The Biker Gang Code For Killing
What exactly triggered Sunday’s deadly shootout between two biker gangs in Texas remains unclear—speculation ranges from something as minor as a dispute over a parking spot to something as major as the latest escalation in a vast turf war between the Bandidos and a smaller biker club, the Cossacks. Almost all of the rumors are plausible, given the strict code by which outlaw biker gangs live.
“These guys fight over colors, over territory, over money—this is their religion,” Jay Dobyns, a former ATF special agent who infiltrated an outlaw biker gang in the early 2000s, told Vocativ. “They will fight to the death and don’t care who gets in the way.”
The majority of the violent acts committed by outlaw bikers are against rival biker gangs. The colors of the patches on a biker’s vest may seem unimportant to the average person, but outlaw motorcycle clubs hold their vests and their colors sacred; in addition to representing a biker’s achievements—like the Hells Angels’ “Filthy Few” patch, which a biker gets for murdering someone—what they wear also identifies his allegiences and the territory his gang controls.
On March 22, a group of Bandidos in Palo Pinto County, Texas—about 100 miles from the scene of Sunday’s shootout—saw a member of the Cossacks getting gas at a truck stop. The Bandidos ordered the Cossack to remove the “Texas” patch from his vest. When the biker refused, the Bandidos beat him with a hammer and stole his vest, according to a May 1 Texas law enforcement bulletin warning of an escalation in tensions between the two gangs. The memo was titled “Tension between Bandidos OMG and Cossacks MC remains high in Texas,” and was first obtained by WFFA. OMG (Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs) is the government term for biker clubs that it believes are engaged in criminal enterprises.
“The fact that they were wearing a Texas bottom rocker is a direct affront to the Bandidos,” said Steve Cook, executive director of the Midwest Outlaw Motorcycle Gang Investigators Association. “This is just not something you do. Texas is a Bandido-controlled state, and for the Cossacks to do that…they had to know there was going to be retribution for it.” The “bottom rocker” is the part of the patch that identifies where the biker is from.
Territory is a big deal for biker gangs. Most areas generally have a dominant club—in Texas, it’s the Bandidos—that the smaller clubs (support clubs) pay dues to and adhere to that group’s policies. Recognizing these territories is about respect, but it’s also about who controls the illegal activity that goes on within those boundaries. As former special agent Dobyns explains, “Texas is a very valuable state for anyone in the drug trade because [the large border with Mexico] is important for smuggling operations.” Outlaw biker gangs also are increasingly involved in human smuggling, another crime for which the border is important.
As Dobyns says, money is also a factor that leads to problems between biker gangs. In the case of the Bandidos and the Cossacks, the Texas law enforcement memo detailed how the Cossacks stopped paying dues to the Bandidos. “Initially, the Cossacks chapters paid their dues, but felt disrespected once members became aware that some Bandidos support clubs did not pay the same fees. As a result, the Cossacks chapters stopped paying the Bandidos,” the memo states. It was the Bandidos and the Cossacks that were at the center of Sunday’s violence, which left nine people dead and led to the arrests of 172 people.
While most biker-related violence happens between rival gangs it sometimes affects the general public, typically when a biker feels he’s been disrespected. In 2008, two members of the Hells Angels in Scottsdale, Arizona, savagely beat a man with a beer bottle because he accidentally bumped into them at a bar. In 2001, a group of Hells Angels felt that a woman who was hanging out at their clubhouse was “mouthing off,” so they beat her, stabbed her repeatedly and then drove her into the desert and left her for dead.
Outlaw biker gangs take their organizations very seriously—becoming a member is not easy, so anyone posing as a member of an OMG who isn’t actually in the gang is a big deal for bikers. In 2001, Michael “Santa” Walsh was telling people in Washington that he was a member of the Hells Angels, even though he wasn’t. A group of Hells Angels found out about his phony claim and lured him to a party where they fatally shot him.
“These are dangerous people,” Dobyns said. “They are a huge threat and need to be taken seriously.”