A bloody shootout involving rival motorcycle gangs at a bar in Waco, Texas, left nine people dead on Sunday. Some 170 others were arrested after the violent confrontation, which reportedly involved five biker gangs, including one called the Bandidos and one called the Cossacks. When all was said and done, investigators had recovered about 100 weapons.
If you were surprised to learn that there are heavily armed and dangerous biker gangs out in the world, you’re not alone: As a Kansas City-area police officer told the Washington Post, even members of the law enforcement community tend to regard outlaws on motorcycles as a romantic relic rather than a real threat.
To learn more about the shadowy world of biker gangs, I called Charles Falco, a drug dealer-turned-undercover DEA agent who joined three separate motorcycle gangs between 2003 and 2010 and wrote a book about the experience called Vagos, Mongols, and Outlaws: My Infiltration of America’s Deadliest Biker Gangs. Based on his experience, Falco thinks that the tensions that erupted in Waco on Sunday had roots in nothing more tangible than a territory dispute. While Falco obviously wasn’t at the scene and doesn’t have any firsthand knowledge of what went on before the gunfight broke out, he gave me his best insight into why violence erupted in Waco.
Below, my interview with Falco, which has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Leon Neyfakh: I know very little about this world. Like a lot of people, when I heard the news about what happened yesterday, my first reaction was something like, “I thought these were just groups of friends who liked to ride motorcycles.” But clearly not.
Charles Falco: No. There’ve been little shootouts—I wouldn’t say all the time, and none of them have resulted in this many killed, but they do happen. And then there’s small killings—where it’s just one guy, like every six months. So it’s a constant ongoing war between the biker gangs all over the country. And it’s very hidden until something like this happens.
Neyfakh: Why do the biker gangs fight with other gangs? What causes violence to break out?
Falco: It’s over territory. So I [infiltrated] three different gangs—I was in the [Vagos], Mongols and the Outlaws, and the Outlaws have been at war with the Hells Angels since 1972. So, that’s a 40-year war. And what they fight over is territory. What caused this shootout in Waco is the coveted bottom rocker.
Neyfakh: The what?
Falco: So, I’ll try to explain this in laymen’s terms: When you watch Sons of Anarchy, they have those vests they wear that have what we call their colors. And on the back it shows their trademark, which is their symbol. And at the top, above the backpatch, is the name of the gang—and at the bottom is the state you’re claiming territory to. So the Bandidos have state claim to Texas. And they don’t allow any other motorcycle gang to be in that state and wear a Texas bottom rocker. They’ll allow some smaller motorcycle gangs to exist as long as they don’t wear that Texas bottom rocker. And what happened here was, the Cossacks have been around since 1969, the Bandidos since 1966. The Cossacks always stayed out of being a motorcycle gang, but they’ve been growing in numbers, and becoming more and more hardcore. So they decided that they were going to wear the Texas bottom rocker—which is telling the Bandidos that they believe that this is their territory, and they’re willing to die for that claim.
Neyfakh: So it’s just something they wear on their jacket?
Falco: Yes, on their vest.
Neyfakh: What does it look like?
Falco: It’s just a half-circle patch that says the name of the state. And that’s what caused this battle—them wearing that Texas bottom rocker.
Neyfakh: And that was implying that Texas was their state?
Falco: Yes, and Bandidos have always controlled Texas. Nobody has been able to go in there and wear that state bottom rocker—no other motorcycle gang.
Neyfakh: What does “control” mean in this context? Is it about who gets to sell drugs in a particular territory?
Falco: It used to be—and it is in Europe and in Canada—but in the U.S. it’s more just fighting over territory to fight over territory. To say “we have Texas locked up, we control this biker society.” They really don’t war anymore over drug territory. They just war over territory for the sheer fact of saying it’s their territory.
Neyfakh: So is it just for fun? Is it about thrill-seeking?
Falco: Yeah. A simple way to put it is: I was talking to an Outlaw and he said, “You know what, if we didn’t have the Hells Angels to war with, we’d war with each other. That’s what we do.”
Neyfakh: So the Cossacks were not really a gang for a while, but then they became one. What does that mean?
Falco: So, you and me could go to Texas, we could go to Bandidos and say, “Hey, we’re going to start our own motorcycle club.” And we’d ask them for permission and say, “We just want to ride around together and be a motorcycle club and that’s where we’ll keep it.” And usually the Bandidos would go, “Well, OK.” But then you’ve got to wear a Bandidos support patch. They might make you do that. The Bandidos have always OK’d the Cossacks’ right to exist as long as they didn’t wear the Texas bottom rocker. The Cossacks have been growing in numbers and recruiting more of that hardcore biker personality in their club. So they were starting to go that way—it’s like a slow transition. And when you get your numbers up, then we can go ahead and challenge the Bandidos to their area by throwing on that Texas bottom rocker. And the Cossacks have grown in number incredibly, and the power they think they have, and the soldiers they think they have and said, “It’s time to step up.”
Neyfakh: Do you know when the Cossacks started wearing the bottom rocker?
Falco: No, but it’s been recent.
Neyfakh: So why would these guys all have been hanging out together at one restaurant, if they hate each other?
Falco: You have a biker event—any time there’s a biker event in an area, the motorcycle gang that believes they control that area will show up and police it and make sure other motorcycle gangs aren’t there. They’ll protect that territory. So what happens is that, now that the Cossacks are claiming that territory too and they’re wearing the Texas bottom rocker. It’s probably an event they always showed up to together—they probably weren’t great friends or anything like that, but because the Cossacks weren’t wearing the Texas bottom rocker, the Bandidos left them alone. The difference is now they’re wearing the Texas bottom rocker, and—I wasn’t there to see what happened, but I’m guessing it was a confrontation, and they both went there in big numbers assuming there would be a confrontation.
Neyfakh: When you say “biker event,” what do you mean?
Falco: It’s just a day event. Like, a restaurant will hold a biker show or a bike contest. Hooters does it in different locations. It’s just a day event where you bring your family, look at some nice bikes, drink a couple beers, and then it’s over by 5 p.m. But when I was doing the Outlaw infiltration, the Outlaws would show up at Hooters looking for Hells Angels that might be in the area and try to show up, and waiting to have a shootout with them. And that’s what happened here.
Neyfakh: So that’s why they were all in the same place. And the guys who ended up causing the violence were probably planning to do that, right? Or do you think something sparked it unexpectedly?
Falco: Yeah, I mean, anything can do it—you park in someone else’s spot, you cut him off. But it was gonna happen. Something was gonna spark it. Because they didn’t show up there in big numbers just to drink beers with each other. And they were all armed, right?
Neyfakh: Yeah, they were all really armed. Is that normal, for gangs to travel with so many weapons?
Falco: So what happens is, in the states where they allow concealed weapons permits, all the big biker gangs have ordered all their members who aren’t felons to get concealed weapons permits.
Neyfakh: I guess what I’m so surprised by is that these are rivalries that are based on nothing—that they’re not fighting over anything more specific than intangible control over a particular area.
Falco: Yeah. Goofy, right?
Neyfakh: Yeah. I mean, how old are these guys?
Falco: Old! They’re old. They’re like 40s, 50s, 60s. Your average street gang is made up of Hispanic or African American kids who grew up in an area where they didn’t really have a choice. These are guys that do have a choice—that didn’t grow up in an area like that, but later in their life decided to become part of a gang. A lot of these guys are ex-vets—they’re war vets. Most of these biker gangs were created by war vets in Vietnam, World War II, and now Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s attractive to the anti-social war vet. Your normal war vet is a hero, and comes home a pro-social person. But your anti-social Caucasian war vet is attracted to these biker gangs, and so a lot of these guys are very highly skilled with weapons.
Neyfakh: Do they live together?
Falco: No, but they have a clubhouse, and mandatory runs, and they have to hang out with each other. There’s a lot of that.
Neyfakh: Just to close, what do you think has changed since you were on the inside of this culture?
Falco: I was 2003 to 2006 with the Vagos, and then 2008 to 2010 with the Mongols and Outlaws. Not much has changed. The only thing that’s changed is more states are allowing concealed weapons permits, so you have more of these guys who are armed to the teeth.