The secret rules of biker gangs

Following the recent biker shootout that claimed nine lives, Andrew Lowry speaks to a former gang member to find out what happened and why. Sons Of Anarchy came to life the weekend before last in Waco, Texas, as a meeting between biker gangs erupted in a hail of bullets. Nine died, 18 were injured and 170 were arrested as violence between the Bandidos and Cossacks gangs spilled into the car park of the Twin Peaks ‘breastaurant’, and waiting police officers got involved. Far from the weird nobility of Sons, this was a nasty, brutal shootout between nasty, brutal men – but who are they, and what are the codes they live by that led them to that day?

The roots of today’s US biker gangs lie in the aftermath of the Second World War, when troubled veterans – many of whom had been trained to ride bikes in the service – came home and struggled to integrate into society. Although, in theory, they’re rooted in the freedom of the open road, these groups sparked immediate moral panics, in particular after the Hollister Riot of 1947, which inspired Marlon Brando’s The Wild One, no matter that it could have been renamed the Hollister Tiff.

An outsider, counter-cultural ethos – violent but not necessarily with criminal sophistication – developed, exploding in popularity in the Sixties, with the Hells Angels both ‘policing’ the Rolling Stones’ disastrous Altamont gig and providing the material for Hunter S Thompson’s breakthrough book.

However, a hardcore kernel were interested in more than just riding bikes, bar fights and not bathing, and over time this self-styled ‘one per cent’ developed into self-styled outlaw gangs who peddle drugs, guns and girls, and occasionally battle over territory – as seemed to happen in Waco.

Biker Gangs
A policeman

A violent fraternity

Entry to these groups isn’t an overnight process, according to Charles Falco – a former drug dealer who went on to infiltrate three of these gangs for law enforcement and now lives under an assumed name. “It’s like pledging for a violent fraternity,” he says. “You’re basically their slaves and, depending on the biker gang, it could be four months or two years. You’re pretty much at these guys’ beck and call 24/7 – they have you hold guns or drugs, and you’re a bodyguard for the president of the chapter that you’re prospecting for. It’s a very hard process – one gang made us fight each other for their entertainment. If you worked as bartender for them and gave them a warm beer, they’d give you a black eye. That was the punishment for most things.”

Like all criminal outfits, these gangs are on guard for police infiltration. Background checks are done on prospective members, and they’re taken to their home towns where their families are questioned to verify who they are. Some chapters even invest in a lie detector. Falco, however, managed to avoid this when a gang he joined put him in charge of their background checks after its president pocketed the money intended for his.

Biker Gangs
A gathering of Bandidos at Galveston, Texas, September 1969

Bottom rockers mean business

One element of this aggressively disciplined lifestyle that is most brutally enforced is the gang’s colours – the insignia on the back of their jackets that states the gang’s name and sports its logo. Most crucial is the ‘bottom rocker’, which runs underneath the logo, declaring the state the gang dominates. In a Highlander-esque system, only one gang can rule a state at a time, so donning a state claimed by another gang is seen as a serious provocation.

“The Bandidos claimed Texas years ago,” says Falco. “They’re OK allowing some smaller motorcycle gangs to be there, as long as they don’t wear a Texas bottom rocker. The Cossacks are a little younger than the Bandidos – starting in 1969 and not 1966 – but they’ve been getting more members and becoming increasingly aggressive. And now they decided to wear a Texas bottom rocker to call out the Bandidos, to tell them they want this territory and they’re willing to kill or be killed for it. There had been some stabbings, minor violence and assaults, and it escalated to this point.”

If this all seems odd – openly wearing gear the police know is either a provocation or a record of past criminal acts (some gang members wear SS patches, or other iconography, to indicate they’ve killed or maimed rivals, similar to tattoos in prison gangs), you may be surprised to learn that being a member of any gang, biker or not, is not illegal in the US – but, it can lead to greater police harassment and enhanced prison sentences for gang-related activity.

It seems the polar opposite of the Easy Rider dream of bikers as free-wheeling incarnations of American liberty. “You think of a biker as this free-spirited anarchist who wants to live by no rules,” says Falco. “Biker gangs look like that – they have big bellies and they drink beer – but they’re structured more like the military. It’s hierarchical; they have a huge amount of rules and regulations and by-laws, and they’re incredibly structured. They’re more advanced than your normal street gang; they’ll do surveillance on their enemies.

The Bandidos would know how many members the Cossacks have, where they live, where they work, and any information they could get, so if they have to kill them, they know who to get, who’s the weakest target. They’re very sophisticated. It’s really not this anarchist, free-spirited thing.”

Biker Gangs

Seeking battle

The creation of the original gangs by veterans of the Second World War is mirrored by their maintenance by veterans of the Vietnam War and now the US’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – unlike street gangs, memberships of biker gangs skew more into their forties than teens. “When I infiltrated the Vagos in California,” says Falco, “half my chapter was ex-Marines. These guys are highly trained killers. They don’t represent the normal military person at all – they were probably antisocial before they joined, but they enjoy war. They come out of the military and they seek battle again, and biker gangs are good outlets to do that with.” The level of violence suggests that these guys know what they’re doing – a turf war in Nineties Canada claimed 150 lives over eight years, with 84 bombs being set.

Despite the romanticism of some elements of their lifestyle, these aren’t nice people – racism and violence against women are endemic. So what are the benefits? Does their control over large swathes of territory bring untold riches, like some Harley-riding Tony Montana? The reality is more mundane – like some tinpot gang of fascists, violence is its own end. “It’s more just fighting over territory to fight over territory. It’s about control – genuine wars over drug territory happened, but years ago. They’re actually pretty miserable,” says Falco. “They just sit around and talk about war – and if they didn’t go to war with another gang, they’d just go to war with each other.”

Charles Falco is author of Vagos, Mongols And Outlaws: My Infiltration Of America’s Deadliest Biker Gangs, published by St Martin’s Griffin