Feature Articles

April 2007
Biker Mafia

By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus

Mike La Sorte is a professor emeritus (SUNY) and writes extensively on a variety of subjects.

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"Once considered nothing more than rowdy toughs on two-wheelers, motorcycle gangs have evolved into crime units that are sufficiently well-oiled and well-organized to rival the mafia. They have become organized crime entities equal to the mafia on all fronts. Biker gangs are organized internationally. They have written constitutions, by-laws and a hierarchical leadership structure." (Criminal Intelligence Division, Maryland State Police)

     Outlaw biker clubs are alleged to represent a new and potent facet of global organized crime, and rivals to the traditional mafia clans. While mafias, old and the more recent, seek to act below the radar, don��t have written constitutions, and function in the legitimate economy, the bikers wear their colors openly, with immense pride for what they are, and have an in-your-face attitude.

     Outlaw Bikers feed on fear and violence, allowing them to run narcotics, gun trafficking and prostitution operations across North America and overseas. Violence occurs often for its own sake��turning the other cheek is not a biker value��with frequent battles among Biker clubs to obtain supremacy and to control the markets of illicit trade. The Mongols have the reputation of being constantly combative and anarchic��"Respect few, fear none," is one of their many mottos that legitimate their conduct. The Canadian Hell��s Angels are considered second to the established Italian-Canadian and French-Canadian mafias, moving cocaine and hashish to several offshore markets. (Whether the Angels rise to the level of a true and proper drug cartel is debatable.)

     Pledging to be a member of a biker chapter is not for the hesitant or timid. Commitment must be total and the tests that "prospects" must undergo are very taxing. Paranoia among the outlaw bikers is acknowledged. There is a deep mistrust of outsiders; bikers are on constant alert for those who seek to befriend them or to penetrate their closed, elite brotherhood. William Queen��s experience as a police undercover agent taught him that, "It��s no small feat to become a bona fide member of an outlaw motorcycle gang; it entails tests of loyalty, fortitude, stamina, and physical prowess. Their background investigations into prospective members rival that of military clearance checks." (W. Queen, Under and Alone, 2005)

     The most interesting and also troubling aspect of the outlaw Biker phenomenon is that this once uniquely American subculture, which had its origins in returning GIs after the Second World War, has taken root in several countries, even Japan. "Public Safety Canada" recently reported that the "outlaw motorcycle clubs have become increasingly sophisticated. They are well organized and well armed. They have a complex hierarchical structure, and their reach extends to the international stage." Authorities state that currently Bikers control the majority of marijuana cultivation and trafficking in Canada.

     The transformation of the Hell's Angels into an organized crime structure began in the late 1960s. The Angels is the largest clan, with some 3000 members in several American states and twenty-five countries. The first Hell's Angels' chapter outside the U.S. was founded in New Zealand in 1961, followed by England in 1969, Switzerland (1970), Canada (1977), and Australia (1969). There are Bandidos' chapters in thirteen nations and Outlaws' in eleven. The scenario of outlaw Bikers is far from static--chapters lose their charters, are absorbed into other biker organizations, or they are rendered impotent because of police intervention or inter-gang struggles for turf. The Outlaws rule in the Midwest and the Bandidos have their home base in Texas.

     Australia has been fertile ground for the growth of Biker criminality, known there as "Bikie" gangs. Australia has seen the introduction of Hell's Angels, Bandidos, Rebels, Coffin Cheaters and the Gypsy Jokers. The totality of Bikies is estimated at 3000, more per capita than any other nation.

     Aussie Bikie gangs have gone abroad. On 3 September 2004 the Perth-based Coffin Cheaters established a chapter in Norway, "patching over" the Forbidden Few and becoming the first non-American club to go international. The Hell's Angels and the Bandidos control Norway. The Australian Crime Commission reported that, "Outlaw motorcycle gangs are establishing connections in Southeast Asia and are believed to be increasingly sourcing amphetamine-type precursors from Thailand and Vietnam."

     A large number of clandestine drug labs have been uncovered Down Under. Bikie business has become big business. Illicit profits are being plowed into a number of legitimate businesses, such as construction and entertainment.

     A new generation of biker entrepeneurs is accumulating wealth and middle-class respectability as Bikers move from petty individual and opportunistic crimes and scams to the more organized and lucrative variety.


Hell's Angels: "Taking care of business"

Angels will often on meeting say to each other, "I love you."

Outlaws: "God forgives; Outlaws don't"

Bandidos: "We are the people our parents warned us about."

     According to estimates, the Hell's Angels, among all of the Biker gangs, represent the greatest threat to the social fabric because of their ruthlessness and total lack of conscience. After dealing with the chapter in Medocino County, California, Deputy Sheriff Phil Pintane concluded that the Angels are rejects from society, "It's their job to get into trouble. It is their job to deal drugs. It's their job to kill people." They have their own form of omertá. They feel constrained to "take care of business." There is total solidarity to the group norm, a "one for all and all for one" attitude, a regimentation, that is enforced through lethal means. Their expressions of mutual "love" symbolize their allegiance to the group norm. A Canadian journalist, Yves Lavigne, in his book "Hell's Angels" (1987), calls Bikers "predators, white trash on wheels. They take what they want, when they want it��.If they weren't so greedy and paranoid the Hell's Angels could become the overlords of crime."

     All Bikers demonstrate the outlaw mentality. This includes the Mongols that want nothing to do with anything legitimate. They are always looking for the angle; for them the world is a place for defrauding. Rocky, a full patch member of the Mongol Nation, expressed such sentiments to undercover officer William Queen, who was applying to be a "prospect" for membership. "This ain't no club," Rocky exclaimed, "We're outlaws. I've had to do things that would send me to prison for years if I got caught. You ready for that? We're outlaws. You need to know that. You need to know that. You need to understand what you're getting into." (W. Queen, Under and Alone, 2005)

     What Queen would be "getting into" is expressed by the Mongols' fight song, with these lyrics:

"We are Mongol raiders

We're raiders of the night

We're dirty sons of b------

We'd rather f--- and fight

We castrate the sheriffs with a dirty piece of glass

And shove our rusty knives up their f------ a--

Hidy--hidy--Christ Almighty

Mongols M.C.!"

     Those who have observed outlaw Bikers at close range, and who have delved into their personalities and backgrounds, say they are completely alienated from mainline society. The Biker chapter is the only real home they have ever experienced and it is only within that context that they feel themselves to be men. Most are unskilled and uneducated, with no social or economic credentials. Their argot is coarse and vulgar, and their notions of right and wrong authoritarian (do not ever argue with a Biker), and not in keeping with the conventional wisdom. What they do have, beyond a colorful police record, is a fine knowledge of motorcycles, which they ride with the mastery of cowboys riding horses in Hollywood movies.

They lack the kind of self-discipline and emotional control that enables normal people to plan for the future, educate themselves, and build careers. Bikers are impulsive, explosive, hyperactive, easily bored, prone to sadistic violence, manifesting psychiatric tendencies and are pathological liars. Parole officers have noted that many are sociopaths, making them in their opinion poor subjects for rehabilitation. "They are malcontents who are looking for a way to get even with a world in which they have no proper place and are only a problem." (Michael Detroit, Chain of Evidence, 1994)

     Hunter S. Thompson, who rode with the Angels for one year as a journalist, whose going away gift was to be ritually beaten and kicked, concluded that the "Hell's Angels and their ilk" are lost souls. "They are the sons of poor men and drifters, losers and sons of losers. Their backgrounds are overwhelmingly ordinary. (H.S. Thompson, Hell's Angels, 1999, 1966)

     Yves Lavigne's view of Bikers is none less critical: They are Neanderthaloids, "nothing more than groups of gonad-driven greaseballs on wheels��.Charles Darwin would recognize in outlaw motorcycle gangs his missing link. Sigmund Freud would marvel at the "Id" unleashed. Karl Marx would see capitalism run wild." (Y. Lavigne, Hell's Angels, 1987)

     A greater love hath no Biker than his bike. It is much more than a means of transportation. The bike defines the man--"It's all we have," one Angel told H.S. Thompson. The criminologist Bernard Diamond applied Freudian psychology to understanding the Biker's idol of worship. "The motorcycle is obviously a sexual symbol. It's what's called a phallic locomotor symbol. It's an extension of one's body, a power between one's legs."

"Biker gangs, like the Hell's Angels, are nothing more than multinational corporations--and they're certainly interested in pursuing business opportunities." (Pat Scheider, U.S. Assistant District Attorney, Phoenix)

"The Hell's Angels are the new mafia. They have gone from a loose-knit bunch of guys to an organized crime family." (San Diego U.S. Marshall)

"We're no different from anyone else. The Hell's Angels are not involved in anything but motorcycling. The government is waging a smear campaign against us." (Sonny Barger, Hell's Angels, Oakland chapter)

"We're not racketeers. We're not Al Capone. We're not Marlon Brando. We're human beings��.The media have sensationalized our image." (Butch Garcia, Hell's Angels, New York City chapter)

     Criminals rationalize, and the authorities and the media tend to exaggerate, for their own purposes, the alleged deeds of outlaws and the threat they present to John Q. Public. Each group has its own agenda. The truth of the matter can only be approximated, because all criminal gangs are secret societies by necessity and thus do not readily give up their inner lives and structures.

     With the traditional mafias as our model, there are obvious differences between organized crime and Biker gangs. The Bikers sole purpose is not to engage in illicit-profit schemes. While they do engage in trafficking, extortion, etc., being a criminal enterprise does not motivate its members. It is the total fidelity to the band of brothers. They are outlaws in the complete sense. A form of legitimacy, as a future goal, is not in their plans. If an ex-Biker evolves to the level of a larcenous businessman, attired in an expensive three-button suit, can he still be considered part of the Biker fraternity?

     To the extent that outlaw Bikers constitute a subculture of drugged-up sociopaths, this would be detrimental to the success and continuation of a multigenerational criminal enterprise, where rational and future-oriented behavior is essential. To make the point, police officers writing the description of a gang leader's crimes added this notation: "No discernable I.Q.," because of his obvious lack of good judgment in implicating himself.

(M. Detroit, Chain of Evidence, 1974)

     Government lawyers have successfully demonstrated in some cases, by utilizing RICO (Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act), that Biker gangs are a "highly organized criminal enterprise, with a defined, multi-level of command." In a Mongols Motorcycle Club trial, the court found that the Mongols had 200 members in Southern California and many chapters in other states. Each had a president, vice president, sergeant at arms, and secretary-treasurer. A percentage of all income was paid to a Mother chapter, which acted as a Commission (in the mafia sense), representing the Mongol Nation as a whole.

     In the U.S., the long established RICO statutes are the primary weapons employed against outlaw Bikers. Justice officials use RICO to prove that members do not commit individual crimes, but function as an ongoing criminal unit.

     The question remains open to debate. It is apparent, however, that outlaw Biker gangs do have some of the characteristics essential to be designated as mafia-like in appearance. Bikers have a code of honor, of sorts. They will always rush to the aid of a fellow Biker, and never allow an insult or injury to themselves or to their families to occur without retaliation. More importantly, they display a structured hierarchy and maintain a strong discipline within the ranks. Their organizational charts resemble that of traditional organized crime. There is the equivalent of a family capo, a consigliere, underbosses, lieutenants, and members at the bottom of the organizational pyramid who occupy the status of "soldiers." In addition, they seek to corrupt police and public officials and use affiliates to manipulate and influence legitimate persons. However, they do not seek to subvert the State mechanism. Outlaw Bikers remain outside the society, as did the malcontented highway brigands of old, who were the Bikers of their era. That is the essential significance of the term "outlaw."

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