It’s always a sight. A parade of burly men on big Harley Davidson motorcycles wearing smudged leather vests with emblems signifying their status as outlaws. Society’s rules don’t apply to them, they say, but society the world over begs to differ. Governments from Europe to Australia are creating tougher laws to “destroy” biker gangs. Will they succeed? And what are the best ways to combat outlaw bikers?
A few weeks ago, readers of the New York Post were treated to a scary story about an inevitable biker war in their city. For the past decades, the Hells Angels dominated New York, but according to Steve Cook, a Kansas City-area cop and “the nation’s top expert” on bikers, their dominance will be challenged by two rival clubs, the Mongols and Vagos. Clubs that have a history of violence and conflict between them.
For those who are skeptical of this, no doubt, sensationalistic news story, it would be smart to read up on outlaw motorcycle clubs. These clubs are always a good reason to be on high alert.
Sure, they all claim to be nothing more than motorcycle enthusiasts who chose to devote their life to their bike and the free lifestyle that comes with it, but what about the violence and crimes that seem to accompany them everywhere they operate? We are not talking about a few bad apples. We are talking about clubs, chapters, and members on several continents all involved in organized crime.
The war talk rings very true to many people in Canada and Scandinavia where biker wars cost the lives of hundreds of people, including many innocents. Violent crimes committed by bikers in other countries such as Germany and Australia have also made a huge impact on citizens and law enforcement there.
In Australia, especially, things are heating up very fast at the moment. The last few years saw an increase in biker-related violence. Everything from extortion and beatings to drive-by shootings and murder. In 2009, a Hells Angel was killed in terminal three at Sydney Airport after members of rival club Comancheros attacked him with a metal bollard. Airports are considered to be the safest places the world over, even more so after 9/11, this brazen attack put Australian agencies at high alert and saw politicians lobby for tougher laws to fight these biker gangs.
But it’s not that easy to get rid of the “bikie threat”. Many have tried, and many have failed. In The Netherlands, the Dutch Hells Angels are rumored to be the leading chapter in Western Europe, but when prosecutors tried to have the club declared a criminal organization they failed. Just because individual members are involved in crime does not mean the organization they belong to is criminal, judges ruled.
Prosecutors in Germany have had more success against these clubs, but ran into the same ‘problems’ their colleagues in The Netherlands faced. Various cities have managed to outlaw certain motorcycle club chapters making it illegal for them to wear their colors, but a nationwide ban on motorcycle gangs is still far away.
After a brutal war in Canada between the Hells Angels and Bandidos, anti-gang legislation was introduced that gave prosecutors there a chance to link the clubs to crimes committed by members. But even after all the violence, Canadians never banned the motorcycle gangs or declared them a criminal organization.
Desperate to stop the gang violence, lawmakers in Australia have created many new anti-bikie laws in the past few years, far reaching laws. As of yet, there are no nationwide laws, but various Australian states have enacted their own. In New South Wales and South Australia, members of 26 listed gangs are not allowed to associate with each other, and they are not allowed to own or operate a tattoo parlor. “The laws also carry additional jail terms of 15 to 25 years for bikies who commit serious crimes. The state government, however, says it intends to go further, driving bikies out of the security, gym and second-hand car industries and even mooting a special bikies-only jail,” CNN reported.
The announcement of these tougher laws has bikers, their lawyers, and human rights organizations up in arms. Police even received information a few days ago that “indicates the Mongols criminal motorcycle gang have discussed the possibility of killing any police officer who attempt (sic) to arrest them for a serious offence.”
Just your average motorcycle enthusiasts.
So what is the best way to combat these criminal motorcycle groups? A nationwide ban? Tougher legislation? More pressure from police? How can society stop them? Can society stop them?
Gangsters Inc. asked Julian Sher and Jay Dobyns, two biker experts, about this issue. Both offer their own unique views on this subject.
Journalist Julian Sher is the Senior Producer of CBC TV's premier investigative TV program in Canada, the fifth estate, and author of Angels of Death and The Road to Hell: How the Biker Gangs Are Conquering Canada.
Jay Dobyns is a Special Agent with the ATF who went undercover as an outlaw biker and infiltrated the Hells Angels motorcycle club. He wrote the book No Angel - My Harrowing Undercover Journey to the Inner Circle of the Hells Angels about his experiences.
Back to the topic at hand: How does one “destroy” these biker gangs?
“You’ll never find one size fits all,” Julian Sher says. “Different lessons apply to different countries and different countries have different laws and constitutions. That being said, I think most experience has shown us you can’t legislate organized crime out of existence. Laws and banning can help but you’re dealing with a very sophisticated, well entrenched underground organization. So banning can never be the simple solution that some people may think it is. You can ban something, that makes it illegal but it doesn’t necessary make it go away. And what these guys are doing is illegal anyway. It’s illegal to sell and use cocaine but that hasn’t made cocaine go away.”
Jay Dobyns would like to see biker gangs be declared criminal organizations. “I believe it is a long overdue approach,” he writes. “If members want to wear clothing that identifies them as a part of an ‘organization’ that is involved in murder, rape, drug trafficking, extortion, etc., then the actions of one affect the reputation of all. It is not like these ‘clubs’ kick out someone convicted of a murder. Instead they embrace that person, honor that person, hold them in the highest esteem and maintain a position in the ‘club’ for their return to society after incarceration often with an elevated status. What ‘club’ conducts business like that? They don't, gangs do. If a Hells Angel in any part of the world is involved in a violent event, every other member of that club/gang who wears the colors benefits from that event in the manner of reputation, intimidation, even if not personally involved.”
“One of the problems with banning is that you can ban them but then they change their name and are called something else and that’s not illegal right?” Sher asks rhetorically. “So they’ll do it in an underground way. I’m not opposed to banning but it doesn’t solve the problem. In Canada it’s very hard to ban a group just like that. Our constitution is very strong so you can’t ban a group or have guilt by association, you have to prove ongoing criminal activity. But certain municipalities and towns have said you can’t wear any kind of gang affiliation. They’re saying ‘You wanna be a member of the Hells Angels? That’s not illegal but if you commit a crime we’ll nail you.’ Nobody can go into a bar wearing gang colors so that’s a creative way of curbing things. Other cities and countries have passed laws against certain bunkers and clubhouses so you can’t have a fortress that looks like bunker in a residential neighborhood. If you have a constitution, if a country has the power to declare certain groups illegal, that could work but it doesn’t remove the problem. The illegality still goes on,” Sher concludes.
“They will never stop doing what they do simply because they cannot display a patch,” ATF agent Dobyns adds. “It may slow them. It may make them less of a presence in the public eye. But, eliminating a member, an officer, a cell, will never be enough. They would become more difficult to identify. They make it easy for law enforcement in that regard but there is always someone new ready to step up, fill the void, assume leadership, advance the gang.”
Canadian biker expert Julian Sher thinks there are two essential ways to combat biker gangs. “The two things that have always been key are intelligence and infiltration. Because these are secretive illegal underground organizations, you need intelligence, you need to have spies, infiltrators, double agents, we call them often, informants, who are working for the police or with the police, wiretaps, you need to know what these guys are doing to gather the evidence to prevent crimes and to gather evidence you need for arrest and court cases. You need intelligence and infiltration. It’s extremely rare for any kind of biker investigation to work successfully without some kind of infiltration. Now the best way is a human being but wiretaps or other stuff can work as well. When you do that you can gather the evidence and then prosecute them and put them in jail.”
Undercover ATF agent Dobyns agrees. “An undercover operative is the utmost dangerous law enforcement tool in the police toolbox. It exposes real people to hands-on, face-to-face dangers and crimes being committed, often times, by ruthless and violent suspects. With that said, finding that person with the experience, courage and swagger to enter into those worlds as an operative reaps the most productive results. Police work is not a business of 'sure things' or guarantees. Liabilities and risks are often high, extreme when undercover is involved. But, having a living, breathing law enforcement officer with the skills to enter and then exit a situation with real time intelligence and observations beats wiretaps, surveillance, and historical investigation all to hell. Followed by the ability to place that operative on the witness stand and provide him or her the opportunity to tell a jury what he she saw, heard, touched, and witnessed is without compare. The use of human intelligence gathering is fading because of the risks to agents. It is being replaced by ‘safer’ methods and mechanics. But, it will never be matched for effectiveness.”
Still, without the right laws in place all the hard work could still become worthless. In the United States, RICO has shown to be a very effective law when fighting organized crime. Dobyns: “When applied correctly the racketeering statutes like Continuing Criminal Enterprise (CCE), which is an easier charge to prove than RICO but very much similar, hits them in a way that is damaging to their structure and at times more importantly an interruption of their money flow. Investigating a single member is very important and necessary but rarely in this world does a single member engage in crime 100% solo. It is not how they are built. They routinely involve others and seek additional participation in their schemes.”
The right law will bring all the participants to justice.
But criminal gangs are often a product of society. New gang members aren’t born, they are recruited. As long as young men find it attractive to join a criminal gang society as a whole will continue to have a problem. No matter what laws are created.
That is why Julian Sher emphasizes the importance of public education. “What we were able to do in Canada because of good police work is expose who the Hells Angels were. Since their crimes were exposed, the attitude in Canada more than in any other country in the world has changed. Most people, most journalists, when there’s a news story and I get interviewed the starting point for most people in Canada is that the Hells Angels are criminals. That not all of them may be criminals but that it’s a criminal gang and that they do bad things. They are not seen as the heroes, as the rebels, that they are in many places in Europe and in the United States.”
Sher: “That’s important, as far as stopping the recruiting of new members. Ten to fifteen years ago the Hells Angels had the same image in Canada they had elsewhere. An image of bad boys, lovable rascals, interesting rebels. Because of the murders they committed, the exposures we did as investigative journalists, the good police work, including public education, the public’s attitude began to change. That’s almost a kind of banning in the eyes of the public. That’s what’s important. Banning the Hells Angels isn’t going to stop people from joining the Hells Angels. Education will.”
In the United States, the public does not seem quite as ready, Jay Dobyns writes. “They are embedded as a part of Americana. From Altamont to Sons of Anarchy - they saturate our culture and are an important piece of our country’s fascination with crime and punishment. They are America's export of organized crime. We will never, ever eliminate them.”
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