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Texas shootout puts outlaw motorcycle gangs in organized crime spotlight

Organized crime charges filed against 170 suspects in a fatal shootout between rival motorcycle gangs in Waco, Texas, has sparked a national discussion on the pervasiveness of criminal biker groups in the United States and abroad.

On Sunday, May 17, up to 200 members of biker clubs, mostly the Bandidos and the Cossacks, clashed with guns, knives and other weapons at a restaurant, apparently after one member drove over the foot of a rival member. The Bandidos also were reportedly upset that the Cossacks were trying to infringe on the Bandidos’ claim to Texas as their turf.

In the end, nine members of both clubs died, all from gunshot wounds, and 18 were wounded. The Waco Police Department arrested 170 in the melee, according to the department’s Facebook page.

On Monday, a McLennan County judge in Waco, alluding to the outbreak of violence at the Twin Peaks restaurant in a busy public shopping mall, set bail at $1 million for each of the biker gang suspects who were in such high numbers that authorities had to herd them into a convention center for processing. All were being held on a felony charge of “engaging in organized crime,” according to the McLennan County sheriff’s office.

Authorities in Texas had an inkling of trouble brewing with the gangs more than two weeks earlier. The Dallas TV station WFAA obtained a copy of a bulletin issued May 1 by the Texas Department of Public Safety warning that tension between the Bandidos and Cossacks “remains high in Texas.”

Both the Bandidos and Cossacks clubs were formed in Texas in the 1960s, but the Bandidos, notorious for drug trafficking among other serious crimes, is far larger and among the five most threatening outlaw motorcycle gangs, or OMGs, in the United States, serving as mobile instruments for criminal enterprises, according to the U.S. Justice Department’s 2013 National Gang Report.

The Bandidos, based in the western and south-central United States, are known for trafficking cocaine and marijuana, producing, transporting and distributing methamphetamine, as well as for prostitution and human trafficking. In the northwest, they also form “puppet clubs” of small groups that travel across the Canadian border to traffic in marijuana, cocaine and prescription drugs.

There is little to go on about the Cossacks, who are not mentioned in any of the Justice Department reports on OMGs. However, according to the Los Angeles Times, on November 2, 2013, five people were injured after Cossacks members fought with the Bandidos outside a roadhouse in Abilene, Texas, resulting in two gang members being charged with assault, including the reported leader of the Bandidos.

More than 300 OMGs operate across the United States, from chapters of only a half-dozen members to major ones such as the Hells Angels with thousands of members branching out into foreign countries where they take part in drug-smuggling schemes with international drug-trafficking organizations, or DTOs, primarily Mexican and Central American cartels, according to the Justice Department.

“The Hells Angels, Mongols, Bandidos, Outlaws and Sons of Silence pose a serious national domestic threat and conduct the majority of criminal activity linked to OMGs, especially activity related to drug trafficking and, more specifically, to cross-border drug smuggling,”  the Justice Department reports.

The Bandidos and the more-infamous Hells Angels are the top two motorcycle clubs active in the United States and have about the same number of members, 2,000 to 2,500. The Hells Angels have more than 230 chapters in the United States and 26 foreign countries – including 92 chapters in 27 U.S. states – while the Bandidos have divisions in America – with about 900 members in 93 chapters — and in 13 other countries.

The Hells Angels, described by the Justice Department as posing “a criminal threat on six continents,” produce and distribute marijuana and methamphetamine, transport cocaine, hashish, heroin, LSD, ecstasy, PCP and diverted prescription drugs and take part in criminal acts such as assault, extortion, murder, money laundering and motorcycle thefts, according to the Justice Department.

The Mongols, made up primarily of Hispanic men who are former street gang members from Los Angeles, use violence to settle scores, and in the 1980s they wrested control of Southern California from the Hells Angels. The club has collaborated with the Bandidos, Outlaws, Sons of Silence and Pagans to oppose the Hells Angels. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) has described the Mongols as “the most violent and dangerous OMG in the nation.”

Members of other lesser-known motorcycle gangs, some with ties to American organized crime families, have been the target of federal and state prosecutions. The Justice Department’s 2013 report cites the case of seven members of the Wheels of Soul, a Philadelphia-based club with chapters in 25 states, who were convicted in federal court in St. Louis in December 2012 in a racketeering conspiracy that included murder, attempted murder, conspiracy to commit murder and tampering with evidence from the 2009 murders of two members of the rival Sin City Titans club. In April 2013, two members of the Wheels of Soul were sentenced, one defendant to two life terms in prison without parole, the other to 26 years imprisonment, for their roles in the racketeering conspiracy.

According to the Justice Department, some U.S.-based OMGs team up with American as well as African, Asian, Caribbean, Eurasian, Italian and Russian crime syndicates in street crimes such as extortion, enforcement, debt collection and money laundering. For instance, in November 2012 in New York, three individuals tied to the Demon Knights motorcycle club, affiliated with the Hells Angels, along with members of the Westies street gang and the Gambino crime family, were indicted by a grand jury on extortion charges for threatening a man in Queens who failed to repay a $50,000 loan.

Beyond drug smuggling and other crimes, the Bandidos, Hells Angels and other OMGs also seek to have members who are without criminal records attempt to gain employment with the branches of the U.S. military and law enforcement agencies, correctional facilities and even courts for access to training, weapons and information that could disrupt investigations into the clubs’ criminal activities.

The Justice Department report mentions 18 OMGs whose members have tried for or obtained jobs in the military or in law enforcement. Members of the Bandidos either made it into the military or had applied to get in and members of the Hells Angels had joined or applied for positions in both the military and law enforcement.

Jeff Burbank, a longtime journalist, is a content development specialist for The Mob Museum. Contact him at jburbank@themobmuseum.org.