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
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.
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.
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.