Bandidos v. Hell's Angels: Biker Turf War Escalating in Germany
The Bandidos and the Hell's Angels are waging all-out war for dominance in Germany. Court testimony by a former member -- who crossed his gang and is now living in protective custody -- is providing frightening details about these secretive societies.
Rolf D.'s discomfort on the witness stand is difficult to ignore. The corpulent 53-year-old man, wearing an oversized blue sweatshirt and baggy jeans, shifts nervously back and forth in his seat and asks for a glass of water. Deep rings under his eyes bear witness to his exhaustion -- fatigue borne out of fear. "I have my problems," the truck driver tells the presiding judge in the district court in the northern German city of Münster. "You can bet on that."
D.'s problems are on full display in the courtroom, where roughly 30 members of the Bandidos biker gang are sitting behind and to the right of him. He was one of them for a long time and had even risen into the ranks of management, as the group's treasurer. On the other side of the room, separated from the Bandidos by a human wall of armed police officers, is an equally large group of Hell's Angels, the Bandidos' mortal enemies.
Rolf D. is testifying in the murder trial of former fellow bikers Heino B., 48, and Thomas "Addi" K., 36. The prosecution accuses both men of having shot and killed Robert K., a 47-year-old Hell's Angel, on May 23, 2007 in Ibbenbüren, a town just north of Münster.
As far as the bikers are concerned, their former treasurer -- and the prosecution's star witness -- is a traitor. He has broken a fundamental code of silence: Bikers never talk to the police; bikers handle their problems on their own.
For outsiders, the difference between the Hell's Angels and the Bandidos seems no greater than the distinction between Pepsi and Coke. But between the gangs themselves sheer hatred is the dominant emotion. The murder in Ibbenbüren is far from an isolated incident. From a shootout in Cottbus to machete attacks in Berlin to armed ambushes on the autobahn.
The battles in this war are about old-fashioned honor -- but also about modern economic interests and territorial claims. The two groups are both active in the bouncer milieu, allowing them control over drugs in Germany's clubs and discotheques. Indeed, the war revolves around transactions worth several million euros a year and businesses that include branch out from drugs into arms trading, gambling, protection rackets, bars and brothels. Like corporations, the gangs have their local subsidiaries. The police have counted 300 local chapters and a total of 3,000 members in Germany.
To this day, bikers have an aura of urban romanticism, as if their sole interests -- within their properly registered motorcycle clubs -- were beer, bikes and breasts. As if they were nothing more threatening than a brotherhood with a set of archaic rituals. Bikers are macho, according to conventional wisdom, but not mafia. But Rolf D.'s testimony and the militaristic posturing during court dates in Münster have nothing to do with the Easy Rider romanticism of American highways. Instead, these bikers live in a criminal world of cocaine and 7.65 millimeter weapons -- the same caliber gun that was used to execute Robert K., the murdered Hell's Angel.
There must have been a hint of high noon in V-Team American Bikes, a motorcycle dealership in Ibbenbüren-Laggenbeck, when the murderer walked into the store on May 23, 2007, shortly before 8:30 a.m. Robert K. was part owner of the business and he had allegedly been involved in some attacks on Bandidos. Or at least that's what the Bandidos thought.
K. immediately sensed danger and tried to escape through a storage room, but he didn't make it. The murderer had hardly walked through the doorway before he started shooting. The first bullet hit K. in the left lower arm and ended up in his lower abdomen. The second shot missed. The third bullet was deadly. It entered K.'s body through his left upper back, ripping into the pericardium and aorta before exiting through his chest. K. dragged himself further before finally collapsing in the workshop, where he bled to death.
There is a long, international history behind the war between the "Angels" and the "Bandits." Both gangs were formed by veterans in the United States, and they both consider themselves the elite among the world's motorcycle clubs. The military background helps explain the gangs' rigid hierarchies, their weakness for symbols and medals, and their uniform-like affinity for leather jackets. The Bandidos, originally from Texas, were founded in 1966 by Marines who had fought in the Vietnam War. Their first offshoots developed in France in the 1980s, followed by groups in Scandinavia.
The Hell's Angels have been around longer -- the world's largest and most famous biker gang celebrates its 60th birthday this year. The former crews of a US Air Force bomber group founded the Angels shortly after the end of World War II. Angels, though, they are not. According to an investigation by Europol, the European law enforcement organization, more than half of the group's members have criminal records.
A Rude Welcoming
A high legal hurdle -- requiring proof of involvement in criminal activities -- has made it impossible to ban the gangs in Germany. Individual chapters have been closed, their members have merely migrated to other chapters or clubs. In addition, the German gangs never seemed overly dangerous in the past. While warring gangs in Scandinavia engaged in open battles, things stayed relatively quiet in Germany. And for good reason: The Angels dominated the biker scene.
But in November 1999, a German motorcycle club joined the international Bandido community. Since then, the Bandidos have been trying to expand, forcing the Angels to defend their territory. There are clashes wherever the two groups come into contact, and they are quick to exploit any excuse for violence.
The Angels had hardly opened a new clubhouse in Berlin when they received a not-so-welcoming visit from the Bandidos. Shortly after midnight about two months ago, not far from the Angels' new clubhouse, two high-ranking Berlin Angels were suddenly attacked from behind with machetes and wooden clubs. They have their thick leather jackets to thank for not having sustained more serious wounds.
- Part 1: Biker Turf War Escalating in Germany
- Part 2: Defending their Territory
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