Rocks and bricks come flying over the steel fence. Hell’s Angels run from the clubhouse, hurling stones and obscenities at a reporter taking pictures of their embattled compound.
At this clubhouse in the rural Swedish village of Hasslarp, the Angels are not in a meet-the-press mood. Their two-story house has been hit by rocket-propelled grenades twice in the past year, missiles allegedly fired by the Bandidos, a rival biker gang.
An ocean away from their home turf, the California-based Hell’s Angels and the Texas-based Bandidos are waging a battle that grows deadlier by the day.
Since the biker war started in 1994, six bikers have been killed and 36 more have survived assassination attempts. Attacks have more than doubled this year, as the Angels and Bandidos battle for dominance across Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden.
Shootings are in broad daylight, on highways, city streets, the parking lot of the Copenhagen airport. Even in prison. Clubhouses are walled off. Surveillance cameras monitor passers-by.
Police say the battle is about drugs and organized crime. Bikers say it’s about honor and respect.
In any event, interviews with bikers, police and a lawyer who represents members of both gangs indicate it may be only beginning. Predecessors of the gangs fought a similar war in the 1980s, killing 17 bikers.
“Most of it is about difficult things, club politics and so on, and I really can’t talk about it,” said Big Jim Tinndahn, the Bandidos leader in Denmark, in a rare interview.
“The police say we’re fighting about drug turf, but that’s not it,” he said. “Then the press makes a lot of noise about anything, even a bar fight, and it gets worse. It’s kind of stupid.”
It’s also kind of deadly.
Tinndahn’s Swedish counterpart was killed by a sniper last year. A Hell’s Angels member who left the group was killed in February. On March 10, members of both gangs happened to be on a flight from Helsinki to Copenhangen. Words were passed on board and, after the plane landed, bullets flew in the parking lot. One member of the Bandidos was killed, two wounded.
Americans may find it odd, picturing those California bad boys, the leather-clad Hell’s Angels, tooling around Scandinavia on their Harley Davidson Hogs. But the Angels have some 95 chapters with perhaps 1,500 members around the world.
And no matter where they are, the Angels have one rule: They dominate.
“The Hell’s Angels are the oldest, most powerful, well-established biker gang in the world, period,” said Terry Katz, a detective with the Maryland State police who has investigated biker gangs for two decades. “In Europe, the Bandidos have less people, but they make up for it in ferocity. They’re more intense. They want to challenge the Angels.”
Both groups combined have only a few hundred members in Europe. In Denmark, the Angels have 53 guys; the Bandidos, 50. In all Scandinavia, the numbers are about 250 combined.
But for every full-fledged member, there are several wanna-bes who try to prove they’re tough enough to earn the Hell’s Angels or Bandidos patch on their leather jacket.
“The Nordic war is being fought between the young guys in Hell’s Angels and the young prospective members of the Bandidos,” said a former Hell’s Angels member in the U.S., who spoke on condition of anonymity. “The Bandidos think the Angels are getting soft. It takes balls to do this game. You can’t sit around and snort cocaine and do amphetamines forever. You have to skip the party and do the business. The battle is about who’s the toughest.”
By some accounts, there was a fight in 1994 between some Bandidos and a Hell’s Angels member in a Stockholm bar. It ended with the Angels member hiding in the women’s bathroom. Retaliation followed, getting more deadly each time around.
Katz, the U.S. detective, believes there is more to it, as do his Scandinavian colleagues.
“The bottom line with biker gangs is organized crime,” Katz said. “In many ways, they are more sophisticated than the Mafia, and certainly less conventional. If they’re killing each other, there is business involved … guys who just like to drink and fight and ride a Harley would never be allowed into these gangs. That’s not what the Hell’s Angels are about.”
That charge appears to have merit. Nordic members of the Angels and Bandidos have been convicted of murder, extortion, racketeering, drug-dealing, running prostitution rings and a host of unsavory acts. At one point in the 1980s, there were only a dozen or so Hell’s Angels in Copenhagen - and most of them were in prison.
“It’s frustrating because it so often looks like organized crime, but you never can say the group is doing it,” said Hanne Beck Hansen, the Copenhagen police commissioner. “Members, yes. The groups, no.”
Peter Hjorne, a lawyer who represents bikers from both groups in court, has been asked by police to mediate the conflict.
“But I can’t call the leaders of each group to my office and say, ‘Okay, you sit there, you sit over there and let’s work this out,’ ” Hjorne said. “The Angels and the Bandidos want peace, but on their conditions. They are far apart. The war isn’t close to finished.”
Authorities are furious. Danish and Swedish legislators plan to give more money to police and broaden their powers. Danish police already stop and search gang members on sight, pat-downs that often net weapons, drugs and subsequent jail terms.
“We can reduce the violence, but if two well-armed groups want to kill each other, we can’t stop them from doing it,” said Hansen, the Copenhagen police commissioner.
Hansen and several politicians are trying to crack down on the gangs by broadening police powers, but are are frustrated by liberal Nordic laws that would give Rush Limbaugh a coronary.
For example, when a radio talk show host this summer referred to Jorn “Jonke” Nielsen, an Angels leader serving 16 years in a Danish prison for killing a rival gang leader, as a “psychopath,” he sued for slander and won the equivalent of $5,000. When Copenhagen police detective Poul Lind said police knew the Angels controlled the local hashish market, the group sued and has won initial court rulings. The Bandidos chapter outside Copenhagen is suing the county for cutting off their yearly $10,000 subsidy as a “youth group.”
In the coup de grace, the Hell’s Angels in Copenhagen rent their clubhouse from the city. It’s on a busy street, next to auto repair garages and apartment buildings.
But even Hell’s Angels can’t get evicted under Danish law, so the city is now offering them sweetheart rental deals in less populated areas.
“You couldn’t find this sort of nonsense in a banana republic,” scoffed Ambro Kragh, a journalist and author of two books on the Hell’s Angels. “The Angels know the laws are very liberal here, they hire the best lawyers and they exploit it.”
In Hasslarp, Sweden, a mother and her two children walk to the village store along a narrow street. The street runs through town, connecting the Hell’s Angels clubhouse on one side of the village and the Bandidos compound on the other.
“We moved here to raise the kids in peace and quiet,” said the woman, who refused to give her name. “I don’t mind the bikers being around, but with this war, you worry about shootings and bombings. Police have found weapons stashed along this road. It’s only a matter of time before innocent people get killed.”