Bad To The Bone

On may 17, a bike gang shootout in Waco, Texas, left nine people dead. Now the Bandidos Motorcycle Club shares a US Homeland Security list with the Mafia, the Triads and the Yakuza.

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Waco, the day of the Texas Confederation Of Clubs And Independents… noon, with heat shimmering on the streets. From Dallas and San Antonio the Bandidos came riding custom Harley-Davidsons, engines so loud onlookers covered their ears. At Twin Peaks restaurant – where, the sign says, beer is cold and waitresses are hot – another, smaller motorcycle club was waiting to parlay.

From Austin and Houston the Bandidos came wearing club colours, a black leather jacket with a caricature of a Mexican bandit stitched to the back. In the parking lot, the Cossacks stood around their bikes, apparently ready to make peace and end a protracted feud with the notorious outlaws.

From all over Texas the Bandidos came – barrel-shaped men, beards and tattoos. And within minutes of arriving, they were involved in a shootout that left nine men dead.

“We don’t claim any territory,” an anonymous Cossack, one of the few eyewitness bikers to speak out since the shootings, told The Washington Post, “but the reason that the Bandidos have such an issue with us is that we wear the Texas rocker on our back.”

On the back of jackets typically worn by bikers, the top rocker is the badge that states their motorcycle club’s name. The centrepiece is the MC’s logo. The bottom rocker shows the club’s territory. Patches, it’s said, should be visible 150 feet away. On most Bandido vests – bold red letters set against a gold background – the bottom rocker reads: Texas.

The Bandidos Motorcycle Club has, according to the US Department Of Justice, as many as 2,500 members in 13 countries, while the Department Of Homeland Security has the gang on a list alongside organised crime outfits like the Mafia, the Triads and the Yakuza. But Texas is the Bandidos’ home turf and has been for 50 years. And were they to see another biker wearing this rocker, without their approval, they would remove it by force. Even the Hell’s Angels ask the Bandidos for permission to ride in Texas. In the world of outlaw bikers, the bottom rocker and all it represents is something worth going to war over.

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More hellish than the Angels

“The Menace is loose again,” journalist Hunter S Thompson wrote in his seminal biker book, Hell’s Angels: The Strange And Terrible Saga Of The Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs. “The Hell’s Angels, the hundred-carat headline, running fast and loud on the early morning freeway, low in the saddle, nobody smiles, jamming crazy through traffic and ninety miles an hour down the center stripe, missing by inches.”

The Bandidos are the world’s second-biggest biker gang – second only to the Hell’s Angels. But founder Donald Chambers set up the Texas club, back in 1966, the same year Thompson published his book, because he thought the Angels weren’t hellish enough. Royce Showalter was one of Chambers’ first recruits: “All of us read it [Thompson’s book] to get some ideas on what we should be doing. And then we looked at one another and said, ‘Hell, we can do a lot better than these guys.’”

Showalter says the Bandidos would ride their bikes all day, every day, 90 miles an hour. Then they’d find a secluded spot – usually somewhere in the woods, where cops couldn’t find them – and there they’d throw an all-night party, replete with illegal substances and biker groupies. “There was always someone stumbling into the bonfire,” he says, “and someone else shooting a pistol into the air. We’d party till dawn, go to sleep right there on the ground, and then get up, get on our motorcycles and hit the road again.”

Chambers was a Vietnam veteran, a marine. After the war, he returned home from to Texas and worked the docks in Houston. He was a member of several locals MCs, but found them too boring, too tame. He was a “hell-raiser”. He could drink, threw a famous punch and, if all else failed, carried a knife he wasn’t afraid to wield.

The Bandidos, Chambers decided, would wear the red and gold of the US Marine Corps. The club name is a nod to the old Mexican outlaws he admired, who rode horses instead of Harleys. The logo is a caricature of one of these bandits – wearing a sombrero, holding a sword, pointing a gun. The club motto was, and still is: “We are the people our parents warned us about.”

“Chambers wanted the badass bikers who cared about nothing except riding fulltime on their Harley-Davidsons,” Showalter says. “He wanted bikers who lived only for the open road. No rules, no bull****. Just the open road.”

But if another gang gets in the way of their stretch of open road, and the enterprises with which they keep the engines running, then they are subject to biker law. In El Paso, in 1972, Chambers and other Bandidos collared two drug dealers who’d had ripped the gang off. They drove them out to the desert, shot both dealers dead and burned their bodies. But before doing so, they made the victims dig their own graves.

Chambers, paroled in 1983, retired from the club. His legacy lives on.Screen-Shot-2015-09-21-at-1.41

At war with the Cossacks

With Chambers’ arrest and imprisonment for the El Paso murders, many thought the Bandidos were finished. But time and time again, after high-profile busts, the MC has continued to thrive. Today, with 900 US members, in 93 chapters, the Department Of Justice considers the gang an increasingly threatening criminal outfit. It says the gang is one the largest crime syndicates in the US.

These membership figures could be a conservative estimate. The MC is always looking to add new chapters and, as well as being a proselytising gang, has a network of support clubs that swear allegiance to the Bandidos. Those who won’t kneel – or worse, take a stand – face the consequences.

Julian Sher is author of Angels Of Death: Inside The Bikers’ Global Crime Empire: “The Waco shootings reveal the real, dark side of outlaw motorcycle gangs. The myth of the ‘Easy Rider’ still rides high in the United States. But the Bandidos are one of the few biker gangs that straddle the globe, fighting for crime turf – often violently. They don’t take kindly to smaller groups like the Cossacks who refuse to respect their power and when outlaw biker gangs jostle for power, sooner or later blood is spilled. And there will, inevitably, be more blood.”

The Cossacks also come from Texas, formed in 1969, but according to Sher are “very meaningless on a global scale”. At Waco, they were backed up by an even smaller club, the Scimitars. Authorities were expecting trouble and sent, to keep order, Waco police SWAT officers.

In a bulletin issued on May 1 to state law enforcement agencies, the Texas Department Of Public Safety warned the Bandidos had “discussed the possibility of going to war” with the Cossacks, primarily because of the Texas rocker. It detailed several clashes between the gangs.

On March 22, at a truck stop, Bandidos spotted a Cossack and demanded he remove the Texas rocker from his vest. He refused. So the Bandidos hit him with a hammer and removed the rocker themselves. On the same day, Cossack forced a Bandido off the highway, beat him with batons, chains and metal pipes, and stole his motorcycle.

The feud had been brewing since November 2013, when two Bandidos were charged with stabbing two Cossacks outside a steakhouse in Abilene. A month later, three Bandidos were arrested in connection with a shooting outside a Fort Worth bar in which two men were wounded and one man died.

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What really happened at Waco?

One biker runs away from the gunfire, blood spattered all over his face, hands and torso. Most bikers, in fact, flee. The cries all around are: “Get down, get down.” Some try to help others away from the shooting. Many are crawling on the ground. A woman is heard shouting. Bikers run for cover inside Twin Peaks – some continue on into the men’s room. At least three people are holding handguns, but security footage shows only one shooting. Police carrying assault rifles enter Twin Peaks about two minutes after the shooting begins. No Bandidos are visible on the tape.

The parlay was at 11am. On Sunday, May 17, 70 or so Cossacks stood around the patio outside Twin Peaks – eating, drinking, talking with other clubs. At 12.15pm the Bandidos came – roughly 100 of them. The first shot was fired at 12.24pm. The anonymous Cossack says it all started when a Bandido drove his bike into a prospect Cossack – a prospect being a prospective member.

A week before the Waco shootout, he says, Bandido Marshall Mitchell called Cossack Owen Reeves. Marshall suggested the Cossacks attend the Bandido-controlled Texas Confederation Of Clubs And Independents. Typically at these meetings, MCs from around the region discuss issues affecting the biker community. Cossacks aren’t members.

The Cossack’s version of events matches police statements and the Twin Peaks security video obtained by the Associated Press. He admits some of his fellow members were armed, but they had no reason to believe they’d need to use their weapons. They saw the meeting as an opportunity to straighten out the feud.

Bandidos are notoriously uncooperative with police and have refused comments to the press. But the club also demands its members draw no negative attention to themselves or their organisation. So it’s unlikely they’d arrange such a public ambush. Sources close to the Bandidos say police did most of the killing.

Law enforcers were recording the meeting when shooting started, but haven’t released footage. A month after the gunfight, Waco Police chief Brent Stroman says three officers opened fire – a total of 12 shots.

Stroman said the officers were returning fire, but won’t say who fired the shots that killed six Cossacks, one Scimitar and two Bandidos. Many of the 175 arrested at the scene remain in jail – originally held on US$1 million bail. The Houston Press’ Craig Malisow said: “In the coming years, the Waco authorities’ handling of the Twin Peaks biker gang shootout will become a textbook example of how not to handle an emergency situation.”

Whatever happened, whoever fired the first shot, the Cossack is certain that the Bottom Rocker War continues to wage: “I’m sending my family away, but I’m making my stand. I will fight. I will kill any one of them that comes through my doors. I’m not looking over my shoulder anymore.”

Gary Evans uncovers the grim and colourful world of biker clubs.

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