Biker Gangs in America
Outlaw motorcycle gangs, better known as biker gangs by the public, are defined by the U.S. Department of Justice as organizations that use motorcycle clubs as a means to carry out criminal activities. It is estimated that over 300 biker gangs run illegal operations within the United States1.
Technically, not all biker gangs meet the Department of Justice’s criteria for criminal organizations. But many of the members of these outlaw motorcycle gangs (OMGs) do carry out illegal activities as individuals.
Some are composed of just a few people, operating as one-off chapters of a local club. Other bike gangs have several hundred chapters and function not only nationally, but internationally through major drug-trafficking organizations.
A few of these OMGs, “the Big Four,” have become powerful criminal organizations, carrying out most of the criminal activity associated with biker gangs1. They dabble in the illegal drug trade, weapons trafficking, and participate in violent crimes such as robbery, assault, and homicide as a means of maintaining control. These OMGs are homegrown national threats—domestic terrorists. So how did they come to power in the U.S. anyhow?
It all started just after World War II. The American Motorcycle Association (AMA) was sponsoring a motorcycle hill-climbing event in California. This event was attended by the Pissed Off Bastards of Bloomington (if you can’t tell by their name, they were not a family-friendly motorcycle chapter). Upon their arrival, the hill-climbing event evolved into a week of chaos and fights.
The riot that broke out during this contest was the first of several riots to occur throughout 1947-1948. The community of Riverside, California, would be targeted during motorcycle enthusiast events they were hosting. The competitions would digress into violence. The Riverside police chief pointed the finger at biker outlaws passing through the town to wreak havoc. Thus, the origin of the term outlaw motorcycle gangs came to be2.
In 1950, while in San Bernardino, the Pissed Off Bastards of Bloomington changed their name to—that’s right—the Hells Angels. They would go on to become one of the most widespread, internationally-known biker gangs. Soon after this, the Pagans, the Outlaws, and the Bandidos would form2.
By the 60s, the AMA was getting tired of their reputation being sullied by outlaw motorcyclists. The former AMA president made an effort to mend the relationship with the public. He announced that “99 percent” of motorcycle enthusiasts were regular, law-abiding persons who enjoyed the hobby of motorcycle riding and the social connection gained from it. This announcement inspired outlaw motorcyclists to take up the nickname one-percenters, denoting that they did not align themselves with the values of the AMA.
As the culture changed in the 1970s, drug use became more prevalent, more experimental. The increased use of drugs awoke a drive for profit within American biker gangs. With one-percenters increased demand from the public for illegal substances, the drug trade became the beginning of organized crime for OMGs. Ever since then, outlaw biker gangs have been developing into highly-organized crime syndicates.
Let’s take a look at some of the most significant biker gangs within U.S. organized crime and how you might know them.
Bandidos, Motto: “We are the people our parents warned us about.”
Members of the U.S. faction of the Bandidos have been charged with conspiracy, witness tampering, and murder. Perhaps you heard about the 2015 Waco, Texas gun battle that resulted in the deaths of nine people. Or the 2006 Bandidos massacre in Toronto, Ontario, CA, which became the province’s most significant mass killing in modern times3.
Hells Angels, Motto: “When we do right, nobody remembers. When we do wrong, nobody forgets.”
With over a hundred charters across the world, the Hells Angels are considered the largest of the one-percenter biker gangs4. The Hells Angels Motorcycle Club has touted itself as an organization that hosts events and brings together motorcycle lovers. Thus, distancing themselves from their reputation as an organized crime syndicate. However, they have seen more than their fair share of members being arrested and imprisoned, including founder Sonny Barger.
Mongols, Motto: “Respect Few, Fear None.”
The Mongols are listed by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) as the most violent of the American biker gangs. Yet members of the Mongols share that they are veterans seeking support from other veterans within the club. Their website also notes that many Vietnam vets joined the Mongols after the war. It seems that not everyone in the club is there for social support, though, and unfortunately, deaths have resulted from clashes with other gangs. They have often been under the watch of law enforcement. An undercover operation called “Black Rain” infiltrated the Mongol biker gang, resulting in 110 arrest warrants being served by 2008. Recently, their right to display the Mongol logo has been challenged in court by the feds5.
Outlaws, Motto: “God Forgives, Outlaws Don’t” and “ADIOS” (Angels Die In Outlaw States).
With mottos like that, one can’t help but have second thoughts about inviting the Outlaws over for dinner. Former Outlaws president, Taco Bowman, was incarcerated in 1999 following his sentencing for three murders—but not before making it onto the F.B.I.’s Most Wanted list6. The Outlaws biker gang has managed to maintain relative control of the Canadian border in regards to drug trafficking. And if you hadn’t guessed from their motto, their ultimate rival is the Hells Angels.
The Black Pistons are a support club for the Outlaws. Why create a support club? Well, these smaller biker gangs exist to carry out drug deals and maintain control of Outlaw territories through assaults and intimidation. They are in charge of the less savory aspects of organized crime6. But the Black Pistons note that not everyone in the club is up to no good. Their website clearly states that “Motorcycle Clubs Are Not Street Gangs.”
Pagans, Motto: “Live and Die.”
The Pagans or “Pagan Nation,” have recently been in the news following the increase of violent clashes between the Pagans and rival biker gangs in New Jersey. Hugo Nieves, suspected of being the Pagan Motorcycle Club’s national vice president, shared in his subpoenaed testimony this October. He said, “It is not the policy of this club to engage in any criminal activity.” Unfortunately, some members of the Pagans do have racketeering, assault, and attempted murder on their criminal resumes. What’s more, membership numbers have been rising dramatically as of 20167.
Sons of Silence (SOSMC), Motto: “Donec mors non separat,” Latin for “Until death separates us.”
Founded by Bruce “The Dude” Richardson in 1966, the SOSMC has chapters across the U.S. and Germany. “The Dude” was incarcerated for several years after abducting a doctor who allegedly owned his wife a large sum of money. Allies of the Hells Angels, the Sons of Silence, have been known to support white supremacy and use Nazi symbolism. However, it is unclear how prevalent this is within the biker gang. They are also listed on the Terrorism and Analysis Consortium website as using extortion, murder, and torture tactics8.
Though the criminal activity associated with biker gangs in the U.S. is still present, their membership is aging. Therefore, their foray into organized crime may be coming to an end9. Biker gangs have certainly been making their rounds in the media lately. Nonetheless, with law officials promising to crack down on illegal biker gang activity, things may be mellowing out shortly. Let’s hope that soon, enjoying the open road and suing yo-yo companies will be all for which the biker gangs are known.
1The Editors of the USDOJ website. “Motorcycle Gangs.” The United States Department of Justice. Retrieved from https://web.archive.org/web/20140415074158/http://www.justice.gov:80/criminal/ocgs/gangs/motorcycle.html on Dec.7, 2019.
2The Editors of the California Department of Justice Document (1988). “Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs USA Overview.” National Crime Justice Reference Service. Retrieved from https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/Digitization/147691NCJRS.pdf on Dec.7, 2019.
3Edwards, P. (2016, April 7). “The Bandidos massacre: An ‘execution assembly line’ wiped out the Toronto biker gang 10 years ago”. The Star. Retrieved from https://www.thestar.com/news/crime/2016/04/07/the-bandidos-massacre-an-execution-assembly-line-wiped-out-the-toronto-biker-gang-10-years-ago.html.
4The Editors of the One-Percenter Bikers website. “Hells Angels MC (Motorcycle Club).” One-Percenter Bikers. Retrieved from https://onepercenterbikers.com/hells-angels-motorcycle-club/ on Dec. 7, 2019.
5Whiting, D. (2019, June 20). “Lift the curtain of secrecy surrounding Mongols motorcycle club, and you discover the outlaw way, and much more.” The Orange County Register. Retrieved from https://www.ocregister.com/2019/06/20/lift-the-curtain-of-secrecy-surrounding-mongols-motorcycle-club-and-you-discover-the-outlaw-way-and-much-more/ on Dec. 7, 2019.
6Gallagher, B. (2014, June 17). “The 10 Most Dangerous Biker Gangs in America”. Complex. Retrieved from https://www.complex.com/sports/2014/06/10-most-dangerous-motorcycle-gangs-in-america/outlaws-motorcycle-club on Dec. 7, 2019.
7Napoliello, A. (2019, Oct.4). “The Pagan’s Motorcycle Club is expanding in record numbers. Here’s why N.J. officials are worried”. N.J.com. Retrieved from https://www.nj.com/news/2019/10/the-pagans-motorcycle-club-is-expanding-in-record-numbers-heres-why-nj-officials-are-worried.html
8Editors of TRAC website. (2019). “Sons of Silence Motorcycle Club (SOSMC).” Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium. Retrieved from https://www.trackingterrorism.org/group/sons-silence-motorcycle-club-sosmc
9Benson, T. (2016, Jan.9). “How Biker Gangs Have Changed Over the Decades.” ATTN: Retrieved from https://archive.attn.com/stories/5021/history-of-biker-gangs