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.
Week after week, from one hearing to the next, a bizarre drama is unfolding in the quiet city of Münster. When the trial began in December, several hundred bikers -- from both camps and from all over Germany -- congregated in front of the courthouse, where 600 police officers carefully kept them separate. But the trial and the bikers in attendence don't just offer an introductory course in the symbols, clothing and motorcycles preferred by the warring gangs. Rather, D.'s testimony into the parallel society the two gangs live in.
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.
Defending their Territory
The Angels have so far managed to defend their Berlin territory against the Bandidos, who have penetrated into the northern part of the city and the surrounding state of Brandenburg. A stairway leads up to Angelplace, the Angels' new clubhouse near Charlottenburg Palace, which allows those inside to monitor anyone approaching the building. So-called "prospects" and "hang-arounds" -- potential members going through a trial period -- guard the entrance. They search unannounced visitors and size up outsiders with a look that reflects the biker group's motto: "God forgives, Angels don't."
Inside the clubhouse, a man who calls himself Angel Buddy laughs about sayings like that. The only things that count for bikers, he explains, are "honor, respect, camaraderie and the love of their bikes." He insists that the stories about boozing, brawling hooligans with more horsepower than brainpower are all exaggerated, products of the overactive imaginations of journalists and the police.
Buddy, 43, has been a member of the Angels for eight years, and he sings the group's praises. "Conflicts between individuals are always conflicts for the group," Buddy explains, as if the Angels were the musketeers of labor welfare. "If someone is out of work, we find them a job. We don't like it when members just hang around." And the rumors about brothels, weapons and drugs? "Anyone caught dealing drugs," he says, taking a sip of his mineral water, "gets thrown out."
Misunderstood or Murderous?
Investigators have a different take on things. Police officers in Berlin describe members of the biker clubs as "criminals on wheels" and fear that the struggle for dominance is becoming increasingly merciless. Anyone who makes the mistake of tangling with an Angel in front of the new club knows exactly what he is getting himself into. "He's risking it all," says an investigator with Berlin's State Office of Criminal Investigation, "and he can expect retaliation."
The most recent exchange of fire between Bandidos and Angels took place over two minutes on a Saturday afternoon in early February on a market square in the city of Cottbus, southeast of Berlin. This time the roles were reversed -- the Angels were hunting down a Bandido. The Bandido in question, 25-year-old Andre S., feared for his life and fired his pistol five times. His 27-year-old attacker, Robert H., was hit and two bullets became lodged in his upper body. Only emergency surgery saved his life.
The Angels launched their attack on the Bandido despite the fact that he was with his 22-year-old wife and their 11-week-old son. The woman was also hit. From a car, the attacking Angels threatened to kill her and the baby. Until then, attacks on or in the presence of a biker's family were considered incompatible with "biker honor."
During the ensuing search of the apartment of the "president" of a Brandenburg Bandido chapter, police officers shot the man's dog. The "president," however, observed the code of silence and kept quiet, just as all bikers do -- except Rolf D.
A Biker's Life
The former Bandido, fearing for his family's safety, has given extensive testimony. His fellow bikers discovered that their treasurer had been dipping into the club's coffers. On May 19, 2007, they drove to D.'s house. "They wanted to beat up my wife," he says. "I was shocked."
According to D.'s descriptions, the biker clubs are little more than criminal gangs. He said that the Münster gang also had a so-called "tomato box," into which "all revenues from the businesses with cocaine, weapons and women" were paid. At times, there were up to up to €70,000 ($110,000) in this slush fund, which functioned like an in-house bank. High-ranking Bandidos could borrow money from the fund to finance their own businesses, but they had to repay the loans and contribute a share of the profits.
D. also testified about the Bandidos' weapons, which he said included submachine guns, hand grenades and sawed-off shotguns. "I didn't know anyone who didn't have a weapon," he told the court. When they went to outside parties, according to D., the Bandidos would hide guns and drugs at the party locations first -- so that the bikers would always be clean if they were stopped by police on the way to the gathering.
D. and his Bandido accomplices supplemented their incomes by working as debt collectors. He was given free rein, as long as he received the permission from -- and gave a cut of the profits to -- the head of his chapter. A club owner from Westphalia paid the biker a few hundred euros to call on a shipping agent, who was "worked over until he stopped moving." On another occasion, D. and four fellow bikers went "hunting for Angels" armed with submachine guns and shotguns. The men parked their Opel Omega near a highway. When a couple of Angels came roaring by, D. and his accomplices followed their hated rivals in the car and fired at them from the windows.
"It's a constant back and forth," says D. Nevertheless, the battles often escape the notice of the public and the authorities, as gang members usually manage to have their gunshot and knife wounds treated by doctor friends.
Dying for Sport
In May 2007, the turf war became deadly for Robert K. According to D.'s testimony, as one of the few Angels living in Bandido territory, Robert K. had become a repeated target of reprisals. At the beginning of last year, D. said, one of the leaders of the Bandido chapter in Münster decided that he wanted to acquire the motorcycle club's most sought-after decoration, so he allegedly ordered the deadly attack on Robert K.
The award the Bandido leader was interested in is the so-called "expect no mercy" patch that is sewn onto the biker's holy of holies: his leather jacket. Only those who have mortally wounded an Angel with a gun or a knife qualify to wear the patch on their jackets. Robert K., it would seem, was murdered for a mere piece of fabric.
The Münster court is expected to hand down its verdict next month. The rule of law will prevail, but calm will not. The police expect further deadly attacks, knowing full well that the brotherhoods accept no laws or court decisions other than their own. The states of Berlin and Brandenburg have even established a special commission to address the biker problem. Its first task is to investigate the investigators, as raid on a biker gang in the German capital recently had to be cancelled because someone had tipped off the bikers beforehand.
Police concerns are not unwarranted, according to Rolf D., who says that the gangs are "effectively networked." D., who has entered the State Office of Criminal Investigation's witness protection program and now lives with his family in an undisclosed location, has no illusions about his own future. "They've declared open season on me," he says.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan