A Quick Primer on Outlaw Biker Gangs - Pacific Standard

A Quick Primer on Outlaw Biker Gangs

Six interesting points on those two-wheeled organized crime outfits.
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A member of the Bandidos Motorcycle Club's Alabama branch. (Photo: Tony/Flickr)

A member of the Bandidos Motorcycle Club's Alabama branch. (Photo: Tony/Flickr)

Despite the literal noise they make, outlaw motorcycle gangs generally tend to keep a low profile in the media. Their attempts to stay off the public radar were, of course, disrupted by the melee that took place Sunday in Waco, Texas, where a feud between two or more such gangs left at least nine bikers dead, 18 others wounded, and 192 under arrest.

In a paper published in the Justice Policy Journal in 2012, Danielle Shields, who is now with the Rutgers University School of Criminal Justice, summarized a large body of recent academic research on these gangs, including the Bandidos, one of the two (the other is the Cossacks) believed to be primarily responsible for Sunday’s violence. Here are a few of the disturbing facts she compiled:

1. THE OTHER ONE PERCENT

Proving how fuzzy our knowledge of these gangs really is, the National Gang Intelligence estimated in 2008 that there are between 280 and 520 motorcycle gangs in the United States, "with a total of roughly 20,000 confirmed members."  While these cyclists engage in "drug and firearms trafficking, violent offenses, money laundering, theft, prostitution, gambling, and extortion," they are best known "for their widespread distribution of personal use methamphetamine." As Shields writes: "Individual members of such clubs proudly call themselves ‘one percenters,’ a nickname that originated from a comment made by the American Motorcycle Association that 99 percent of bikers follow the law."

2. A SPECIFIC SET OF CULTURAL NORMS

"Outlaw motorcycle gangs thrive on the need to be perceived as outlaws, and live on the fringe of traditional societal values, but still feel the need to pursue influence and a feeling of powerfulness," Shields notes. The culture is also defined by "a certain element of ‘romance’ due to the risk-taking that is inherent in riding a motorcycle. [Members] also value respect and honor, and are willing to go to great, and extremely violent, lengths to avenge acts of disrespect, evidenced by the bitter rivalries [between hostile gangs]." Hence the carnage in the Waco parking lot.

3. TWO DISTINCT PSYCHOLOGICAL PROFILES OF MEMBERS

A 2001 study found two distinct member types to these groups. "While ‘conservative’ members seek to enjoy the fraternal aspects of belonging to a club, as well as the reckless abandon that comes with being a biker, they are not inherently criminal," Shields writes. "'Radical' individuals, however, are committed to the criminal aspects of existing in an outlaw motorcycle gang. Though both radical and conservative individuals may exist within the same one percenter club, one group is typically dominant."

4. THE MILITARY CONNECTION

The Bandidos Motorcycle Club, one of the clubs involved in Sunday’s incident, was founded in Texas in 1966 by an ex-Marine. Several other top gangs were also founded by former members of the military, which, Shields writes, may contribute to their "sophisticated leadership styles, emphasis on brotherhood, and skill with weaponry."

5. HOW THE BANDIDOS ROLL

The club, named for Mexican bandits of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, boasts an estimated 900 members in nearly 90 chapters across 16 states, as well as more than 1,000 members in other countries. Its motto: "We are the people our parents warned us about." Members are "required to attend meetings (nicknamed ‘church’) four times a month, and are penalized if they do not show up," according to Shields. "Potential members, or prospects, are required to serve the club for a period of at least one year before they are admitted." Once the prospect makes the cut, they "reportedly engage in a particularly vile initiation process," in which other group members "urinate, defecate, and vomit” on the initiate’s vest. "The new member would then put the now-moist vest back on, hop on his bike, and go motoring until the vest had dried."

6. THEIR P.R. APPARATUS IS SURPRISINGLY EFFECTIVE

Outlaw gangs have managed to "conceal the structure of their organization and the exact nature of their activities from the public," Shields writes, thanks in part to "efforts to improve their public image" such as charity runs and chapter websites. Don’t be fooled: While concrete data on these mobile groups is hard to come by, they "pose an alarming threat"—as evidenced by this weekend’s tragic events.

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