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Motorcycle clubs: Fraternal organizations or organized crime syndicates? The answer may be both.

A Rebels motorcycle club member rides from Meckering to Perth on September 12, 2013 in Perth, Australia.
A Rebels motorcycle club member rides from Meckering to Perth on September 12, 2013 in Perth, Australia.
Paul Kane/Getty Images

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As Waco, Texas police continue to sort through Sunday’s shootout at a restaurant that left nine dead and saw more than 170 arrested and charged, the conversation about motorcycle clubs (or biker gangs, depending on who you ask) has taken a place in the national spotlight again.

While many clubs claim they are simply recreational groups of people who enjoy riding motorcycles together, the reality is that many of the more well-known motorcycle clubs operate as organized crime syndicates.

“A lot of their members aren’t hardcore criminals…but a lot of them are,” says James Quinn, a professor at the University of North Texas and expert in motorcycle gang culture. “I don’t think anybody knows the percentage, it’s going to vary from one group to another and over time.”

Reports are now surfacing that Sunday’s incident at Twin Peaks, a Waco restaurant known for catering to biker club clientele, may have started because of an argument over a parking spot. But Quinn says there was likely more to it than that.

“These kinds of tensions and rivalries are endemic to the entire subculture,” Quinn said during an interview with AirTalk’s Larry Mantle. “They kind of ebb and flow within regions over time. What appears to be going on here is the Bandidos and their allies are upset with the Cossacks and their allies over what appears to be a symbolic claim to territory by the Cossacks.”

Turf wars are often a major catalyst for gang confrontations. Former U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms Special Agent and undercover operative Jay Dobyns knows this better than most. He’s best known for infiltrating and becoming a full patched member of the Hells Angels’ legendary Skull Valley chapter, and says the same beef over turf started a war here in California between the Mongols and Hells Angels motorcycle clubs.

“30 years ago, the Hells Angels felt like they controlled California; that it was under their umbrella and they had the say-so as the most powerful club. The Mongols put a California bottom rocker [a patch identifying club affiliation] on their vests. That set it off. 30 years later, hundreds of dead gang members, gallons of blood spilled over that, and we saw a repeat of it in Texas.”

Rory’s story

One man who called into AirTalk and identified himself as Rory (skip to 6:00 mark in audio) said that his brother was one of the people being held on $1 million bail after the Waco brawl. He says that his brother is an Army veteran who served six tours in Iraq and joined a biker group after he returned from his most recent tour because it gave him a group of guys to hang with and activities in which to participate.

“Rounding them all up because they happened to be at a civil meeting and some criminals took part in shooting has really put us all under the gun in my family," explains Rory. "Now he’s being held on $1 million bail and he didn’t even have a firearm with him, or any drugs, or a past record. He just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time wearing the wrong vest.”

Rory told AirTalk he’d expressed his concern to his brother about his involvement with the club, but his brother assured him that his club was a fraternal organization and doesn’t take part in illegal activity. He says his brother’s group does community service and fundraisers for charity events, and that there are many bikers out there like his brother who work day jobs during the week and ride with a club for fun in their spare time.

“There are hundreds, thousands of biker clubs out there that do community service, that are people that enjoy riding their motorcycles, and sometimes enjoy riding them as part of a club,” says Jay Dobyns. “They’re not causing the problem. The problem is the gang element, the criminal element, the syndicate element.”

Rory says his brother and many of his fellow club mates have high security clearance at Fort Hood, where they work, and he worries that if his brother is convicted, even by association, it could ruin his life permanently. Dobyns says while he sympathizes with Rory, his brother should have been more aware of his surroundings.

“If you’re in one of those civilian clubs, and you’re going to a meeting that’s being held by the Bandidos, which everyone knows is an international crime syndicate, you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, and you can’t afterwards say ‘Oh, I wish I wouldn’t have been here.’ You knew who you were going to meet with. You should’ve been wise enough to say ‘This is not where I need to be.’”

Dealing with the problem

Dobyns says, for law enforcement, dealing with biker gangs is a challenge because of their code of silence. Cooperating with law enforcement is considered treason, and is punishable by death in many gangs.

“They don’t talk, they’re not going to communicate with law enforcement with any authenticity, with any accuracy, for the most part, unless someone becomes so leveraged with their personal freedom that they decide that they’re basically going to betray their brotherhood and cooperate with law enforcement.”

Professor James Quinn at North Texas says that when people like Dobyn’s infiltrate biker gangs, it ratchets up the pressure on the gang to be more vigilant about new recruits.

“Every time they get penetrated by law enforcement, they increase the rigor of their selection and recruiting processes and that tends to toughen up the members that they do get and it tends to bind even more loyalty among the members.”

Since his time undercover with the Hells Angels, Jay Dobyns has written a book about his time in the gang, and says that at the end of the day, despite their differences, street gangs and motorcycle gangs are one in the same.”

“The reality of it is, biker gangs aren’t all that different than traditional street gangs. Look at Crips and Bloods. Whether you’re wearing red or blue can get you killed. With these different biker gangs, depending on what vest you have on, can get you killed.”


James Quinn, Ph.D., professor of rehabilitation, social work, and addictions at the University of North Texas and a published author and expert on motorcycle gang culture.

Jay Dobyns, retired Special Agent and veteran undercover operative with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. He’s best known for infiltrating the Hell’s Angels, and has written a book about his time undercover called “No Angel: My Harrowing Undercover Journey to the Inner Circle of the Hells Angels.”