zealand, even in small rural communities. Wairoa is a Mongrel Mob stronghold; Frasertown, five miles to the north, is Black Power territory. Both gangs – Maori-dominated and implacable foes – have savage reputations, with a history of murder, gang rape and ruthless "payback".
In this world, you can be killed for wearing the wrong-coloured T-shirt, as happened to a 16-year-old in Murupara, inland from Wairoa, two years ago. Jordan Herewini was wearing a yellow shirt, the colour of the Tribesmen, another Maori gang. The Mongrel Mob's colour is red; Black Power, whose emblem is a clenched fist, wear blue.
Lately, though, the gangs have been trying to clean up their image, with some leaders renouncing violence and preaching mainstream values. Rex Timu, president of the original Mongrel Mob chapter in Hastings, near Napier, instructs would-be recruits to "go away and get an education". Mr Timu, who has the Mongrel emblem – a bulldog with a German helmet – tattooed on his bulky left forearm, also warns them: "Don't join us if you want to do an armed robbery or kill someone. That's not our way anymore."
The problem is, not everyone is heeding the message. And in Wairoa, an edgy town bisected by a broad river, people are sick of the gang wars. One spring evening last year, a man walked up to a truck in a petrol station and shot the driver, a Mongrel Mobster, through the window. "It's like the OK Corral," says one café owner. "We've had two deaths by shooting and three disfigurements, and that's just in the past year or so."
The New Zealand gang scene is well established. The first Hells Angels chapter outside California was founded in Auckland in 1961; over the years, dozens of other gangs – motorcycle, skinhead, LA-style "homies" – have sprung up. Of the Maori gangs, the Mob and Black Power are the biggest and most feared. They were set up in the wake of post-war Maori mass migration to the cities. Radical reforms to the New Zealand economy in the 1980s created large-scale unemployment, with Maori worst affected. "Many people haven't worked since," says Jim Anglem, Maori cultural advisor to the Kaumatua Te Awatea Violence Research Centre at Canterbury University in Christchurch.
With adults dislocated from their roots and culture, and battling alienation and discrimination, families collapsed. Absent fathers became commonplace, and an epidemic of alcoholism, drug abuse and domestic violence began. For young people, the all-male gangs were like substitute families. They were an escape route, offering status, protection, even a career – selling drugs. They were also places where violence flourished. The violence spilt back into homes. New Zealand women suffer the highest rate of domestic violence in the developed world; the country also has one of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's worst child murder rates. "[Gang members] use the iron fist instead of talking," observes Bruno Isaac, a former Mongrel Mob leader and author of a book about the gang, True Red.
I met Mr Isaac, who has a full facial moko (traditional Maori tattoo), at the Saturday market in Otara, the Auckland suburb where Once Were Warriors was filmed. He was selling his book from the back of a motorbike. It is full of lurid tales of gang life.
"Women were there to cook our kai [food] and give us pleasure – they were simply chattels, meat we could consume and spit out," he writes. In order to obtain "the patch" – the right to display the gang emblem on clothes and in tattoos – recruits had to pass tests such as "drinking excrement and urine from a gumboot, raping someone, or fighting three guys at once".
In Hawkes Bay – known internationally for its wineries – some families are into their third generation of gang membership. Getting older, having children and serving time has mellowed some leaders. "We want to stop the criminality and look after our families, look after ourselves," declares Mr Timu, speaking over a hot chocolate in his works' canteen.
Mr Timu, coolstore supervisor at an apple exporting company, served an eight-year sentence for gang rape in his youth. He blames the continuing violence on young men trying to prove themselves. "I used to be like that – I would go out and beat someone up for no reason." The Mob, he insists, flashing a gold tooth, is "like any other social club – we have a beer, talk about politics and rugby".
Mane Adams, president of the Napier chapter of Black Power, purveys an equally responsible message. He is chairman of his local marae (communal meeting-place), and a campaigner against methamphetamine, or "crystal meth". Mr Adams says: "I don't see myself as a gang leader, rather as a role model and mentor."
He and Mr Timu enjoy a "rapport" that enables them to defuse trouble. They attend meetings with police, politicians, mayors. Yet neither man has quite abandoned the gang mentality. Mr Adams says: "If they [the Mongrel Mob] play up, we have to respond to it, otherwise people will say we're going soft." Both leaders operate their own rough justice. Mr Adams recently had to "run over" a motorcycle gangster selling methamphetamine on his turf.
Incidents like the Wairoa shooting, meanwhile, set back their reforming efforts. They also inflame wider tensions. Mr Timu invited me to the Mob's clubhouse, a brick bungalow in a quiet Hastings cul-de-sac, but withdrew the invitation at the last minute. "Something happened down the road, and five carloads of police turned up," he explained the next morning.
According to him, the gang feuds in Wairoa originate in an ages-old dispute between warring tribes, the precise nature of which has been forgotten. As in Napier, cousins – even brothers – belong to rival gangs.
In 2006, a New Zealand geneticist, Rod Lea, asserted that Maori carry a "warrior gene" that predisposes them to violence. The claim was widely criticised. However, Greg Newbold, a Canterbury University criminologist, blames the glorification of the Maori "warrior ethos" – embodied in the haka, or war dance, that the All Blacks rugby team perform before each match – for the family and gang violence.
"The culture of the warrior is very powerful in the Maori psyche, and the celebration of male domination and machismo is still very evident," Dr Newbold says.
Jim Anglem, of the Violence Research Centre, rejects this notion, saying that women and children were revered in traditional Maori society. Moreover, between 1950 and 1970 there was little evidence of Maori family violence. That – along with the fact that middle-class Maori families are no more violent than their European counterparts – supports the theory that socio-economic factors are key.
Greg O'Connor, president of the New Zealand Police Association, is cynical about the efforts of those seeking to rebrand the gangs, calling them "pure PR". "If they've still got a patch on their back, they're bound to the ethos of the gang," he says.However, Mr Adams, the Black Power leader, believes 70 per cent of members are adopting the new approach. "It's time for a new paradigm," he says.
New Zealand's gangs
The exact origins of this powerful gang are not known. But members believe the mob – now hundreds, perhaps thousands strong – stemmed from a small group of Pakeha (non-Maori) boys dubbed "a pack of mongrels" when released from a detention centre in the 1960s. The Mongrel Mob boasts more than 30 chapters across the country and are known by their colour – red – and their symbols, which include the swastika and the British Bulldog.
Founded as a rival gang to the Mongrel Mob, which was predominantly white at first, the group, originally known as the 'Black Bulls', was set up by a small group of Maori youths in 1970. Most members are still Maori and Polynesian, and their symbol is a clenched fist.