A spike in motorcycle club membership in Europe has law enforcement agencies concerned.
By Eliza Ronalds-Hannon for Southeast European Times in Sarajevo -- 25/02/13
The increase in the number of biker gangs could cause a rise in crime in the region, Europol said. [AFP]
After an announcement from Europol that membership in both the Hells Angels and Bandidos clubs has almost doubled in the last six or so years, regional governments are keeping an eye on local motorcycle club chapters.
The number of Hells Angels club chapters around the world grew from 120 in 2005 to 229 in 2012, and the Bandidos reaching 137 chapters in 2012, up from 72 in 2006, according to Soren Pedersen, Europol's media chief.
The average club chapter consists of around 14 members, Europol said.
"What we fear in the Balkans is that, even though they are staying under the radar now, they will as we've seen time after time eventually involve themselves in arms and, of course, drugs," Pederson said.
This isn't the first time the region has confronted the specter of a biker boom. In 2010, Europol released a similar warning, noting the need for international police co-operation to address the issue.
Later that year, the European Commission sponsored a multi-country workshop on outlaw motorcycle gangs for South-Eastern European law enforcement officers.
In Zagreb last month, police carried out a raid on a motorcycle club where around 60 visitors from all over Eastern Europe gathered for an annual party.
"During conduction of the raid, police officers used means of coercing over four people and a couple of persons were brought to an interview under caution, after which they were released," a spokesperson for the Zagreb police told SETimes.
Turkey and Albania, where Europol said the influx is particularly strong, are strategic points of distribution for the "Balkan Route," through which much of Western Europe receives most of its drugs.
Europol claims the major influx hails from Australia, where biker gangs are very active.
There, the groups "feature prominently in most aspects of serious and organised crime, and have a robust ability to expand into illicit drugs, firearms, blackmail, extortion and fraud," the Australian Crime Commission said recently.
Australia's government has made policing of biker gangs a major priority. Several states have tried to ban the groups entirely, through laws that prohibit the display of gang colors and membership tattoos. Gang members, however, have successfully challenged those laws as unconstitutional.
The government's recent crackdown on "bikies" may be what's causing some members to migrate west, but Europe also offers business advantages.
Despite Europol's recent warning, some experts were skeptical that such a major relocation would prove worth the trouble for Australia-based bikers.
The groups often exist as legitimate hobbyist communities, Duncan McNab, a former policeman and private investigator in Australia, said, but, he added, "you'd need to be blind not to know what the clubs are primarily doing."
Many Australian bikers have a built-in connection to Southeastern Europe due to their Balkan origins. Many immigrants who fled the region as Yugoslavia splintered during the 1990s -- or during the long economic slump that followed -- landed in Australia.
A high proportion of those have been recruited to their adopted homeland's "bikie" gangs, which now include the aptly named "Balkan Bandidos."
When two Australian "Bandidos" from the Balkans were recently tried, and later convicted, in a Gold Coast gang rape, their lawyers cited the trauma they experienced growing up during the wars in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo as a context for their behaviour.
With the various clubs increasing in size, they could outgrow their own trade territories and infringe on others', Europol fears. Turf wars are certainly not unprecedented in biker communities; historically, these gangs have become most violent when dealing with inter-gang issues of defection and rivalry.
"If you go back in history you can see: when they get too crowded, there is a risk they will clash," Pedersen said.