Still from the movie Savage.

by Ross Meurant

To the average Kiwi, the rise in Gang power in New Zealand over recent months has been unmistakable.

The return of New Zealanders convicted of serious crime in Australia, a justifiable initiative in my view, has seen exponential growth of gangs which in turn elevates territorial clashes manifest in gang shootouts now occurring almost weekly.  

This influx of serious criminal networks includes the Comanchero who are widely described in media as a level of violence and ability above other New Zealand gangs. 

Police performance meeting this challenge to our country, in my view, has been commendable.

Who am I to pass this judgement?  A detective on a major crimes squad and Drug Squad; Armed Offenders Squad; Red Squad; Duty inspector facing down a shotgun totting bandit with my .38; shot at from point blank range with the shotgun (the gang member was charged attempted murder of me) and ultimately inspector in charge of Criminal Intelligence. This is my pedigree in this field. 

A long time ago?  Maybe, but passage of time, including 9 years in parliament as an MP, contributor to policy which guides our country and time to reflect, may have equipped me to contribute to this debate, without seeking job retention and devoid of passion (which is best left for the boudoir).   

Recently the NZ Herald ran a call by a former drug kingpin who wants gangs outlawed and fears more people will die if nothing is done.  Bay of Plenty’s Billy Macfarlane says a tougher law-and-order approach is needed over gangs. [1]

This call will, I am confident, resonate with MPs who as a breed have over the decades I’ve been associated with law and order, persistently pledged to increase police numbers and strengthen powers.

In my view this standard response borders on inane, demonstrating shallow understanding of the causes of crime and thereby lack of acuity to deal with the source.

Unquestionably, drugs are the driver of gang warfare.

At this moment, Australia also faces gang warfare where Police insist [2] they have not lost control of organised crime after a second underworld figure was shot dead in a fortnight and a third man was sprayed with 10 bullets and remains in hospital. [Comancheros sergeant-at-arms Tarek Zahed, 41, and his brother Omar, 39, were gunned down at Auburn’s BodyFit gym about 8 pm on Tuesday night.]

Central America at this very moment, is reeling under threat of gangs.  Two examples:

Colombia has sent 2,000 troops and police to help contain a gang that has burned cars and threatened people as reprisal for the extradition of its leader to the US. Dairo Antonio Úsuga, better known as Otoniel, was the world’s most dangerous trafficker. [3]

El Salvador’s parliament has approved the state of emergency that temporarily suspended some constitutional protections following a wave of killings attributed to criminal gangs. Police reported a total of 62 homicides on Saturday, making it the most violent day in nearly three decades. [4]

This is the corridor for drug supply to America and Central America is the origin of the Comanchero network.

This is the same network that now expands in New Zealand. In 2019 police reported international drug syndicate Sinaloa cartel was helping Auckland gang Comancheros. [5]

Which brings me to the solution to the problem of drug supply providing the funding for gangs which today deliver a level of unstoppable crime in Central America and by application of logic emanating from the above dissection of the drug industry, is spreading to the antipodean outposts of A/NZ.

Legalise all dope. 

In 2011, I wrote via the NZ Herald: [6] What simply does not work is the system of severe penalties for producing, transhipping and selling substances deemed illegal.

As a young detective I was told by a seasoned veteran: “If there was no receiver (of stolen goods) there would be less theft and burglary”.  Perhaps America, which is the biggest buyer on the planet of illegal dope and thereby is the major cause of flourishing drug cartels, might take note of the now deceased seasoned veteran’s perspicacity?

One might make a case that if there was no demand for “illegal dope”, the source of funding which makes gangs so powerful that they control countries – from Columbia’s Pablo Escobar [7] to a current example: the Premier of the British Virgin Islands (BVI) has been replaced following his arrest in the US on drug smuggling charges [8] might significantly undermine the Rule of Gangs?

Would legalised dope create more drug users?

It probably would. Mostly, I suggest, it would be soft dope: cannabis.  But the probability that the current ratio of hard dope users would not greatly elevate just because it was legal, is a more likely outcome – in my view.

For example: Would you inject with heroin – if it was legal?

Drug addiction, like alcoholism, is a sickness. It should not be treated as a crime — although penalties for abuse in a public place would be part of the armory of the state to protect other citizens from those who take drugs lawfully but caused a nuisance. This is what happens now with alcohol.

The question of young people being vulnerable is no more potent a concern with drugs than with alcohol. In fact, alcohol has an impact on perhaps 75 per cent of crime [9], and much road carnage. It is not good for your health, but it does have spin-off benefits for the community via sponsorship.

Yet we as a society tolerate continued advertising of alcohol as a desirable cultural characteristic — and why? I suggest it is the power of the brewery lobby and the recognition that prohibition simply won’t work.

In fact, 1920s prohibition in America definitely did not work and fueled crime networks like that of Al Capone, that has never receded.

The best way to control alcohol use by young people is not to make it unobtainable but to impose draconian penalties for misuse of lawfully obtained product, particularly where the effects of misuse are manifest in a public place or impact adversely on others.

Zero tolerance of drink-driving for people under 28 is my start point. Overnight in a police cell for street drunkenness is another bottom line.

The rationale being: abuse of a substance lawfully available is where the penalties should fall and not on supply or possession, which effectively stimulates a black market and underworld.

Legalisation – where dope is sold by government dispensary, cuts out the middle man i.e., gangs, and allows State Aid to be aware of and provide counselling, to those among us who lack the strength and sense to say NO.