The National Organised Crime Group has opened a branch in Tauranga - the first outside Auckland or Wellington.

Australian motorcycle gangs will be a key target for a new police squad in Tauranga dedicated to grappling with organised crime.

Members of the Comancheros and Bandidos have been seen riding in the Bay of Plenty region recently, among hundreds deported from Australia for failing the "good character" test over the past few years.

Police have warned the more sophisticated and ruthless Australian gangs, in particular the Comancheros, could radically change the landscape of the criminal underworld in New Zealand.

The possibility of these newer criminal players gaining a foothold in Tauranga comes after the Rebels, another Australian gang, and the Head Hunters established chapters in recent years.

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With a booming population and the country's busiest port - a risk for smuggling large shipments of drugs - Tauranga was chosen as the base for an expansion of a police group which specialises in drug investigations.

Today marks the official opening of the National Organised Crime Group in Tauranga, the first office outside of main centres Auckland and Wellington.

"Tauranga is an area of growth for New Zealand and good people are setting themselves up in Tauranga," Assistant Commissioner Richard Chambers said ahead of the opening.

"Organised criminals are too. Being on their back doorstep is the right thing to do."

The six detectives in the team are ring-fenced to focus solely on organised criminals and report directly to managers in Wellington.

This means they will not be diverted from their own investigations - which often take 6 to 12 months of covert surveillance - to help Bay of Plenty police on other major crimes.

Australian gangs and the Port of Tauranga were identified as logical targets for the new squad.

Just last November, $20 million of cocaine was found in a ship docked at the port following a covert investigation run by the National Organised Crime Group in Auckland.

"It's a big port, it's a busy port," said Chambers. "One of the focuses we have, working closely with the port and Customs, is to stop drugs coming through Tauranga."

Police and Customs found 46kg - worth $20 million - hidden in the Maersk Antares docked in Tauranga. Photo/Andrew Warner.
Police and Customs found 46kg - worth $20 million - hidden in the Maersk Antares docked in Tauranga. Photo/Andrew Warner.
Police allege the cocaine was retrieved from a hidden compartment near the rudder. Photo/Andrew Warner.
Police allege the cocaine was retrieved from a hidden compartment near the rudder. Photo/Andrew Warner.

Members of Australian gangs like the Bandidos and Comancheros have been seen in Tauranga, although Chambers would not confirm if members were living here yet.

For several years, the police have warned of how these "Kiwis" - many of whom had lived in Australia for most of their lives - would return to commit crimes and bolster the professionalism of the New Zealand underworld.

Murderers and rapists are among the estimated 1000 criminals to be deported to New Zealand between 2015 and 2020.

"A conservative estimate of the cost of criminal offending by deportees arriving in New Zealand over the next five years is in excess of $100 million," according to a 2015 police intelligence report released under the Official Information Act.

Of those already back in New Zealand, 55 per cent had committed crimes within two years of arrival.

The report noted a number of deportees had spent most of their lives in Australia, with limited links or support in New Zealand.

Many had mental health issues or drug and alcohol addictions, which when combined with anger about being separated from their lives, increased the risk of criminal or anti-social behaviour.

A second report, dated January 2017, anticipated 200 members of Australian gangs which did not have chapters in New Zealand would be deported in the next two years.

These included patched members of the Comanchero, Lone Wolf, Finks, Mongols, Notorious and Descendants motorcycle clubs.

While some of those deported from Australia do make a fresh start in New Zealand, Chambers said many others come to our shores with established international criminal connections.

"I'm talking about people like the Comancheros."

Last month, NZME revealed the Comancheros, considered the most dangerous gang in Australia, had officially opened a chapter in New Zealand.

Patched members of the Comanchero gang from Australia have set up a chapter in New Zealand. Photo/Instagram.
Patched members of the Comanchero gang from Australia have set up a chapter in New Zealand. Photo/Instagram.

"All done and sworn in... welcome aboard to my brothers in New Zealand," says the Instagram post by an Australian member of the Comancheros.

"Another Comanchero chapter opened up. We growing stronger and stronger."

The Comancheros are part of two of Australia's most infamous gang battles; the 1984 "Milperra Massacre" shooting with the rival Bandidos and the 2009 brawl at Sydney's international airport in which a Hells Angels member was beaten to death.

The man convicted of killing the Hells Angel was Mick Hawi, the president of the Comancheros at the time.

He left the gang but was shot at close range in broad daylight by two masked men last month.

While the Australian gangs have been embroiled in violent turf wars and public retribution, most rival New Zealand motorcycle gangs cut deals in the interests of making money.

"These deportees have the ability to change the face of organised crime in New Zealand," says Chris Cahill, the president of the Police Association.

"There hasn't been open hostility in New Zealand for a while. But there's only so much business to go around."

Gangs like the Comancheros will go to drastic measures to protect their reputation and Cahill said they could disrupt the criminal world, like Uber has in the taxi industry.

"The real concern is these groups move in and say 'You think that's your business. Not any more'," said Cahill, who was a senior detective who spent many years investigating organised crime.

"It's only a matter of time. We need to get on top of that before it blows out of control."

On the day NZME revealed the existence of the New Zealand chapter of the Comancheros, one of their members had their gold-plated motorcycle impounded for doing a burnout in the middle of the day in Mt Maunganui.

It's exactly the sort of street policing needed to tackle organised crime, Cahill said.

While a specialist organised crime squad in Tauranga will investigate the top tiers of a criminal network, Cahill said pressure needed to be applied from different angles.

"The risk is the police say 'we don't need to worry about organised crime now, we'll leave it to the specialists.'

"But you still need your frontline staff involved; your eyes and ears on the street. Being out in the faces of gang members is just as important as the behind-the-scenes investigations."

One of the ways police have increasingly targeted organised crime is to seize assets.

Nearly $250 million of criminal assets have been restrained by police in the last 5 years. Photo/Richard Robinson.
Nearly $250 million of criminal assets have been restrained by police in the last 5 years. Photo/Richard Robinson.

Cash, cars, houses, motorcycles - even art collections - the police have restrained nearly $250 million of assets in the last five years under the Criminal Proceeds Recovery Act.

"Organised criminals don't trade in drugs because they like drugs," said Chambers. "They trade in drugs because there's money to be made.

"Sadly, there are organised criminals who don't fear going to jail. It's a risk they know they take. But when you turn up and take their assets - it makes them think twice.

So sitting alongside the six National Organised Crime Group detectives in Tauranga, will be three staff from the Asset Recovery Unit.

The Criminal Proceeds Recovery Act, which came into force in 2009, essentially forces someone to prove how an asset was paid for.

These cases are determined by the civil level of proof, the "balance of probabilities", rather than the much higher criminal evidential threshold of "beyond reasonable doubt".

Sometimes the criminal and civil cases taken by police progress through the courts in tandem.

No criminal conviction is needed for the civil case to be successful.

In some cases, like the current action against Head Hunter president Wayne Doyle, no criminal charges are even laid.

"Taking money away from organised crime groups takes away the reason they exist," said Detective Superintendent Iain Chapman, the head of the Financial Crime Group.

"And it stops their empires from growing. We have significant players in Tauranga in mind. These are people who profit from methamphetamine, profit from misery.

"It's fair to say we will hit the ground running."

Chapman also had a warning for white collar professionals who enabled criminal groups to hide their wealth.

From July, real estate agents, lawyers and accountants have to report any suspicious transactions as part of changes to New Zealand's anti-money laundering law.

"Organised crime is a business. The number one way to shut down a business is to remove the ability to make transactions," said Chapman.

"And one of the best ways to do that is to go through the enablers; the accountants, the real estate agents, the lawyers sitting behind those transactions, the purchasing of assets, the hiding of money.

"They are the ones making organised crime successful."

The gangs of Oz (in NZ)

The Comanchero

One of the most feared outlaw motorcycle gangs in Australia now has a chapter in New Zealand after 14 patched members were deported here.

The Comanchero MC was founded in Sydney in 1966 and has chapters across Australia as well as Russia, Spain and Bosnia.

The club is most infamous for the 1984 "Milperra Massacre" in which seven people were killed - including an innocent 14-year-old girl - and 28 injured during a 10 minute shootout with the rival Bandidos gang in a Sydney turf war.

Last month, the ex-president of the Comancheros, Mahmoud "Mick" Hawi, was fatally gunned down in a Sydney gym carpark.

Police are hunting for two masked men who fled the scene and the violence, in broad daylight, revived memories of Sydney's infamous bikie wars in 2009 following a brawl in Sydney airport.

A Comanchero's gold-plated motorcycle was recently impounded in Tauranga for 28 days.

The Bandidos

Arch-rivals to the Comancheros, the Bandidos were founded in Texas in 1966 with the motto "We are the people our parents warned us about".

The "Bandido Nation" has 90 chapters in the United States, 90 in Europe and 17 in Australia.

They first came to the attention of police in New Zealand in 2012.

Kelly Robertson, a former president of the Highway 61 gang, set up the first chapter in Auckland and the Bandidos have spread across New Zealand.

There are now probationary chapters in Christchurch, Dunedin and Invercargill.

Last month, Bandido Adrian Le'Ca was sentenced to 15 years and 9 months in prison for importing 15kg of methamphetamine and 2kg of cocaine.

However, while Le'Ca is a New Zealander he is a member of the Bandidos' Nomad chapter based in Thailand.

Bandidos have been seen riding around the Bay of Plenty.

The Rebels

Another Australian motorcycle gang which established a New Zealand presence in 2011.

The Rebels MC have a strong presence in Northland and established other chapters, including one in Tauranga, and as far south as Christchurch.

A number of Rebels have been jailed on serious drugs and violence offences including Darren Catley, who was sentenced to prison last year for nine years on arranging a $1m methamphetamine deal.

Several high profile members of the Rebels in Australia have been deported to New Zealand including Shane Martin - although he has now left the gang - and AJ Graham.