Since his first front-page story for the Weekend Herald in March 2009, reporter Jared Savage has been addicted to writing about the criminal underworld. His new book, Gangland, is a collection of 12 cases showing the evolution of organised crime in New Zealand, from the first Breaking Bad methamphetamine cook to the circus of a bungled 500kg smuggling attempt.
"If you got yourself killed," Greg O'Connor told me, "that would be quite helpful to us."
The head of the Police Association was joking, I think. But the point O'Connor was trying to make was deadly serious; organised crime was now entrenched in New Zealand and the threat was real.
Listening to his members on the frontline of police, O'Connor had been among the first to raise the alarm about a new drug called P in the late 1990s. Those concerns were ignored as scaremongering for several years, until it was too late. Methamphetamine was everywhere and making thousands of Kiwi families miserable.
Meth also made millions of dollars for crooks and, as a consequence, radically transformed the criminal underworld of New Zealand. The incredible profits to be made from methamphetamine, as the now Class-A commanded the highest price in the world, meant a tiny country at the bottom of the world was an attractive market for trans-national organised crime syndicates.
O'Connor was the first to raise the alarm over meth and, a decade or so later, was the first to point out the criminal evolution underway in New Zealand; dodgy accountants and lawyers helping crooks to launder money, complicated financial structures of trusts and shell companies, bribery and corruption of law enforcement and the danger of high-powered firearms.
O'Connor spelled out the potential of these threats about 10 years ago in an interview with me, as a fledgling reporter at the Herald who had taken an interest in writing about the seedy underbelly of Auckland.
What the former undercover agent meant by the good-natured joke about my death was that, if an organised criminal group ordered a hit-job on a reporter, the public would be outraged and demand action.
This pressure would lead the government to bring in new laws and give the police greater powers to dismantle crime syndicates, in O'Connor's thinking, as when Irish journalist Veronica Guerin was murdered in 1996.
Personally, I doubted whether the public or politicians would care too much about a reporter's death.
And to be honest, or perhaps naive, I've never been too worried about reporting on New Zealand's gangs and organised crime figures. While many are responsible for some brutal and chilling acts of violence, more often than not the victims are fellow criminals who have crossed the perpetrator in some way.
I always figured that they had bigger things to worry about, like spending the rest of their lives behind bars. Or even if they didn't like a particular story, that the police attention from intimidating or hurting a reporter simply doing his job would cause more trouble than it was worth.
Besides, at the risk of tempting fate, I reckon many of those I've written about secretly enjoy the attention and notoriety.
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Journalists are only as good as their sources. Cops, crims, lawyers and victims are those I speak with most often, although sometimes it's hard to tell which is which.
As a 26-year-old reporter who had just started at the New Zealand Herald in 2009, I had spent a bit of time hanging around the Auckland District Court and the denizens who inhabit the drab building on Albert St.
I was sitting on the bus heading to work when a source called my phone to suggest I get to the Auckland High Court, as quick as I could. A significant methamphetamine dealer was being sent to prison, for probably a very long time, but the source hinted there were some very interesting details.
I'd never written about methamphetamine or organised crime before, and what I heard in the courtroom that day was fascinating. Drugs, covert surveillance, bundles of cash: it was like a movie script.
There were no other reporters in court and I couldn't believe my luck as I walked back to the Herald offices with the scoop scribbled down in my notebook.
It was my first front-page story for the Herald, a splash in the Saturday edition, which exposed how a Chinese crime syndicate was laundering drug profits through Skycity casino.
It was my entree into New Zealand's growing obsession with methamphetamine, and the colourful characters of the criminal underworld. Reporting on that hidden world was addictive, and I was hooked.
Since then I've covered countless court hearings, spent far too many hours in cars with photographers staking out the homes of criminals, and pored over thousands of pages of documents.
I've learned about interception and surveillance warrants, criminal informants, undercover agents and the Criminal Proceeds (Recovery Act), as well as spending time with crooks and cops, to write probably hundreds of news and feature articles on the subject.
So when Alex Hedley, a publisher from HarperCollins, called late last year to ask me whether I could write a book, it dawned on me that I've had a front-row seat to a gripping crime thriller.
Over the past decade, there had been a subtle but definite evolution of organised crime just as Greg O'Connor, now a Labour Party MP, had predicted all those years ago
The millions of dollars to be made from meth had made members of some motorcycle gangs filthy rich, so their influence grew alongside those of local Asian organised-crime figures.
They controlled the flow of imported meth, or the main ingredients like pseudoephedrine needed to cook the drug, from source countries like China.
There was no need for a price war, or a literal turf war, because there was more than enough business to go around.
In business terms, organised crime in New Zealand had moved from a corner dairy to a nationwide supermarket chain.
Then the world took notice.
Since around 2015, multinational criminal enterprises have been setting up base in New Zealand, flooding the market with the country's favourite drug at cut-throat prices that are shaking up the laws of supply and demand.
The immigration policy of our neighbour, Australia, has meant that members of their gangs, such as the Comancheros and the Mongols, have been able to move into the neighbourhood, and jostle for business alongside the local motorcycle clubs, the Asian syndicates and others.
And all these competitors mean business. There are more firearms on our streets now than ever before, as criminals arm themselves to the teeth for protection and intimidation.
As well as the Australian and Asian groups, we now have Mexican cartels sending meth and cocaine to our shores. In response, the US Drug Enforcement Administration – the
guys who brought down El Chapo – have set up offices in Auckland and Wellington.
Once upon a time, a few ounces of methamphetamine were a big deal to the police – before a massive 95kg bust in 2006.
That blew everyone's mind, and held the record for the biggest meth haul for a decade.
But these days, busts of 100kg are routine and there have been two 500kg shipments stopped in the past four years, as well as many others in the 200-400kg range.
Organised crime in New Zealand has evolved from a local dairy, to a national chain, to the branch office of a global corporate giant.
So the book I wrote this year, Gangland: New Zealand's Underworld of Organised Crime, has tried to capture this evolution in a collection of 12 of the most intriguing cases I've covered for the Herald.
The brutal execution of a husband and wife; the undercover cop who infiltrated a
casino VIP lounge; the midnight fishing trip that led to the country's biggest cocaine bust; the gangster who shot his best friend in a motorcycle shop … each chapter illustrates the game of cat-and-mouse between the police and organised criminal groups.
I truly admire the ingenuity and doggedness of the New Zealand Police, especially the division now known as the National Organised Crime Group [NOCG].
But even these determined detectives must feel they've got their finger in the dyke, when the dam has already burst.
Even the police admit we can't arrest our way out of the problem. There's no point locking up the end user; what they need is help with their addiction.
Meth addiction is a serious social ill, inextricably linked with poverty, unemployment, and unacceptable housing standards, family violence levels and suicide rates. The cost to this country is in the billions of dollars.
You can't even put a figure on the damage that P will end up causing to generations of families already at the bottom of New Zealand's socioeconomic heap – the dispossessed and the uneducated, Māori, Pasifika and Pākehā, struggling to get by in towns where gangs have massive power and influence.
When it comes to the decision-making of governments faced with this problem, the basic economic law of supply and demand seems to have been forgotten. Time and effort
are poured into tackling the supply of drugs, which must be done. But there's very
little attention paid to addressing demand.
It's a point that was recognised by the Court of Appeal in 2019, when a senior panel of judges revised the sentencing guidelines for meth offences.
Judges will still be able to throw the book at anyone cooking massive amounts of meth, or those involved in the more recent trend of smuggling large shipments from Asia or Mexico.
But the courts will now have more discretion in determining sentences. Crucially, they will now be based not just on the weight of the methamphetamine involved, but also on the role of the offender.
A wide spectrum of meth-related offences comes before our courts each year.
"At one end lies … the 'head of the snake', often beyond the jurisdiction of New Zealand authorities, masterminding manufacture or importation, and distribution," wrote Justice Stephen Kos, in the Zhang decision.
"At the other end lies a solo mother in a provincial town, given free methamphetamine by a gang member to addict and indebt her, who is then forced herself to deal the drug to get by."
The new guidelines issued in Zhang give judges more scope to make the right call.
Before the 2019 ruling, all those caught with 500g or more of methamphetamine were lumped in together, regardless of whether they were a mastermind or a pawn, and faced a starting point of at least 10 years in prison.
The Zhang ruling allows judges to consider addiction as a mitigating factor, if – and it's a big if – the accused can show that their addiction was the root cause of their drug dealing.
Under the new guidelines, meth dealers will now be able to shave up to 30 per cent off their sentence if they can prove their own struggles with addiction were the cause of their
On the back of this, Justice Kos urged lawyers and judges to take advantage of a little-used clause in the Sentencing Act "tailored" to drug dealers whose crimes have been caused by drug addiction.
The judgment dovetails with the Labour-led Government's recent law change, giving police more discretion in relation to drug arrests.
Because of the Misuse of Drugs Amendment Act 2019, anyone caught in possession of small amounts of Class A drugs can be prosecuted only if there is a clear public interest in doing so.
It's a health-based approach.
But if we're no longer sending people to prison for low-level drug offences, they'll need to be sent somewhere else for more appropriate and effective help.
Counselling and rehab centres are jam-packed, and their waiting lists are long.
In July, the Government promised an extra $20 million in funding for regional treatment programmes across the country, but it's a drop in the ocean.
During the 2020 election campaign, Labour promised to expand the Te Ara Oranga project, where addicts caught in police investigations are referred to health services, rather than the court system.
The pilot programme in Northland has been successful in reducing repeat offenders, and Labour's law and order policy was to establish Te Ara Oranga in the East Coast and Bay of Plenty.
It's a good start but those in frontline social and health services say much more is needed – and urgently – to curb the seemingly insatiable appetite for methamphetamine.
Yet strangely enough, the idea of spending hundreds of millions of taxpayers' dollars on better-resourced rehabilitation centres and counselling services is unlikely to be a vote-winner for politicians.
So it probably won't happen any time soon.
Instead, all that money will continue to pay for overcrowded prisons, clogged courtrooms and a straining social welfare and health system.
It's the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. And so many New Zealanders keep falling off the top.
Gangland: The Evolution of NZ's Underworld
By Jared Savage
Published by HarperCollins
Out December 2