A gun crime spree in South Auckland has highlighted drive-by shooting culture and frustrated community leaders who blame poverty and the glorification of gang lifestyles for the shootings.
After at least five recent gang-related shootings in two days, some Ōtara residents are on edge while others are frustrated at crime again dragging their neighbourhood’s name down.
Police have confirmed all five shootings since Friday are linked and involve an organised crime group.
It led to an increased police presence in the suburb over the weekend with officers in the streets carrying firearms.
Boxer and businessman Dave Letele said Ōtara had a lot to offer, but grinding poverty meant some kids had few opportunities.
“It’s not just an Ōtara problem. This is a problem throughout any deprived area. The thing that concerns me is crime and the gangster life is so glamourised.”
Also known as The Brown Buttabean, Letele’s father was a Mongrel Mob president.
He said the apparent trappings of gangster life – cash, flashy cars, pretty women – often concealed a reality of violence, jail time, and squandered lives.
“It’s just not glamorous.”
But Letele said kids who grew up poor, and weren’t good at school, unsurprisingly saw some criminals as role models.
“The only people you’re looking to are the drug dealers and the gang members … It’s the lure of making quick money.”
“No one likes being poor.”
Letele said it was disappointing the violence overshadowed good local initiatives.
He said the Covid-19 lockdown brought out the best in some locals, such as volunteers who established food banks.
Ōtara sprouted the Tribesmen in the 1980s and a generation later, the Killer Beez.
The latter was initially a feeder gang for the Tribesmen, but in recent years tensions flared between the two.
In 2018, conflict spilled into a Mt Wellington Harley-Davidson store, where the Tribesmen’s Okusitino Tae shot and paralysed Killer Beez president Josh Masters.
A senior police source told the Herald drive-bys were far more common in New Zealand than most people thought.
This was because victims were often reluctant to report shootings, especially if residents in targeted houses were gang affiliates.
Drive-bys were typically a domination tactic gangs used. Turf battles could be the trigger for a drive-by, as could revenge.
Shootings often involved low-calibre weapons or shotguns fired from far away. And in some cases, there was a tendency to view the incidents as victimless crimes.
But it took just one reckless act, or one miscalculation for tragedy to strike – as happened when a toddler was shot dead in a 2007 Whanganui drive-by shooting.
Not far from where a gun was fired on Preston Rd last weekend, the Tonga family’s house proudly bears at least 30 flags of their namesake homeland.
On Monday, their neighbourhood was the focus of police attention. A police station wagon or unmarked car or SUV drove by about every five minutes on average.
That attention did not bother father-of-five Amanaki Tonga.
Neither did the fact police for part of the weekend were routinely carrying firearms, in response to the heightened local gang tensions.
“If you’re a good person, it doesn’t matter,” he said. “But if you’re a bad person, you worry.”
He loved Ōtara, said nowhere else felt like home, and people in the suburb could be successful and happy.
But he said unemployment and disconnection from the family or community sparked problems.
His son Ilaija said the shootings weren’t shocking.
“You can’t stop it. It’s just going to happen.”
“If you ever come round here on Sundays on Preston Rd, you’ll see the gangs riding around but they’re not making trouble.”
He said trouble could happen anywhere in the world.
“When we have a shooting in Ōtara, people highlight it, blast it up.”
The 21-year-old said people who perpetuated negative stereotypes about Ōtara should visit the neighbourhood.
“Come to our park and buy some food. Or go to Ōtara and buy some chicken thighs.”
“It’s cheaper here,” his father added. “It’s still safe.”
Kaumātua and adventurer Busby Noble said Ōtara was often marginalised.
He said some elders and community leaders felt like they were staring down a wave of negative influences.
That wave combined US street gang and violent video game culture, consumerism, and an education system that he felt often sidelined Māori.
Noble said at-risk youth should be helped before the crest of the wave broke and smashed them.
He said mainstream institutions and the police often did not understand that Ōtara had its own soul and its own culture.
“They’re trying themselves to read places and people and things, and not one of them is paying attention to the spirit of the place.”
Outside Ōtara town centre shopping mall, Noble encountered another kaumātua who extolled the suburb’s virtues.
The neighbourhood was beautiful and vibrant, he said.
But he told Noble a few reckless, swaggering idiots who wanted to brandish weapons were endangering everybody else.
By yesterday afternoon police said officers in Counties Manukau were no longer routinely carrying firearms.
Investigations into the shootings are ongoing but police have seized an unspecified amount of ammunition, and other items associated with firearms.
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