Waco shootout: How pervasive are motorcycle gangs in the US?

While biker gangs are a minority among American gangs, organized crime experts say that they should not be underestimated.

Jerry Larson/AP
Law enforcement continue to investigate the motorcycle gang related shooting at the Twin Peaks restaurant, Monday, in Waco, Texas, where 9 were killed Sunday and over a dozen injured. Waco police on Monday announced the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission closed Twin Peaks for a week amid safety concerns.

Nearly 200 leather-clad bikers were charged with organized crime in Waco, Texas, after a deadly shootout between rival motorcycle gangs.

Nine gang members were killed and 18 were wounded during the altercation. Some early reports suggest the altercation broke out over a parking dispute. The incident has led to speculation about how big these motorcycle gangs are and how much of a threat they pose.

"I think a lot of people just don’t take these guys seriously," Steve Cook, executive director of the Midwest Outlaw Motorcycle Gang Investigators Association, and an investigator who worked undercover in a motorcycle gang in the early 2000s, told Vox

"They just look at them and say they’re bikers and they ride motorcycles and they’re tattooed and they’re dirty, and that’s the end of it."

Ironically Mr. Cook was already scheduled to address gang and narcotics investigators on the potential threats posed by outlaw motorcycle gangs at a conference in Waco next month.

While biker gangs are a minority among American gangs, experts say that they should not be underestimated.

Only 2.5 percent of gang members in the United States belong to criminal motorcycle gangs, according to a 2013 survey from the Federal Bureau of Investigation's National Gang Intelligence Center.

“This is not a bunch of doctors and dentists and lawyers riding Harleys,” Waco police Sgt. Patrick Swanton told The New York Times. “These are criminals on Harley-Davidsons."

There are more than 300 active motorcycle gangs operating throughout the US, according to the Department of Justice. These criminal organizations can vary in size, ranging from small groups with a handful of members to global organizations with thousands of members. 

Government officials, however, have singled out eight outlaw motorcycle gangs (OMGs) as the most nefarious.

“The Hells Angels, Mongols, Bandidos, Outlaws, and Sons of Silence pose a serious national domestic threat and conduct the majority of criminal activity linked to OMGs, especially activity relating to drug-trafficking and, more specifically, to cross-border drug smuggling,” reads the US Department of Justice website.

Police have not identified which gangs were involved in the violent incident in Waco, but social media users identified the insignia of three motorcycle gangs, the Bandidos, the Cossacks, and the Scimitars.

The Bandidos and Hells Angels Motorcycle Clubs are considered two of the nation's largest biker gangs, each with an estimated 2,000 to 2,500 members, according to the Justice Department. Both are international gangs with a presence in 13 and 26 countries, respectively.

Some activists say that the police reaction in Waco was tame compared to the responses seen in other parts of the country where unrest has broken out over the past 12 months, such as Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore. Some have questioned whether this was because the gang members are Caucasian. 

“The shots of biker gangs in Waco sitting around after their shootout are unreal in light of Ferguson/Baltimore photos,” tweeted one activist from California.

The almost 200 jailed gang members will face organized crime charges that law enforcement officials say are “pretty serious.”

"It doesn't get much more significant than that," Sargeant Swanton of Waco told CNN.

Swanton also criticized the restaurant owners for ignoring police advice to keep the biker gangs away from the restaurant, stressing that the owners reserve the right to refuse service.

The incident occurred at a local franchise of the sports bar Twin Peaks. The Twin Peaks corporate office announced Monday that it will revoke the franchise of the Waco restaurant in the wake of the shooting, according to local CBS affiliate KWTX.

"Unfortunately the management team of the franchised restaurant in Waco chose to ignore the warnings and advice from both the police and our company, and did not uphold the high security standards we have in place to ensure everyone is safe at our restaurants," the company said in a statement Monday. 

“We will not tolerate the actions of this relatively new franchisee and are revoking their franchise agreement immediately. Our sympathies continue to be with the families of those who died and are very thankful no employees, guests, police officers or bystanders were hurt or injured,” the statement said.

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