Police have raided homes linked to members and associates of the notorious Mongols motorcycle gang across the Bay of Plenty this morning.
A chapter of the Australian gang was established in New Zealand last year after influential members were deported and the Mongols were soon in conflict with other gangs in the Bay of Plenty and Christchurch.
Several senior members have been arrested on firearms or drugs offences in the past six months, although the search warrants executed today in Papamoa and Te Puke are the culmination of an investigation led by the Tauranga-based squad of the National Organised Crime Group.
The NOCG group was set up in the Bay of Plenty two years ago to specifically target the threat of motorcycle gangs, in particular the arrival of Australian groups, and smuggling channels through the port.
"Police have today terminated a significant organised crime operation in Bay of Plenty targeting the Mongols gang," said Detective Superintendent Greg Williams of the National Organised Crime Group.
The raids this morning come less than two weeks after the national president of the Mongols was arrested after a loaded pistol was allegedly found in the car he was travelling in.
The discovery of a powerful .357 Magnum has fuelled police fears of further conflict between the notorious Australian gang, which set up a chapter in the Bay of Plenty last year, and the Greazy Dogs gang, which has been long-established in Tauranga.
About 20 patched Mongols are believed to be under the leadership of Jim David Thacker, known as JD, who was one of thousands of so-called "501s" - named after the "character grounds" section of the Australian immigration law used to deport them.
Court documents reveal Thacker was charged with unlawful possession of a pistol, as well as an alleged an aggravated robbery when he appeared in the Tauranga District Court this month.
Police allege Thacker held a member of the Greazy Dogs at knifepoint on May 24 and took his gang-branded sweatshirt. For a gang member to have their gang colours taken by force is seen as humiliating.
Police had warned that Australian newcomers such as the Mongols and Comancheros would radically change the criminal landscape in New Zealand after being deported from Australia.
It didn't take long for conflict to arise.
The trouble started when three cars parked outside the Papamoa home where senior Mongols were living were destroyed in a suspicious fire late last year.
At the beginning of this year, a barbershop linked to the Mongols was this year hit by a suspicious fire and, in retaliation, nearly 100 bullets were fired at a home of a Mongrel Mob leader.
This led to a daytime shootout on a rural road in Te Puke, although peace talks between the Mongols and the Mongrel Mob seem to have called a truce of sorts.
However, simmering tensions between the Mongols - marked by their distinctive symbol of Genghis Khan riding a motorcycle - and the Greazy Dogs gang reached boiling point.
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A few weeks before Thacker was arrested, a large group of Greazy Dogs confronted a senior Mongol at his home in Matapihi - a suburb considered Greazy Dog territory - and a fight broke out.
Vastly outnumbered, a patched Mongol called Leon Charles Huritu and his family fled by jumping over a high fence at the back of the property.
Known as "the Wolf", Huritu, 37, is alleged to have been carrying two shotguns, which he stashed on the property of a frightened neighbour for safekeeping.
He was arrested and charged with unlawful possession of a firearm and declined bail when he appeared in the Tauranga District Court.
In April, Huritu was also charged with possession of a military-style semi-automatic rifle and methamphetamine after police investigated tit-for-tat shootings in February, triggered by the suspicious fire that destroyed the Mongols' barber shop in Greerton. Police also seized $40,000 in the raids.
Another Mongol living in the Bay of Plenty, Emile Nooroa Sydney Tangaroa, has also been denied bail on active charges.
The 32-year-old was charged with unlawful possession of an 8mm Bruni pistol and possession of Ecstasy, a Class-B drug, in December last year.
The arrival of the Mongols - who went on to "patch over", or change the allegiances of, disaffected members of their arch rivals, the Hells Angels, in Christchurch - comes at a time of unprecedented growth in gang numbers.
Police data shows gang members now number more than 7000 for the first time, up 50 per cent between December 2016 and December 2019. In the Bay of Plenty alone there are 1439 gang members - the most of any police district.
One reason for the growth is the arrival of the Australian gangs dating back to 2010 - first the Rebels, then the Bandidos and Comancheros - as well as a recruitment drive in response to the newcomers from existing New Zealand gangs such as the Head Hunters, Filthy Few and Mongrel Mob.
Profits from New Zealand's burgeoning and lucrative methamphetamine market is also a factor in the spike in gang numbers, police allege.
"New Zealand isn't a big place. Everyone was sharing the market, taking their slice of the pie," Detective Superintendent Greg Williams said last year.
"But we've seen gang numbers grow, arming up [with firearms], which shows that something has changed."
Last month, the National Organised Crime Group's Operation Nestegg seized $400,000, methamphetamine, three semi-automatic firearms and two shotguns.
Five individuals have been charged and an arrest warrant issued for a senior patched member of the Mongols from Australia.
Police are looking for Brodie Collins-Haskins, 26, who is considered dangerous and should not be approached.
The Mongols were first established in the United States in 1969 and spread to 12 countries, including Australia, where they quickly earned a reputation for ruthless violence.