Europe's biker gangs set on a collision course with the police

In the middle of May this year, thousands of leather-clad bikers from across the Balkans gathered in the Croatian town of Slavonski Brod for a bash celebrating the unbridled joy that comes from tearing up the open road on a powerful two-wheeled hog.

The annual Moto Klub Brod motorijada (motor picnic) has become one of the largest gatherings for outlaw motorcycle gangs in the Balkans, taking place on the border of Bosnia-Herzegovina in a Croatian town that was significantly damaged during the war.

Despite the ongoing tensions in the Balkans – and the fact that many bikers are hardened veterans of the successive wars that tore this region apart in the 1990s – the Moto Klub Brod normally passes off without incident. But this year, on the last night of the seven-day festival, a large brawl broke out between a group of Hells Angels and a rival gang from Bosnia known as the "Grevinis".

The fight, which began when a group of bat-wielding Hells Angels attacked a car carrying Grevinis members – and ended in police having to stop an angry crowd from beating up the Hells Angels – had little reason to be reported outside of the local Croatian media. But in the offices of a number of police forces across Europe, the fight caused a buzz of activity and concern.

Those charged with investigating drug trafficking and cross-border gang crime in Europe have watched with trepidation as outlaw motorcycle gangs, dubbed OMCGs, have spread with renewed vigour across Europe, particularly in the Balkans and eastern Europe. Investigators say this increase is no coincidence. Both areas are vital drug-smuggling routes from Central Asia and South-east Asia, where almost all of Europe's heroin and much of its cannabis originate.

According to Europol, the EU-wide agency that collates criminal intelligence on cross-border gangs, Europe is now the continent with the highest increase in new OMCG chapters, many of whom are involved in extortion, racketeering, sex-trafficking and drug smuggling. During the past five years the Bandidos, Hells Angels and the Outlaws have opened more than 120 new chapters, bringing the total number of European chapters to at least 425. By comparison the number of chapters of the same trio of outlaw gangs in the United States and Canada is hovering around the 300 mark.

The threat posed by the expansion of "one percenters" – the term outlaws use to distinguish themselves from the old adage that 99 per cent of bikers are law-abiding – has concerned Europol to such an extent that this week they organised a conference in Dubrovnik gathering officers from across Europe to discuss how to investigate, target and disrupt criminal biker gangs.

"Serious criminality is a feature of the activities of outlaw motorcycle gangs in Europe," said Rob Wainwright, director of Europol, which is based in The Hague. "We are worried about their expansion and are increasing our efforts to track their activities."

Outlaw biker groups rarely look for publicity and a number of emails to Hells Angels chapters across continental Europe from The Independent went unanswered. But the defence routinely used by biker groups in the past is that they are misunderstood law-abiding organisations made up of bike enthusiasts unfairly targeted by the police. It is certainly true that almost all outlaw chapters spend much of their time doing charity work.

But Europol insist many are also deeply involved in organised crime and cite reams of convictions in recent years across the continent.

Other than the murder of Hells Angels biker Gerry Tobin by Outlaws members in August 2007, British OMCGs have kept a low profile in recent years. But across Europe, particularly in places like Denmark, Germany and Sweden, it is a different story.

In Germany this year a fragile truce was declared between the Bandidos and the Hells Angels after violence between the two gangs erupted on the streets of Berlin and in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein, where both chapters were promptly banned.

Scores of people were injured and a number were murdered because a group of up to 70 Bandidos defected en masse to the Hells Angels.

The Independent has been told by investigators that most of those that defected to the Hells Angels were German bikers from Turkey, where Hells Angels chapters have risen dramatically. In Denmark, meanwhile, at least 15 members of the Hells Angels and a youth gang closely connected to them known as AK 81 face charges of attempted murder. The arrests were largely made possible thanks to two key witnesses, including Kaspar Vetter, a former Hells Angels lieutenant, going into the witness protection programme and turning on their former comrades.

"In Britain I think people tend to think that one percenters are a bit of a joke, just a bunch of fat guys in leather polishing their bikes," one European officer involved in investigations against biker gangs said. "But if you look on the continent, these gangs are intimately involved in all kinds of criminal activity."

Whether the biker gangs have made headway in the criminal underworld in the Balkans – or even intend to – remains to be seen. There have been no major prosecutions against outlaw bikers since the new chapters have sprung up. But Europol is still keen that local police agencies keep a close eye on them.

"Just look at the convictions there have been in the rest of Europe, the US and Australia and it shows that these gangs are not just a bunch of people fund-raising for charity," said Europol's spokesperson Soren Pedersen.

"If they really have no intention of getting involved in crime in the Balkans we'll be the first to applaud. But our experience means we have to be on the look out."

The Rival Gangs

Hells Angels

Easily the most recognisable and largest one percenter biker gang in Europe. The Hells Angels were formed in California in 1948 by war veterans and rose to global fame after Hunter S Thompson’s expose. First European chapter opened in 1969 in London and quickly spread. Large number of new chapters have opened in Turkey.

Bandidos

Bitter rivals to Hells Angels formed by Vietnam War vet Don Chambers in 1966. Throughout the 1990s the gang fought a vicious battle with its rivals to control the drug trade in Scandinavia in a conflict known as the Great Nordic Biker War. Recent battles have broken out in Germany and Denmark following defections.

Outlaws

One of the earliest OMCGs, formed in 1935. Again their main rivals tend to be the Hells Angels (Outlaws members frequently use the phrase “Adios” to stand for Angels Dies in Outlaw States). Its first European chapter was opened in France in 1993. Recent new chapters have opened in Russia, Serbia, Japan and the Philippines.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Sport
Kim Sears is reported to have directed abuse at Berdych
tennis
Arts and Entertainment
Cold case: Aaron McCusker and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvReview: Sky Atlantic's ambitious new series Fortitude has begun with a feature-length special
Voices
Three people wearing masks depicting Ed Miliband, David Cameron and Nick Clegg
voicesPolitics is in the gutter – but there is an alternative, says Nigel Farage
Voices
The veterans Mark Hayward, Hugh Thompson and Sean Staines (back) with Grayson Perry (front left) and Evgeny Lebedev
charity appealMaverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
News
i100
News
people
Sport
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho
footballThe more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Life and Style
Vote green: Benoit Berenger at The Duke of Cambridge in London's Islington
food + drinkBanishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turn over a new leaf
News
Joel Grey (left) poses next to a poster featuring his character in the film
peopleActor Joel Grey comes out at 82
News
i100
News
business
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing & Sales Manager

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A reputable organisation within the leisure i...

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Recruitment Genius: Doctors - Dubai - High "Tax Free" Earnings

£96000 - £200000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Looking for a better earning p...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer

£32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly expanding company in ...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee