A former Mongrel Mob chapter president has opened up about trading in life in one of New Zealand's most feared gangs to help young men become better fathers.

Toko Kopu, 57, joined the gang aged 15, and rose to become president of an influential Mob chapter.

Life in the gang involved major drug deals, barking like dogs and using Nazi slogans like "sieg heil", he told Daily Mail Australia.

Toko Kopu before going pig hunting with friends. Photo / Twitter
Toko Kopu before going pig hunting with friends. Photo / Twitter

After a period that included robbing a bank and bashing a cop, Kopu traded in his patch for the controversial Destiny Church through its "Man Up" programme, which aims to raise better fathers, brothers and sons.

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Young men often turned to crime and gangs because of absent fathers or abuse they suffered, Kopu said.

His own father beat him from when he was 8. In one particularly vicious incident, aged 12, his father smacked him over the head with a hammer.

"I answered back, boom. I could see blood dropping on the ground."

Kopu followed his older brother into the Mob in 1976, where he found a sense of brotherhood and family.

"It was [all about] replacing my family … It was replacing my father," he said.

The mission of the gang was to be the meanest mongrel, or dog.

"We're representing a bulldog, we bark."

Gang members would bark during meetings.

"It was who had the best bark, and the best bite, ruled the nest.

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"I used to bark in my sleep.

"Heel dog, heel," his wife would say to him.

Other rituals included their "sieg heil" salute, adopted to show disrespect or defiance, rather than the original white supremacy message.

As the Mob began to get into drugs, particularly P, Kopu began to earn "mega bucks".

"I was heavily into methamphetamine and selling it. And pretty well had all the fellas selling it.

"We had all these bags of money coming in from the proceeds, you know."

Some members' drug problems, and subsequent anger and paranoia issues, got so bad fights were breaking out at meetings. Friends died.

Toko Kopu with his partner Freda Manahi. Photo / Facebook
Toko Kopu with his partner Freda Manahi. Photo / Facebook

When Kopu served time behind bars he was a chapter leader, and devoted himself to "keeping the peace", earning respect for helping families visit prisoners.

When he got out of prison a few years ago he was ready to do something good.

While he had regrets, he could only move forward because he was ready to make changes.

"If I didn't want to change I wouldn't have stood up."

He has a much better relationship with his wife and daughter, who was born while he was in jail.

"Happy wife, happy life," he said.

Kopu is one of several former gang members to sign up with the Man Up organisation, and has some advice for young people thinking about getting involved in gangs.

"They want to see the glitter and all the rings and everything.

"They don't see the hurt they inflict on other people.

"Everyone in the gangs are wearing a mask, they're not their real self.

"It's the mask that covers all the hurt that's going down inside of them. All the deeper hurt."