Blood and honour

The Hell's Angels are romanticised in popular culture as glamorous rebels. But after four months on the bikers' trail, Sam Bagnall discovered that behind their freewheeling image lies one of the fastest-growing, most ruthless criminal organisations in the world

He is fat, bearded, and tattooed. He has worn the same pair of jeans, without washing them, since 1974. He will talk for a year without stopping about the crankcase of his Harley and he would hit you over the head with a pool cue as soon as look at you. He was my idea of a Hell's Angel - assembled, like most people's, from vague memories of greasy bikers in the 1970s. Having spent four months researching and filming a documentary about them, it is clear that the reality is very different.

From North America to Scandinavia, law enforcement agencies are cracking down on one of the fastest-growing of criminal phenomena - outlaw motorcycle gangs. The number of Angels chapters around the world has almost trebled in the last 12 years. Last month the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms indicted 57 Hell's Angels and their associates in and around Arizona for murder, conspiracy, drug dealing and racketeering. But it is in Canada that the potential of the Hell's Angels for organised crime is most starkly revealed.

Here, no-one refers to "Angels". They are, simply, "Hells". In September, nine guilty pleas in Montreal brought the total number of bikers convicted of gangsterism, murder and drug trafficking in Canada to more than 100 in the last three years.

Montreal was only just recovering from a brutal eight-year gang war which left 160 people dead. A series of bombings and shootings eliminated nearly all opposition to the Hell's Angels' domination of Quebec's cocaine trade.

The war had many innocent victims, including an 11-year-old boy called Daniel Desrochers, who was hit in the head by a piece of shrapnel from a car bomb that killed a small-time drug dealer who had made the mistake of falling out with Montreal's powerful chapter.

Police in the city proved that the bikers were running a cocaine trade worth almost £1m a day. Maurice Boucher, their leader, already in jail for life for murder, still faces a charge of importing more than four tonnes of cocaine from Colombia. And while many senior Quebec Angels are now in prison following the largest police operation in Canadian history, across the rest of the country police still believe Angels control the majority of the drug distribution.

"The reality of the Hell's Angels here is that they are a bunch of killers. They aren't motorbike guys any more. They're organised criminals with Mercedes - occasionally driving their bikes."

Michel Auger should know. As well as being the veteran crime reporter on Montreal's most popular tabloid, Le Journal de Montréal, he is also one of the Angels' most high-profile victims. In September 2000, following years of running stories exposing the vicious criminality of the bikers (while many other journalists were happy to ignore the story or glamorise the Angels), Auger was shot six times in the back in the car park behind his office. His survival was miraculous. It is not the only time Hell's Angels have sought to intimidate journalists.

Only months after the attempt on Auger's life, a daily chat show on the Dutch TV station RTL4 ran a discussion about a recent Hell's Angels funeral. Police had shut down a large part of Amsterdam to allow the procession of bikers to follow the coffin. The hosts of Barend & Van Dorp questioned why citizens should be inconvenienced by what was, essentially, a criminal organisation. The pair thought little more about it until a few weeks later. Just before they were due on air a group of around 10 bikers stormed into the studios and demanded that an apology be read out. Presenter Frits Barend and other members of the team were assaulted in the melée. Barend claims that mention was made of his daughter and where she worked. So frightened were the production team that they agreed to read out a statement apologising for suggesting that the Hell's Angels were anything other than a motorcycle club.

During the following weeks the programme director of RTL4, Leo van der Goot, became increasingly alarmed. The station received a bomb threat, and contacts in the underworld suggested further retribution might be in the pipeline.

"I went to the Amstel Hotel and had a meeting with the head of the Hell's Angels. He said that the bomb threat was not from them. He claimed that the Hell's Angels do nothing wrong, there was no proof that they were into drug trafficking. They were just a motorcycle club." A truce was agreed.

When I spoke to Frits Barend he was still shaken and, for the sake of his children, declined to go on record. It was a sobering conversation, though, illustrating how touchy the Angels are about their portrayal.

The enigma in all this was the nature of the Hell's Angels in Britain. My interest in the question became personal as well as professional as I began to question the wisdom of producing a programme that was emerging as broadly critical of the Angels.

There are 16 Hell's Angel chapters in England and Wales, which is in world terms a pretty high concentration. Yet here their profile is very low. There is no team of police officers investigating biker crime. A Hell's Angel was even invited to lead a parade of bikers at the Queen's Golden Jubilee procession. And yet enquiries among the criminal fraternity suggest that Angels are regarded with respect and fear. The one police officer with real experience of gathering intelligence on bikers for the National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS) insists that many Hell's Angels in this country are involved in crime in a similar way to their foreign counterparts.

We spotted British Hell's Angels at the World Run, in Laconia, New Hampshire - the annual party and international conference of the organisation. The British Angels wear the same patches on their leather jackets and have broadly the same systems and rules as chapters anywhere in the world. They have close links with Scandinavian bikers - some of the fiercest and most dangerous in the world, whose own gang war in the Nineties involved countless bombings and the use of military hardware such as anti-tank rockets.

Yet the perception remains that the Hell's Angels, along with their main rivals the Outlaws and Bandidos, are little more than eccentric, freedom-loving wild men who live for their motorcycles. It's an image that owes a great deal to the founding father of the Hell's Angels Motorcycle Club, Ralph "Sonny" Barger. My encounter with this legendary figure came during an Independence Day rally in Hollister, California, where tens of thousands of Harley Davidson enthusiasts were crammed into the tiny town.

In Harley Davidson's centenary year, the whole biker image has been experiencing a resurgence, with lawyers, accountants and stock brokers donning leathers and bandannas to celebrate the freedom of the highway. When Barger, arguably the most famous biker of all showed up, he got the full celebrity treatment.

"He is an American legend. He is freedom and the rebel in us and he stands for what America is all about and that is democracy," said one bikini-clad biker chick before throwing herself into Barger's arms for a photo call. Barger was in Hollister to sign copies of his life story and publicise his upcoming novel. The weekend bikers love both him and the sense of danger he represents.

In our interview Barger keeps to the line he has pushed for most of the 30 years since he and the Angels first came to prominence. The Hell's Angels are a group of fun-loving guys who like brawling, womanising and maybe taking a few drugs (though he himself does not take them anymore). "I like being a Hell's Angel, you know, I like the fact that I can ride my motorcycle with a group. I like the events we put on. We're having a big party in October for my 65th birthday, the club's doing that for me. We like to be with each other. I like to be with the club, I like to go places."

In Barger's world view the Angels are persecuted by the police and the federal government because of their alternative, "outlaw" lifestyle. Speaking in a coarse whisper (he had surgery for throat cancer in the 1980s) Barger oozes a certain menace. His rap sheet (proudly published as an appendix to his autobiography) includes violent assaults and conspiracy to kill members of a rival gang. But, in the country that has idolised murderers and gangsters from Jesse James to Bonny and Clyde, Barger's violent history only seems to increase the mystique.

The Hell's Angels Motorcycle Club was founded in 1948 in Southern California by disaffected young men - many of them servicemen returning from the war. The name "Hell's Angels" had been used by several Air Force squadrons. But the centre of power moved north when Barger started the Oakland Chapter across the bay from San Francisco in 1957. It is he who has been credited with turning the club into the highly structured multinational organisation that it is now. Since the early days he has also shown a knack for public relations.

Twenty miles from Oakland lives Sonny Barger's nemesis, in the law enforcement community. A precise man of few words, Timothy S McKinley now works as an attorney dealing mainly in divorce and real estate cases. Until 2002 he was a special agent in the FBI and one of their foremost experts on biker gangs. In the 1980s he was the handler of the most damaging informant in the history of the Hell's Angels. Anthony Tait, a Hell's Angel from Alaska, who rose to a senior position in the club's West Coast hierarchy and got close to Barger himself - while all the time in the pay of the FBI. As well as sending down dozens of Angels and their associates for industrial-scale manufacture and distribution of methamphetamine (the bikers' drug of choice, usually known as "crank"), Tait implicated Barger in a plot to murder members of the Angels' rival gang, the Outlaws. The Oakland leader was jailed for five years.

Two years of monitoring the Hell's Angels through Tait's wire taps was enough to convince McKinley that there was nothing romantic about the gang. One incident particularly sticks in his mind, and the memory momentarily causes a slight break in his impassive stare. A Hell's Angels member had left the organisation in "bad standing". "Within two weeks, he was shot dead in his residence, his wife was shot dead, his 17-year-old stepson was shot dead, and his five-year-old daughter Dallas was shot, wounded and then nearly decapitated with a knife stroke. The bodies were then set on fire and the house destroyed."

For McKinley, the biker gangs, with their semi-autonomous chapters around the world and their rigid rules of membership, are unique in the criminal world. "The Hell's Angels are not organised crime in the sense of traditional organised crime. Traditional organised crime, for example the Italian Mafia and the Japanese Yakuza, are typically organised on a pyramid structure with one boss who gives the orders flowing downwards and to whom the money flows upward. Within the Hell's Angels it's much more of a tribal or family concept."

As for the British members of this growing international family, my own contacts were limited to two off-the-record phone calls. Although Angels have appeared on the Men and Motors cable channel as well as a BBC motorcycle-based programme, it soon became clear that they were not going to take part in a programme examining links between Hell's Angels and crime. It remains to be seen what their reaction to it will be.

'Hell's Angels' is on BBC2 on Sunday at 9pm