Motorcycle Gangs or 

Motorcycle Mafia?

by Sergeant Steve Tretheway 

Arizona Department of Public Safety

and Lieutenant Terry Katz 

Criminal Intelligence Division, Maryland State Police

Once considered nothing more than rowdy toughs on two-wheelers, motorcycle gangs have evolved into crime units that are sufficiently well-oiled and well-organized to rival the Mafia.  It's not just police officers who lump these groups together.  Documented evidence in state, provincial and federal courts throughout the United States, Canada, Europe and Australia suggests that motorcycle gangs have become organized crime entities equal to the Mafia on many fronts. Biker gangs are organized internationally, with chapters in Europe, Australia, South America and Africa.  As retired Illinois State Police Sergeant Joe Satercier noted in 1993 at a Chicago-area Outlaw Motorcycle Gang training seminar, "Biker gangs are the only sophisticated organized crime groups that we export from the United States."

The international problem has become clearer through Interpol's "Project Rockers," which demonstrated that American-based motorcycle gangs such as the Bandidos, Hell's Angels and Outlaws (three of the larger gangs) use their networks to spread criminal activity overseas.  Indeed, at least six motorcycle gangs in the United States now have chapters outside the country's borders.  The Hell's Angels gang alone has chapters in 20 countries and is expanding so rapidly that it's difficult to keep up with prospective new chapters.  By moving outside the United States, biker gangs can enhance their international criminal connections through involvement with the Italian Mafia, Columbian cartels and other organized crime enterprises.  

Most motorcycle gangs are well-organized.  They have written constitutions, bylaws, and a hierarchical leadership structure.  Members pay dues and attend regular meetings to confirm loyalty to the gang leadership.  Enforced gang member contact is achieved by mandated attendance at club-sanctioned functions (runs).  If members break rules or bylaws, their misdeeds are punished with penalties ranging from fines to murder.  Many motorcycle gangs have incorporated; some have trademarked their gang logos.  Some call their meeting nights "church."  According to some sources, the Hell's Angels gang maintains its own Church of the Angels.  This is significant since a gang that owns its own church gives its "ministers" the right to visit members in jail.  It also provides the "church" with local, state, and federal tax exemptions.

A Closer Look

Categorizing this counterculture is complicated because of the interrelationships and networking not only with other motorcycle gangs, but also with prison gangs, street gangs, racist groups, drug groups, and traditional organized crime families.  Adding layers of insulation to the network are the gang associates who do not wear a gang patch (set of denim or leather colors with the gang's logo or patch on the back).  Estimates suggest that for every gang member, there are 10 associates doing work for the gang.  They may obtain utility or criminal justice information, provide sophisticated weapons and other equipment through military connections, or offer their services as chemists, thieves, prostitutes and even contract hit men.  

Unlike the traditional Mafia, motorcycle gang members flaunt their membership and proudly acknowledge an existence outside of society's norms.  Most are overt about their affiliation, advertising their identity by sporting gang colors, gang tattoos, or T-shirts with the gang's insignia.  To increase the shock value, gang colors, patches, tattoos and nicknames often incorporate Nazi symbols, devils' heads, skulls, vulgar phrases and satanic types of symbolism.

Historical Perspective

Motorcycle gangs got a kick-start after World War II, when they were thought to be nothing more than a symbol of youthful rebellion.  Thanks to a few high-profile Hollywood movies and other well-publicized events, gangs gained substantial notoriety as the years went by.  The Wild Ones in 1954 and Easy Rider in 1969 both served to glamorize gang activity and the biker lifestyle.  The Hell's Angels gained broader exposure when they were hired to handle security for a Rolling Stones concert at the Altamont Speedway in California in 1969.  Sometime during the show, some members of the Angels reportedly turned on the audience and killed a fan.  These events helped capture the imagination of many, who swelled the ranks of the outlaw motorcycle gangs.

During the 1970s, nearly 900 outlaw biker gangs--some of them with numerous chapters--operated inside the United States.  By the '80s, the FBI had recognized motorcycle gangs as a priority in its organized crime program, just behind La Cosa Nostra.  Other federal law enforcement agencies, such as ATF and DEA, also initiated successful conspiracy investigations.  Federal agencies have joined with state and local police in task force operations to arrest and convict members of the major motorcycle gangs.  Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organization (RICO) investigations, which used gang members-turned-witnesses, were devastating to these gangs, which had been convinced that no one--least of all their own members--would testify against them.

While these concentrated law enforcement actions were disruptive, the gangs responded by hiring attorneys who specialize in organized crime cases and have expertise in fighting federal prosecutors and multi-agency task forces.  Some biker gangs even discovered that being sentenced to jail had its benefits.  Those who spent time behind bars learned new and possibly more efficient criminal techniques from other prisoners.  And, as those arrested during the '80s began to be released in the '90s, many embarked on the next phase of their criminal careers better educated in the world of crime, having learned from their mistakes and developed new contacts.

Increasing Sophistication

Clearly, today's motorcycle gangs are little like those in the early years.  Realizing that they need to be more covert about their criminal activities to survive, these gangs have become sophisticated criminal enterprises over the last 50 years, refining their criminal skills by associating with and learning from traditional crime families and other criminal groups and gangs.  Motorcycle gangs have learned to manipulate the criminal justice system with courtroom maneuvers, such as filing numerous discovery motions.  These motions have nothing to do with the specific case, but are intended to gather information, such as the names of informants and law enforcement investigative techniques.  The discovery process gives gangs the information they need in order to intimidate witnesses through "private investigators," who will report the witnesses' addresses to the gang.

Another way today's motorcycle gangs attempt to manipulate the criminal justice system is through bribery.  Documented evidence shows that gangs will use money, drugs or sexual favors to develop intelligence files on rival gangs, as well as on the police.  This corruption has even been known to include the occasional police officer.  

Better dressed and better educated, many of today's biker gang members and associates are earning college-level degrees in computer science, finance, business, criminal justice, and law.  These curricula improve the gang's expertise in highly profitable criminal enterprises.  Education has allowed gang associates to entrench themselves in government positions (including the military) and other legitimate professions.  These legitimate jobs give gang associates access to technology, weapons and other informational banks where security records, motor vehicle files, personal data and police reports are maintained.  Furthermore, like traditional organized crime groups, biker gangs have made a concentrated effort to invest their illegal gains into legitimate businesses.  The result is that biker gangs in the '90s have more power and wealth than most people realize.  Armed with an education, organizational wealth and criminal savvy, gangs can more easily chisel out a larger slice of the criminal pie.

Of course, none of this means that motorcycle gangs have abandoned violence as the most efficient method of furthering their criminal enterprises.  Similar to traditional organized crime syndicates, motorcycle gangs continue to protect their drug distribution networks through whatever means necessary--including murders, rapes, arsons, assaults, intimidation and torturous interrogations.  Because of their desire to deal with issues swiftly and violently, motorcycle gangs must be considered equal to their counterparts in organized crime families and the South American drug cartels.  Indeed, they have proven themselves capable of beating organized crime families at their own game.

A Growing Threat

Biker gangs have re-established themselves during the past decade.  And because law enforcement efforts have been channeled in other directions, such as narcotic or street gangs, the biker gang threat is growing.  Finding they could not afford the manpower to work both biker and street gangs, police administrators in many departments have been forced to make painful choices.  Although there is no comparison between the violence levels of motorcycle and street gangs, street gangs have gained attention because they are involved in well-publicized violent crimes.  This publicity has prompted communities to demand political solutions; politicians have responded by making street gangs the target of violent crime task forces.

Since street gang enforcement typically yields high arrest ratios with less effort, the natural inclination is to use scarce resources in this fashion, further eroding the officers' availability to conduct the long-term covert operation investigations needed for organized motorcycle gangs.  In the meantime, biker gang sophistication continues to escalate with the use of modern business technologies:  computers keep club records, fax machines bring out-of-country chapters closer together, cellular telephones and pagers make communications easier for gang members to conduct business, and even Internet websites are common among motorcycle gangs in the '90s.  

Some gang members and associates operate spy shops, and make good use of surveillance equipment, including electronic bugging and countermeasures equipment.  Some of the bigger and more powerful gangs have the financial backing to obtain the most sophisticated weapons and equipment, while police department budgets continue to shrink--making it extremely difficult for law enforcement to keep pace.  For example, some gangs now use private investigators to polygraph suspected informants, while other gangs have bought and operate voice stress analyzers to test potential members.

Gangs often use "smoke screens" in their attempt to deceive the public.  They want people to believe that while they may look bad on the outside, they have hearts of gold.  Some of their "philanthropic" gestures have included raising funds for the Statue of Liberty restoration, carrying the Olympic torch, conducting benefits for disabled children, organizing blood drives, and involving themselves in other kinds of charity events.  This has been somewhat successful, as some people still consider bikers as fashionable rebels in leather attire.  It is an image that is promoted when movies, the fashion industry, TV commercials, actors, athletes and politicians embrace the "bad boy" image and lifestyle.

And gang trends have blended into the "RUBs"--rich, urban bikers.  Larger gangs recognize this and use it to their advantage.  They insulate their operations not only with puppet clubs (smaller gangs), but also with other associates who believe motorcycle gangs are nothing more than fun-loving bike riders.  The gangs' own mottos, however, offer insight as to how they should be viewed:

Hell's Angels:  "Three people will keep a secret if two are dead."

Outlaws:  "God forgives, Outlaws don't."

Bandidos:  "We are the people that our parents warned us about." 

Organized Criminals

Motorcycle gangs are recognized as organized crime not only by the FBI, but also by other police agencies and courts throughout the United States.  Within the past two years, Australia and Canada have successfully used immigration laws to prohibit organized crime members--such as non-citizen members of Hell's Angels--from entering their countries.  Although Canada's laws were initially designed to keep the Mafia out, they have been interpreted to include all organized crime, and these exclusions are based on documentation that outlaw motorcycle gangs are international criminal organizations.

Among the sources of that documentation are the following:

1984 CISC (Criminal Intelligence Service of Canada)--maintains that outlaw bikers are as much an organized crime threat as traditional Mafia operations.

Organized Crime in Pennsylvania--A 1990 report by the Pennsylvania Crime Commission that explains the similarities between outlaw bikers and traditional crime groups.

International Criminal Police Review, March/April 1990--an Interpol report that identifies motorcycle gangs as an international crime problem, groups them alongside other international criminal threats and discusses why traditional law enforcement techniques may not be sufficient in combating outlaw motorcycle gangs.

Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, June 1985--An FBI report that officially designates outlaw motorcycle gangs as priority No. 2, right behind La Cosa Nostra.

"Organized Crime in America," hearings before the Committee on the Judiciary, U.S. Senate, 98th Congress, January-March 1983--a 554-page congressional report that reveals similarities and relationships between organized crime and motorcycle gangs.

Mafia Enforcer--1987 book by Thomas Renner and former Satan's Choice Vice President Cecil Kirby, who left his motorcycle gang to become an enforcer for the Commissio organized crime family in eastern Canada.


With more than 50 years to hone their criminal "skills," outlaw motorcycle gangs have become a criminal force to be reckoned with.  They have organized behind a hierarchical structure with bylaws and meetings.  Some gangs are so concerned with their image that they have copyrighted and trademarked  their logos and gang names.  Members attend functions (runs) together to solidify their unity and brotherhood as a "family."  These gangs don't simply work parallel to traditional organized crime; they cooperate on joint ventures and compete in other areas.

Furthermore, their inter-gang connections with prison gangs, the Ku Klux Klan, other white supremacy groups, street gangs and drug groups have enhanced their criminal networking--allowing their tentacles to reach all parts of society.  

It is imperative that inter-agency joint law enforcement task force operations re-think their efforts to combat this threat, since no one agency has the means to investigate and prosecute outlaw motorcycle gangs successfully.  Recent cases by ATF and DEA have resulted in multiple arrests of Hell's Angels and Hessians.  FBI agents have arrested members of the Devil's Disciples and the Outlaws.  The more successful cases involved the experience and expertise of local and state police who joined with the federal agents.  There is no time like the present to devote the resources and develop effective strategies to combat the growing threat of today's more sophisticated outlaw motorcycle gangs.

Copyright © 1998 Steve Tretheway and Terry Katz.  All rights reserved