A different breed of organised criminal is behind vast quantities of drugs pouring into the country, the Police Commissioner says.
Although the archetypal New Zealand crook might be a patched gang member, Andrew Coster said discreet operators with global connections were often the real crime bosses.
"We have to be careful about fixating on gangs," he said today. "If you're talking organised crime, there's a different audience to be worried about."
Coster was grilled at Parliament's justice select committee, with gang numbers and violence major topics.
Whangaparāoa MP Mark Mitchell said he was appalled at open warfare between the Mongols and Head Hunters in his neighbourhood north of Auckland.
"Under your watch and your leadership, it's now more dangerous," the National MP and former police officer told Coster.
He said the public was sick of gang members taking over roads and public spaces.
"Gangs feel like they have the licence to do what they want."
But then Labour's Whangārei MP Emily Henderson asked about Operation Mist, a 10-month Police and Customs investigation into cocaine trafficking.
As the Herald previously reported, alleged drug smugglers brought 50kg of cocaine from Colombia and were believed to have direct links to powerful cartels in Medellín.
Coster said "90 per cent" of people charged with importing, manufacturing, or dealing methamphetamine were not patched gang members.
He said some recent police operations showed stealthy criminals with no clear affiliations to the gangs of New Zealand were directing and executing major drug conspiracies.
"They weren't driving flashy cars. They weren't wearing gang patches," he said. "There was not much, on the face of it, to say they were involved in this work."
Mitchell and Coster had a tense exchange, with the MP accusing the Commissioner of pretending organised crime had no connection with gangs.
"I did not say that at all," Coster replied. "Gangs are inextricably linked to organised crime ... But in many cases they are lower down the food chain than those who are importing very large quantities."
Coster insisted police were focused on both the established gangs and more enigmatic multinational or unaffiliated criminals.
Coster said 501 deportees or "returned offenders" were behind a surge in recorded gang membership numbers.
"It is certainly not the case that police are standing by while these events occur."
Referring to recent shootings, Coster said a willingness to use firearms was a reflection of gang culture.
"Gangs are a problem, and they're inflicting a lot of harm in our communities."
He said many so-called gangsters might make enough money from drug dealing to cover their own drug habit, and perhaps have some cash left over for petrol.
"Many of them are living in very poor conditions. Yes, some make a lot of money and they need to be dealt with through asset restraint."
But the life of a typical New Zealand gang member was often pitiful, Coster said.
"The impression that all gang members are living the high life because of organised crime is just not accurate. There are others doing much better from it."