Like some families, biker gangs tend to settle scores among themselves. Privately, if not quietly.
But on Sunday, a feud between two rival biker groups — the Bandidos and Cossacks — broke into the open in a big way.
At least nine people were killed when a fight erupted at a Waco, Texas, restaurant, with the clash escalating in minutes from fists to guns.
Eighteen people were hospitalized, according to Waco police Sgt. W. Patrick Swanton, who said that all of the victims were bikers. He declined to name the gangs involved.
Photos from the scene showed bikers wearing the insignias of the Cossacks, Bandidos, Scimitars and Vaqueros. But according to a memo sent to law enforcement officers in the wake of the shooting, a member of the Bandidos, and a former informant who infiltrated biker clubs, the beef was primarily between the Bandidos and Cossacks.
It boils down to territory, said the informant, who goes by the name “Charles Falco.”
“The Bandidos are the biggest motorcycle gang in Texas, and they don’t allow other motorcycle gangs to enter that state. They will allow other motorcycles clubs to exist, but they’re not allowed to wear that state bottom rocker. If they do, they face the onslaught of the Bandidos,” Falco told CNN’s Sara Sidner.
The bottom rocker refers to a state name on the back of a biker’s vest. According to Falco, it can indicate where someone is from, as well as claim territory for that club.
“The Cossacks decided that they were big enough now to go ahead and wear the Texas bottom rocker, and basically tell the Bandidos that they’re ready for war,” he said.
Sunday’s fight, Falco predicted, will make matters exponentially worse between the two gangs.
“It’s definitely on, now,” he said. “As long as they exist, they will be at war.”
Bulletin warned of ‘potential war’
That potential has apparently been on the radar of Texas authorities for some time.
WFAA, a news station in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, reported on a law enforcement bulletin from May 1, which detailed growing tensions between the Bandidos and Cossacks.
“Violence between members of the Bandidos OMG and the Cossacks MC has increased in Texas with no indication of diminishing,” the bulletin read. “The conflict may stem from Cossacks members refusing to pay Bandidos dues for operating in Texas and for claiming Texas as their territory by wearing the Texas bottom rocker on their vests.”
WFAA reported the bulletin was issued by the Texas Department of Public Safety, which declined to tell CNN whether or not the document was genuine. It also declined to provide a copy of it.
The bulletin reportedly said that officers had tried to reduce tensions between the groups, warning them about the “unwanted attention a potential war would bring.”
It detailed specific moments in the escalating rivalry, including:
• March 22 — Approximately 10 Cossacks forced a Bandido to pull over near Lorena, Texas. They attacked the Bandido member with “chains, batons, and metal pipes before stealing his motorcycle.” On the same day, a group of Bandidos approached a Cossack at a truck stop in Palo Pinto County. The Cossack member was attacked after he refused to remove a Texas patch from his vest.
• April 7 — The FBI received information that some 100 Bandidos planned to travel to Odessa, Texas, in early April to start a “war” with Cossacks there.
• April 24 — The FBI released a report on three recent fights between the Bandidos and Cossacks in east Texas.
“What this is, is if you go back to being a little kid and you’re playing ‘King of the Hill.’ This is ‘King of the Hill.’ And in Texas, the Bandidos are at the top of the pile, and everybody wants to be at that top level,” said Chris Omodt, a former cop and co-author of the book, “Breaking the Code,” which is about the Hells Angels.
“It’s over the patch, wearing that patch in that state. It’s based on that, period,” he said.
‘We are not a gang’
Among those killed Sunday was one member of the Bandidos, according to Jimmy Graves, a high-up member of that club.
Graves says he’s not aware of the Bandidos having a problem with Cossacks, but “evidently they have an issue.”
“They (Cossacks) want to be outlaws,” he told CNN’s Kyung Lah.
The U.S. Justice Department characterizes the Bandidos as a “growing criminal threat” with at least 2,000 members in 14 countries. It says the gang is involved in the production, transportation and distribution of drugs.
The Justice Department had no such synopsis for the Cossacks, but the book “The One Percenter Encyclopedia: The World of Outlaw Motorcycle Clubs from Abyss Ghosts to Zombies Elite” says they were founded in Texas in 1969 and have a major presence in Australia.
Graves took serious issue with the Bandidos being characterized as a gang. The motorcycle club’s website highlights noncriminal endeavors such as its Easter party in Germany or its toy drive in France.
“We are not a gang. We do not do gang things. We are not affiliated with gangs,” Graves said. “We didn’t do nothing here. We’re fighting for our rights. They’re saying lies on TV, and telling everybody that Bandidos are after police officers. That’s never been.”
By Dana Ford
CNN’s Eliott C. McLaughlin contributed to this report.