CRIME

FBI: Biker Gangs Are Among The “Worst” Gangs In America

CRIME
The scene after a motorcycle gang shootout in Waco — (Jerry Larson/AP/Corbis)
May 18, 2015 at 6:35 PM ET

The deadly shootout in Texas over the weekend between several rival biker gangs is the latest sign of an escalation in outlaw motorcycle-gang violence as rival groups across the country are increasingly moving into each other’s turf, law enforcement experts and officials in several federal agencies told Vocativ.

According to the FBI’s most recent National Gang Report, “when asked to identify the top-10 worst or most problematic gangs in their respective jurisdictions, [FBI bureau chiefs] identified OMGs (outlaw motorcycle gangs) first over street and prison gangs” in certain areas of the country. The report also notes that this caught officials off guard because of the small percentage of gang members that biker gangs represent, about 2.5 percent of the 1.4 million total gang members across the U.S.

Jay Dobyns is a former special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms. He infiltrated the Hells Angels in the early 2000s by going undercover and posing as a gunrunner, and is one of the only undercover law-enforcement agents to be offered full membership to the club (a claim the Hells Angels dispute). He agrees that the threat OMGs pose is significant and is often ignored by law enforcement and the general public.

“[Things like Waco] happen all the time. Maybe not to that scale, but these guys are going after each other all the time,” he told Vocativ. “They are a huge threat, especially as some of these groups begin to encroach on each other’s territory.”

Another former federal law-enforcement official who worked almost exclusively on OMGs for more than five years agrees that they are a serious threat that aren’t taken nearly as seriously as they probably should be. “It’s not the numbers, it’s the types of crimes they propagate,” the former agent said. “They’re global, and these aren’t dopey gear-heads cooking speed in some trailer. These guys are smart and they’re organized more than ever before.”

Contemporary biker gangs are like any other 21st-century organization. They have websites, social media accounts and a command structure like that of a fraternity; there is generally a collective national organization made up of dozens—or in some cases hundreds—of local chapters. Each chapter has a president, a vice-president, a secretary, a treasurer and a sergeant at arms.

Of the more than 3,000 OMGs across the country, federal authorities view the Hells Angels, the Pagans, the Outlaws, the Iron Horsemen and the Bandidos as the most dangerous in the nation. The Bandidos were one of three clubs involved in Sunday’s shootout in Waco, which left nine bikers dead and 18 others hospitalized. It’s unclear what prompted Sunday’s melee.

Today’s outlaw biker gangs are involved in a wide range of crimes, officials say. While they’ve stuck with traditional moneymakers like drugs, firearms and extortion, they are starting to get involved in things like human trafficking, prostitution and even white-collar crimes like counterfeiting and money laundering.

Several OMGs, like the Hells Angels, the Vagos and the Mongols, have partnered with Mexican drug cartels to do things like distribute drugs and act as security for smugglers. Prison gangs, including the Aryan Brotherhood, have formed similar partnerships.

“Biker gangs used to cook their own meth, but they realized that the cartels cook better meth, which makes sense because it’s what they do for a living,” Dobyns explains, noting that Mexican cartels have easier access to the precursor chemicals needed for large-scale meth production.

However, the distribution networks the biker gangs have had for decades still exist, and that’s valuable to the cartels. “In any drug game, it’s who owns the territory that is what causes these fights,” Dobyns says. “Texas is a very valuable state for anyone in the drug trade because [the large border with Mexico] is important for smuggling operations.”

Federal authorities have designated a number of these clubs “outlaw biker gangs,” which means law enforcement can then use a special set of more aggressive tactics against the bikers’ alleged illegal activities. The most significant, says attorney Richard Gaxiola, who has represented a number of members of the Hells Angels MC, is the RICO statute, which essentially allows for law enforcement to treat motorcycle clubs as they would the mafia and other organized-crime groups. Under this statute, a member can be charged with a crime committed by any other member of the organization.

In December 2012, federal officials used the RICO law to convict seven members of the Wheels of Soul OMG for racketeering charges that included murder, conspiracy to commit murder and other organized crime-related charges. Also in 2012, federal authorities used RICO laws to indict 19 members of a Hells Angels chapter in South Carolina for drug and weapons violations.

The haul from the bust was more than 100 weapons, including machine guns, silencers, assault rifles and semi-automatic pistols.

Local law-enforcement officials in Waco have described the shootout on Sunday as one of the most gruesome crime scenes they’d ever seen. More than 170 bikers have been arrested and face capital murder charges. The fighting, officials say, is likely to continue.

“These guys fight over colors, over territory, over money—this is their religion,” Dobyns says. “They will fight to the death and don’t care who gets in the way.”