Outlaw or “one-percent” motorcycle gangs have been a scourge to the federal government since the 1960s. To this day, there are formidable motorcycle clubs (MCs) on both coasts, and one-percenters run drugs across the Canadian and Mexican border. Though Americans have long mythologized biker culture with the help of books like Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels and television shows like Sons of Anarchy, outlaw motorcycle clubs continue to play a very real roll in American organized crime.
In the past few years, we’ve seen major stings that yielded charges of drug trafficking, racketeering, and contract killing for motorcycle gang members. Former ATF agent Jay Dobyns’ book about infiltrating the Hells Angels, No Angel: My Harrowing Undercover Journey to the Inner Circle of the Hells Angels was published in 2009, and Dobyns was the target of harassment from clubs as recently as 2008. Outlaw motorcycle gangs are alive and well in the U.S., and the federal government continues to battle their influence. Learn the basics with The 10 Most Dangerous Motorcycle Gangs in America.
Territory: Eastern Seaboard (Mother Chapter in Orlando, Florida)
Approximate membership: 300
The Warlocks have such a nasty reputation that even many of their fellow MCs won’t associate with them. The gang has a history of extreme and wanton violence: They have been known to commit crimes such as assaulting rival gang leaders and indiscriminately killing police officers.
The Warlocks are very active in Pennsylvania and Florida, and if you are familiar with drug culture of either state, it won’t surprise you to hear that they are big into meth. One high-level member of the gang was caught with 10 pounds of crystal the same year that four Warlocks were arrested for selling 500 pounds of crank.
Territory: Detroit (with several chapters scattered throughout the Midwest and South)
Approximate membership: 200
Centralized in Detroit, the modest ranks of The Highwaymen would be no match for larger gangs like the Hells Angels or the Outlaws. But, throughout their history, the Highwaymen have brought their far share of crime to Motor City. A 2007 raid resulted in the arrest of forty Highwaymen on charges as diverse as mortgage fraud, cocaine trafficking, and murder for hire.
Black Pistons Motorcycle Club
Territory: Scattered across the U.S.
Approximate membership: 200
Sometimes, larger gangs form “support clubs,” which exist solely to take on the dirty work that even a one-percent gang won’t touch. The Black Pistons are the support club for the much larger Outlaws MC. Black Pistons deal drugs and rough up enemies on behalf of the Outlaws. Support clubs often cause a lot of tension when they move into new turf; when a Black Pistons chapter moves into a new city, violent clashes with existing gangs usually come with them.
Vagos Motorcycle Club
Approximate membership: 4,000
Vagos MC is best known for coordinating drug smuggling operations with their Mexican chapters. Founded in the 1960s along with many of the best known one-percent gangs, Vagos has been at war on and off with the Hell’s Angels since the beginning. The Vagos were involved in one of the more interesting police operations in recent MC memory. The club was accused of booby trapping police cars and gang task force buildings. Though evidence points to this being the case, Vagos sued local law enforcement for defamation and the case was settled out of court without any gang members seeing jail time.
The Sons of Silence
Territory: Midwest and South
Approximate membership: 300
This Colorado-based gang is one of the smaller on this list, with only 275 members across 30 chapters. What the gang lacks in numbers, they make up for in fire-power. A 1999 raid found that the Sons had a significant arsenal, including machine guns, pipe bombs, and grenades. The Sons of Silence need the firepower because they have been embroiled in turf wars from decades. The gang initially carved out space for themselves in Colorado, Arizona, and Kansas by taking on the Outlaws, a far larger MC. These days, the Sons are allied with the Hells Angels for safety, but that doesn’t mean they can let their guard down. Their alliance with the Hells Angels makes them natural enemies with various smaller MCs. It looks like they’ll always be embroiled in the same arms race.
Territory: Eastern Seaboard
Approximate membership: 200-250
Beginning as a non-violent club, it wasn’t until the 1970s, under the leadership of John “Satan” Marron that the Pagan’s became a player in organized crime. Despite having only between 200-250 members, the Pagan’s are considered one of the “Big 4” MCs by Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. The Pagan’s have made up for their small numbers by making the right friends.
The FBI views the Pagan’s as an incredibly dangerous organization, largely due to their connections with gangs like the Aryan Brotherhood and the Italian Mafia. Members of the Pagan’s are regularly tied to arson, bombings, and murders, and one of the gang’s favorite hobbies is stockpiling machine guns. As with many of the country’s better known MCs, the Pagan’s often come into conflict with the Hells Angels. It is widely thought that the Pagan’s are behind the 2005 murder of the Philadelphia Hells Angels chapter Vice-President.
Bandidos Motorcycle Club
Territory: The South, concentrated in Texas
Approximate membership: 2,500
At more than 2,000 members, the Bandidos are one of the largest gangs in America. Though the gang was only just founded in 1996, the gang has a presence in 16 states and 14 countries. The influence of the gang has led the federal government to name them among the Big Four MCs (Pagans, Hells Angels, Outlaws, and Bandidos). The Bandidos’ home base is in Texas, where they specialize in smuggling drugs across the U.S.-Mexican border. Their aggressive, effective expansion has been evidenced in their involvement in crimes as far afield as Norway and Australia.
Outlaws Motorcycle Club
Territory: Eastern and Central U.S.
Approximate membership: 1,700
Founded in 1936, The Outlaws are thought to be the world’s oldest outlaw motorcycle club. The Outlaws remain a strong presence today, with over 1,700 members across 176 chapters. While a number of MCs vie for control of Mexico-America drug trafficking, the Outlaws have maintained a substantial influence over drugs crossing the Canadian border.
Though the Outlaws have control of the Great Lakes region, they are often at war with the Hells Angels, who have had made numerous attempts at encroaching on their territory. Taco Bowman, former Outlaws President, was on the F.B.I.’s Most Wanted list before he went to prison for three murders in 1999.
Territory: Southern California
Approximate membership: 1,500
Though the Mongols are a smaller gang than many of their peers with similar notoriety, they make up for their relatively small numbers with tenacity. Since their 800-member ranks are clustered largely in and around Southern California, the MC is a powerful force there. With the help of standing allegiances with Latino street gangs, the Mongols took control of the SoCal from the Hells Angels in the 1980s and still hold the turf today.
The Mongols allegiance with these street gangs is largely based on race, as the majority of the Mongols are Hispanic or Native American. The club was founded after a number of Latino bikers were denied entry to the Hells Angels due to their race.
The Mongols remain a violent and active gang today; in 2008, sixty gang members were arrested on charges including trafficking, racketeering, and murder. This sting resulted in the arrest of President Ruben “Doc” Cavazos. As a result of this sting, Mongols members were barred from wearing their patches (or “colors”) in public. After several years in court, a judge ruled that the forfeiture of the patch was a judicial overreach and the Mongols could once again wear their colors.
Territory: Nationwide (Strongest presence in California)
Approximate membership: 2,500
When you think of outlaw motorcycle clubs, you probably think of the Hells Angels. The Hells Angels brand is so strong that they have actually become a business: The Hells Angels are incorporated in the U.S. and Canada. This corporation does things like sue the movie Wild Hogs for copyright infringement. The name recognition of the Hells Angels helps them drive recruitment; at last count the MC had 2,500 members across six continents.
Given their swelling ranks, Hells Angels are often embroiled in turf wars. The battle with the Mongols for control of California and the Outlaws for Canadian influence are just two of their numerous battles with rival MCs. Sometimes the Hells Angels even turn to infighting amongst themselves. In 1985, one Canadian chapter decided that another wasn’t fit to wear the gang’s colors and the unfit gang members were found floating in the St. Lawrence River.