By KRISTIN EDGE
Bay gangs are hiding behind legitimate companies to help them go about their true business - dealing drugs.
At least five Bay of Plenty businesses have been linked to gangs in an apparent bid to hide illegal activities.
The change is part of what police say is a shifting face of gang activity that has seen muscle-cars and motorbikes give way to family saloons.
Gang members are avoiding the "in-your-face" stance of patches and loud bikes in favour of suits and businesses.
There are also growing signs that they are choosing to co-operate at a high level to further their criminal gains rather than battle over turf and fight gang ways.
The Bay of Plenty Times has learned of a Tauranga vehicle business run by a gang leader and a city landscaping firm that is owned and run by a second gang member.
The head of Tauranga's CIB, Detective Senior Sergeant Greg Turner, said gangs were "working smarter" and drawing less attention to themselves so it was easier to go about their crooked ways - predominantly drug dealing.
"The days of traditional gang-type raping and pillaging activities that have been highlighted by the media in the past are over," he said.
"They are not silly. There is a lot more money to be made in drugs."
The gangsters did not want to draw attention to themselves, so they gave the impression of running legitimate businesses and of being respectable.
But although the gangs were less visible, they remained a problem.
Traditionally gangs have also worked independently but there was growing evidence they were co-operating to make money, Mr Turner said.
Much of this related to drugs.
An example was seen last week when Aaron Hohepa Taikato, 21, of Tauranga, was jailed for three years after he traded three stolen guns with the Mongrel Mob for methamphetamine.
Taikato is thought to have strong Mob connections, yet he also traded one firearm with the Greasy Dogs gang.
The dominant gang in Tauranga is the Filthy Few, while Papamoa is dominated by the Greasy Dogs. Members of the Mongrel Mob and Black Power gangs are spread across the Western Bay.
In the last financial year, Western Bay police prosecuted 42 people for possession of methamphetamine for supply.
Many of these criminals were members.
Western Bay police are attacking the gang problem using a "target squad", which was formed earlier this year with four members.
Mr Turner said the squad had helped with arrests that had placed many people with gang links before the courts on a variety of charges.
Burglars and car thieves are being targeted.
"We are going for the smaller players that are customers of the gangs - and that must be hurting them."
The head of the police's Wellington-based national organised crime unit, Ian Walker, said gangs were seeking a "veil of legitimacy".
These fronts had a subtle effect and generated positive publicity.
"This in turn can make it easier for the group to operate its other criminal activities."
The last police survey of gangs in 1999 estimated there were 51 registered companies, trusts or incorporated societies with gang links.
Of these, the Bay of Plenty had five.
Mr Walker said many gangs set up as a registered company to enjoy the tax benefits.
The firms also offered the ability to launder the often "substantial funds" held by gangs.
Nationally, police would not confirm which gangs had registered companies, trusts or societies.
The Proceeds of Crime Act has recouped $5.2 million nationally since July 2002 and a further $13.5m worth of assets are under restraint.
The 13-year-old legislation was supposed to be a powerful new tool in the police armoury against organised crime.
National law and order spokesman and Bay of Plenty MP Tony Ryall said the figure highlighted the urgent need to toughen proceeds of crime laws.
"These gangs are able to hide their ill-gotten gains behind corporate and trust structures."
He said criminal gangs controlled the manufacture and distribution of methamphetamine and there was a need to bring in asset-confiscation laws.
In Western Australia, people suspected of illegal activity had to prove where they got their money.
Mr Ryall said New Zealand authorities needed similar powers to collar gangs.
"Take away their assets and we take away their power to influence."
Justice Minister Phil Goff said he was on track to have amendments to the act by the end of the year.
The changes would push for laws that would allow the Government to seize assets it thought were gained through criminal activity.
Mr Goff wanted the onus placed on people to prove they did not buy their property with money gained by crime.
Under the 1991 legislation, a person must be convicted of a crime before assets can be seized.
Mr Goff estimated the law change could recover seven times more cash from criminals.