The biker gang wars are back.
With clashes between the Outlaws, Hells Angels, Mongols, Bandidos, and Pagans, police have launched intensified crackdowns across the nation and in Canada, and think we are at the start of a new war on wheels.
"I think it's just starting. I think it's going to be a long, hot summer in the biker world," said Detective Al Goetz, a Long Island, N.Y., officer who has investigated bikers for more than two decades.
Goetz and others in law enforcement consider the so-called "outlaw motorcycle clubs" a breed apart from most bikers, and describe them as fundamentally criminal organizations.
Supporters of the Big Five outlaw clubs — the Hells Angels, Pagans, Outlaws, Bandidos, and Mongols — insist the vast majority of members are law-abiding citizens with nothing more than a rebellious streak and an affinity for Harley Davidsons.
They say police are unfairly targeting them because of their reputations and image.
No one disputes the recent increase in violent clashes between the clubs, however, or the current crackdown by law enforcement agencies.
On Wednesday, Canadian police raided clubhouses and homes belonging to the Bandidos and arrested 62 club members.
Quebec's Hells Angels leader, Maurice "Mom" Boucher, was sentenced in May to life in prison for ordering the killings of two prison guards. He is appealing the convictions.
In April, a meeting of the principal clubs in Laughlin, Nev., turned deadly. Two Hells Angels and a Mongol were killed during a gun and knife battle in Harrah's casino there, and a third Hells Angels member was shot and killed while leaving town.
The Laughlin meeting was meant to settle disputes between the groups, but it appears more violence is on the way.
In February, a group of Pagans clashed with Hells Angels at the Angels' annual Hellraiser Ball on Long Island, N.Y. The incident left one Pagan dead and a Hells Angel charged with murder.
The recent round of violence is only the latest in the long, controversial history of the clubs. Six years ago, Bandidos members fired rocket-propelled grenades at a Hells Angels house in Denmark.
The Hells Angels were founded in California 54 years ago; other groups such as the Pagans and Outlaws soon started their own clubs. Many trace their roots back to groups from the 1930s and 1940s.
With a reputation for toughness and loyalty to fellow club members, the groups quickly carved out a niche in American culture, and movies such as The Wild Ones added to their image as modern-day cowboys.
When the American Motorcycle Association said that 99 percent of riders were law-abiding, the outlaw biker clubs proudly labeled themselves "1%ers," representing motorcyclists who rejected mainstream society.
Outlaw club members still wear "1%er" patches on their jackets, along with their club's insignia, known as "colors." Members of the major outlaw clubs are often called patch-holders, and protecting club symbols can be a matter of life and death, police say.
Hells Angels, Bandidos, Pagans, Outlaws, and Mongols
The Hells Angels today are the largest 1%er club, with chapters across the United States, as well as in Canada, Australia, Europe and elsewhere. They have about 2,100 members, says Lt. Terry Katz, a motorcycle gang expert with the Maryland State Police.
The Bandidos, based in the Southwest are a close second, also with about 2,100 members, following a rapid expansion in recent years.
The Pagans have about 450 members, mostly in the Northeast, and have been hit hard by law enforcement over the past decade.
The Outlaws, with about 1,200 members, are dominant in the Midwest and Southeast. The club's leader, Harry "Taco" Bowman, was convicted last year of racketeering and conspiracy to commit murder.
Finally, the Mongols are a Latino-dominated club based in East Los Angeles, with about 250 members. They were the subject of an extensive Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms undercover investigation into alleged dealings in illegal guns and methamphetamine.
The recent violence between clubs is fundamentally about territory and drugs, Katz says. He believes the clubs support themselves primarily through methamphetamine dealing, trafficking in stolen goods, and extortion.
"Their big money-maker is drugs," he said.
‘Not Choir Boys, But Not Terrorists’
Members and supporters of the clubs say they are rebels but not criminals.
"These guys aren't choir boys, but by the same token they're not the urban terrorists that law enforcement makes them out to be," Charles Mathews, a lawyer for the Mongols, said of his clients.
"Yes, there are some people who have committed crimes who are Mongols," Mathews said. But he insists they are a small percentage of the club.
"They are primarly blue-collar workers," he said. "They have families; they have regular jobs."
Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura joined the Mongols and rode with them in the early 1970s, Mathews says, and there are other examples of outlaw club members participating in mainstream society. These week, a Hells Angel nicknamed "Snob" rode in Queen Elizabeth's jubilee procession, representing "alternative England."
Outlaw clubs are not radically different from the majority of cycle clubs around the country, their supporters insist.
Motorcycle clubs have sprung up to fit almost every corner of society. All of them might look menacing when barreling down the highway in black leather, but 1%er club supporters say that doesn't make them violent criminals. Among the motorcycle clubs are the Soldiers for Jesus, a Christian Motorcycle Association group; the Kings, a club of African-American bikers in Brooklyn, N.Y.; and clubs of law enforcement officers, such as the Blue Knights and Wild Pigs.
Countless mainstream professionals — known as Rich Urban Bikers, or RUBs — have been drawn to the Harley-Davidson's rebellious image, undaunted by the fact that the bikes cost as much as some new cars.
The 1%er clubs are not that different, says Lenny Van Raper, a former leader of the Aliens outlaw motorcycle club. Van Raper says he left the Aliens when the club was incorporated into the Hells Angels in the 1970s.
"Basically it's just guys and gals trying to have a good time," he said. "It's pretty innocent."
Van Raper believes law enforcement has stereotyped the club's members because of a few bad apples.
"They feel that outlaw bikers are a bunch of scumbags and that's it, and that's not true," he says.
"It's the psychopaths and sociopaths that wind up making all these terrible headlines … I'd say out of the whole club that there are half a percent that are hard-core criminals."
Van Raper and other club supporters say the media and the public ignore the good work the clubs do.
More Police Scrutiny
Police insist the outlaw clubs are merely putting up a facade of respectability.
"They're not some stupid people here. They understand that the public's looking at them," said Mark Bond, a professor of criminal justice at American Military University who has studied outlaw clubs.
Law enforcement vigorously pursued the groups in the 1970s. But some officials say their attention turned toward street gangs and crack cocaine and heroin dealers in the 1980s and early 1990s, allowing the groups to regroup.
"They're more organized today than they've ever been," said Bond.
Now, partly in response to the recent violence, authorities are making them a priority once again.