A conference on organised crime at the Police Staff College, Bramshill, Hampshire, was told that Hell's Angels were the 'new kids on the block' but were learning fast. 'They have achieved in 40 years what the Cosa Nostra took 80 years to achieve,' a senior officer of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Criminal Intelligence Department told the meeting.
From their beginnings in California in the late 1940s, Hell's Angels have established 84 chapters in 17 countries and were now more than 1,200 strong, the conference was told. In the 1970s and 1980s they established links with the Colombian drugs cartels and the Mafia, and were now deeply involved in white-collar crimes such as money-laundering.
It emerged yesterday that senior British police officers are already alarmed about the potential of the Hell's Angels. Next month, police intelligence officers are meeting to assess the range of their operations.
Detective Inspector Graham Saltmarsh, head of the National Criminal Intelligence Service Organised Crime Desk, said there were about 200 Hell's Angels in Britain. He said they were 'small but lethal' and were very different to the motorcycle gangs; they had international links and had been involved in violent crime, credit card and mortgage fraud, the latter particularly in the West Country.
He said: 'There are indications that they could be involved in more killings and woundings than all the other organised crime gangs in Britain put together.' It was not a matter of merely looking at people wearing 'leather jackets and Nazi helmets'. 'Some drive BMWs and only wear the regalia for formal business. Day to day, they appear no different from anyone else.'
For the past two years, Britain has participated in a worldwide intelligence-gathering exercise on Hell's Angels and motorcycle gangs, organised by Interpol and codenamed Project Rockers. The conference was told that around the world the gangs engage in offences covering theft, assaults, robberies, prostitution, murder, extortion, drugs and firearms.
Many law enforcement agencies are said to be unable to pursue prosecutions because witnesses are intimidated.
The threat to the West of an influx of Triads from Hong Kong after the Chinese takeover in 1997 was in danger of being overestimated, the conference was told.
Chief Inspector Francis Fan of the Royal Hong Kong Police said Triad organisations were unlikely to flee the colony to the West because they preferred to remain on familiar territory.