Jared Savage is the author of Gangland and the recent follow-up Gangster’s Paradise, which describes the escalation of gangs and the underlying social problems. Chloe Blades spoke to him about what his latest book reveals.
In Gangster’s Paradise, Jared Savage delivers a chilling tale of how meth crawled its way into Aotearoa and spread its cruel tentacles across not only big cities but our most vulnerable small towns too. Overseas drug lords are finding more innovative ways to import meth (for example, cementing ingredients into umbrella stands in shipping containers) thereby getting wealthier while livelihoods and families here are destroyed. Gangster’s Paradise is an exposé into all of this, and more, written with the precision of an investigative reporter, the skill of a crime writer, and the humanity of a person who’s passionately trying to raise awareness into a dark drug-fuelled underbelly that would otherwise remain only in the headlines.
It is a step beyond Gangland, in which Savage wrote of the evolution of New Zealand’s gangs – Gangster’s Paradise is an uncomfortable unveiling of the deadly escalation of the importation of meth and gang turf wars, involving broad daylight shootings at five star hotels, following the arrival of Australia’s “501 deportees”.
Chloe Blades: In relation to the crimes you detail in Gangster’s Paradise, how has the Australian government made New Zealand more dangerous by sending “501 deportees” here?
Jared Savage: Among the thousands of “501s” deported here – many without any form of social support in New Zealand – is a smaller subset of senior outlaw motorcycle club members. On arriving in New Zealand, they’ve set up NZ chapters (essentially branch offices) of these gangs. They’ve bought genuine links to global organised crime groups which has led to an escalation in the scale of drug importations, sophisticated “tradecraft” to thwart investigation by police, and a greater intent to settle disputes with firearms. In response, the established NZ gangs upped their own game and this escalation has radically changed the criminal underworld here.
Every election, National repeats their zero-tolerance stance on gang crime and “cracking down” on them. From your research, and in your opinion, how should the gangs in New Zealand and the overseas infiltrators be managed?
I certainly don’t have all the answers. I’d agree with National that greater enforcement is necessary at the moment in response to what has happened in the past five years or so, but I also see merit in police working alongside certain gang leaders to try and influence more positive behaviour (which National has criticised). This is a complex problem, as gang members are almost always the victims of social harm, as well as the perpetrators in their own communities. I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all solution but I do think the answers probably lie within individual communities to give a sense of belonging to young men who might otherwise find that brotherhood in gangs. I’m talking sports clubs, marae, school, churches, etc.
You’re known for your reporting on gang crime, drugs and violence, and now you’ve written your second book on the subject. Why do you think it’s necessary for the public to read about this subject in detail?
Mostly because I think people should know what’s happening in their backyards. The most surprising feedback about Gangland was that people didn’t know that organised criminal activity happened in little old Aotearoa. I don’t write these stories to scare people, but so that they’re aware. And that helps people to be informed about the world they live in, and also try and provide some context about the social problems facing this country. Finally, I find this world fascinating – and I think readers do too.
Before I worked in a prison, I worked for a London-based organisation that helps ex-offenders who’ve struggled with addiction and mental health to obtain a degree. They had success with reducing the rate of reoffending. But English gangs and their crimes are, I’m sure, different to New Zealand standards. What more can be done here to support gang members who want to get out?
There needs to be far more support for whānau who want to leave gang life, especially those coming out of prison. When life gets hard, even for those motivated to change, it’s easy to slip back into bad habits or negative environments – and that inevitably leads to reoffending. So by support, I mean to meet basic human needs – finding accommodation, food, education or training or a job – in order to get back on their feet. And someone who understands what they’ve been through, who can act as a mentor to support and hold them accountable. I’m aware of some gang members in Tauranga, themselves former drug and violent offenders, doing great work in this space with a local social services provider, with support from government agencies, and I’m sure there are others around. We need more of them.
There’s a haunting poem in Gangster’s Paradise on the destruction that meth causes to livelihoods and families, written by a woman who, not long after being released from prison, overdosed and died. The poem was found, allegedly, in a dealer’s garage. Meth is linked to the murder of constable Matthew Hunt, the corruption of two Air New Zealand bag carriers and a once dedicated Auckland port worker, as well as the shooting at the Sofitel. In your opinion, what needs to be done to stop the importing, manufacturing and dealing of meth? Is it too late?
When we see the size of drug seizures getting bigger and bigger each year, it’s hard not to think that law enforcement has their finger in the dyke – and the dam has already burst. In the early 2000s, 1kg of meth was a big deal to police and 100kg was the record amount ever seized for the best part of a decade. Now 100kg is routine and we’re seeing imports in the 500, 600, 750kg range now. So, we absolutely must keep tackling the supply side of the market, especially in terms of the “Mr Bigs” making millions of dollars. However, I think far more could be done to address the demand side of the equation.
In recent years, Police and the Courts are definitely treating offenders with drug problems (such as low-level street dealers funding their own addiction by selling meth) with more leniency. That’s great, we don’t want to be arresting people and sending them to prison in those circumstances. But if you don’t send them to prison, where do they go? Rehab and counselling clinics are bursting to the seams, or non-existent in rural regions in New Zealand which are the hardest hit by meth. Far more government funding and resources is needed to help support those legends already doing that hard mahi in their own communities. But it’s not a sexy vote-winner.
Gangster’s Paradise has very specific details about individual gang members that allows them to be better recognised. Have you put yourself in danger in doing so?
No, I don’t believe so. It’s not like we’re living in Mexico, or some other hot spot, where journalists get killed all the time. While I’ve got no doubt that some individuals won’t like that they’ve been written about, it’s not like I’m to blame for their current imprisonment. The crooks are doing their job, the police are doing their job, and I’m doing my job – and to a large extent, I think everyone respects that. To be honest, I think journalists writing about conspiracy theorists, disinformation and the alt-right in NZ would be at far more risk than I am.
Gangster’s Paradise is a compelling read that balances the reality of inequality, abuse and poverty of some gang members while exposing the unforgivable violence of others. Why is that balance important in a book like this?
It’s very easy for issues to be viewed through a lens of black and white, and especially when writing about crime for individuals to be characterised as “goodies” and “baddies”. But life is more complicated than that, and journalism is about seeking to be fair, accurate and balanced. You can point out the awful crimes that someone has committed, but to be balanced you also need to highlight the terrible environment that someone grew up in. It doesn’t excuse what they’ve done, but it does go some way to explaining why it happened – which in turn makes readers think about wider social issues in a different way.
You avoid sensationalising or romanticising gang culture, rather you rely on detailed accounts from your own reporting, relationships with gang members, and what seem like FBI-standard covert operations from the police. Why didn’t you Quentin Tarantino the book and go OTT on the violence, drug deals, and police-gang relationship?
Mostly because I don’t need to. The stories are dramatic enough without needing to go full-blooded tabloid. The second part of that answer is that unlike Tarantino, Gangster’s Paradise is non-fiction. I’m writing about the lives of real people, some of whom have suffered enormous loss, and so I try to write about what happened as straight as possible.
What do you hope readers take from Gangster’s Paradise?
I hope readers are entertained and informed in equal measure. And while there has been a “soft on crime” narrative in recent years, I hope people will read these stories and get a better understanding of how hard the police and Customs work on these organised crime investigations in very difficult circumstances. In terms of covert inquiries, New Zealand Police are right up there with the best in the world. It’s definitely an uphill battle. And finally, I hope that people get some sort of understanding, or empathy, as to the reasons why gang culture has evolved and escalated in recent years.
Gangster’s Paradise emphasises the escalation of gang culture in New Zealand since you wrote your first book Gangland. What kind of story do you hope your third book tells?
I’m too exhausted to think about a third book! I’d like to say that a third book to round out the trilogy might show that we’re getting on top of the problem, but I don’t think that will come to pass anytime soon. Saying that, there are some pretty amazing organised crime investigations that didn’t make the cut for Gangster’s Paradise, due to jury trials being adjourned, and one in particular that is probably worth a book of its own … we shall see.