Gangs: Loaded gun allegedly found in Head Hunter’s luggage at Auckland airport

A loaded pistol was allegedly found in the luggage of a Head Hunter gang member as he prepared to board a domestic flight at Auckland Airport.

He was returning home to Christchurch after being in Auckland to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the gang’s influential East chapter last weekend.

The firearm was allegedly found by Aviation Security staff when the luggage was checked in and went through security screening at the domestic terminal at Auckland Airport.

A police spokesperson confirmed a 38-year-old man was arrested shortly after 1pm on Wednesday and charged with unlawful possession of a firearm and ammunition.

Court documents show the firearm was a Browning 7.65 calibre pistol, which the Herald on Sunday understands was loaded with four rounds of ammunition.

The Christchurch man is next due to appear in the Manukau District Court at the end of May.

The alleged discovery of a Head Hunter carrying a firearm in such a brazen manner comes shortly before a nationwide police crackdown to “suppress, disrupt and enforce” unlawful gang activity.

While the police have successfully targeted gangs in covert investigations into drugs and organised crime over many years, in recent weeks police have used more overt tactics to keep an eye on gang behaviour.

Police followed the Comancheros “gang run” from Auckland to Waikato, issuing Infringement tickets at a petrol station, and a week later set up a checkpoint to stop a convoy of Killer Beez.

Last weekend, police set up several checkpoints to stop the Head Hunters on a “gang run” convoy to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the influential East chapter in Mt Wellington.

Several motorcycles were impounded and more than 100 traffic infringement notices were issued, in tactics that will be carried on in Operation Cobalt which is due to start in June.

Other strategies are likely to include prioritising bail checks and arrest warrants for gang members, or responding in force to reports of gang-related assaults or disorder.

“The aim is to put pressure on gangs so they can feel it,” said one source, “and the public can see it.”

A ring-fenced group of staff pooled from the Auckland, Counties and Waitematā police districts will form a dedicated taskforce of about 40 staff, led by some veteran detectives with decades of experience investigating gangs and organised crime.

The other police districts will each be required to set up a specialised gang squad, whose work will be coordinated in a nationwide effort.

The decision to launch Operation Cobalt comes after five years of radical change in the criminal underworld.

The arrival of Australian motorcycle gangs, such as the Comancheros, Mongols and Rebels has upset the gang pecking order in New Zealand.

Nicknamed “501s” after the section of the immigration law used to deport them on character grounds, law enforcement agencies believe these new gangs have a disproportionate influence because of their international connections, sophisticated counter-surveillance tactics, and aggressive approach to use firearms.

There has been an increase in the number of large drug seizures since 2016, including a record-breaking 613kg of methamphetamine in March linked to the Comancheros, as well as a spike in gun violence.

While New Zealand criminals have always carried firearms, the arrival of so many rival groups has escalated tensions to the point where someone is more likely to pull the trigger.

Most shootings are not reported to police because of the criminal code of silence, unless someone is killed or the violence spills into the public.

But in the past two years, there have been shootings between the Comancheros and the Head Hunters, once the most dominant gang in New Zealand, as well as a long-running feud between the Rebels, another group with roots in Australia, and the King Cobras.

The Mongols have been involved in several tit-for-tat stoushes with the Head Hunters including at least two incidents where the Head Hunters’ pad in Mt Wellington has been targeted with semi-automatic firearms.

In retaliation, shots were fired inside the lobby of a five-star hotel in Auckland’s waterfront.

At a wider level, data recorded by frontline police show staff are coming across about 10 firearms every day.

“There doesn’t seem to be many days go by when you don’t hear about shots being fired,” Police Association Chris Cahill said this month.

“That flows from the fact there is a willingness to actually pull the trigger. It demonstrates why we have to do everything we can to put this genie back in the bottle.”

A dedicated gang squad will inevitably be compared to the infamous Strike Force Raptor in Australia, an elite unit set up following a fatal gang brawl in Sydney airport in 2009, which was later criticised for “hostile” tactics targeting gang members.

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