WACO, Tex. — Sunday’s bloodbath in this central Texas city laid bare the real-life world of biker gangs: testosterone-fueled and honor-obsessed, a world in which the patches on a vest take on life-or-death significance.
For nearly five decades, the Bandidos Motorcycle Club monopolized the Texas “bottom rocker,” a patch shaped like an inverted rainbow that states a biker’s claim to the Lone Star State.
Smaller clubs also wore the Texas patch, but only with the Bandidos’ blessing. Until another club, the Cossacks, slapped the bottom rocker on their vests without permission. In that shadowy world, it was an unforgivable provocation.
After a series of smaller skirmishes, law enforcement officials say, all-out war finally erupted between the Bandidos and the Cossacks this past weekend in a shootout at a local sports bar that left nine dead, 18 injured and 170 bikers from both sides behind bars. On Tuesday, Waco police warned that Sunday’s carnage was probably just the beginning.
“In the gang world and in the biker world, that violence usually condones more violence,” Sgt. W. Patrick Swanton told reporters. “Is this over? Most likely not.”
A sense of threat continued to linger over Waco on Tuesday, particularly among the bartenders and waitresses who find themselves serving a lot of out-of-towners these days — and constantly on the lookout for telltale signs of gang affiliation. Sunday’s shootout was the worst outbreak of violence in Waco since the FBI siege of the Branch Davidian compound in 1993.
Meanwhile, authorities released the identities of the dead men, all bikers who died of gunshot wounds to the head, chest or torso, according to a preliminary autopsy report obtained by the Dallas Morning News. They ranged in age from Matthew Mark Smith, 27, to Jesus Delgado Rodriguez, 65. A member of the Cossacks club said at least six of the dead were Cossacks.
In interviews and on social media, representatives of both clubs sought to deflect responsibility for the violence. A member of the Bandidos claimed in a statement that his club was attacked Sunday by the rival Cossacks. A member of the Cossacks said his club did no such thing.
“We just want to be left alone. We just claim we’re from Texas. Texas is our home. That’s all we do,” said the Cossack, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of becoming a target. “They have a problem with the fact that we won’t bow down,” but “we did not start this. We did not go down there to start this.”
For months, however, trouble seemed inevitable between the two clubs, even to Texas law enforcement officials. Last spring, two Bandidos were charged with stabbing two Cossacks at an Abilene steakhouse. And on May 1, the Texas Department of Public Safety issued a bulletin warning that FBI agents in San Antonio had learned that the Bandidos were discussing “the possibility of going to war with Cossacks.”
The bulletin, obtained by the Dallas television station WFAA, detailed the reasons for the escalating tensions:
“Traditionally, the Bandidos have been the dominant motorcycle club in Texas, and no other club is allowed to wear the Texas bar without their consent,” the bulletin said. “If the club refuses, Bandidos members will attempt to remove the vest by force from the member.”
That appears to have been exactly what happened in March, when a group of Bandidos confronted a Cossack rider at a truck stop in rural North Texas. When the Cossack refused to remove the Texas rocker from his vest, he was attacked with a hammer and the Bandidos made off with his vest, the bulletin said.
“People will die for that patch once they get it,” said one central Texas biker who arrived at the sports bar Sunday just after the melee ended. He does not belong to either of the rival gangs and spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of becoming a target.
Wearing the Texas patch “was an outright provocation,” the biker said, adding that the Cossacks “were trying to buck the system that had been in place for 30 years.”
Whoever was to blame for the situation, the bulletin noted that “violence between members of the Bandidos and the Cossacks has increased in Texas with no indication of diminishing.”
The bulletin went on to describe the Bandidos as “one of the largest outlaw motorcycle groups in the United States and the largest outlaw motorcycle gang in Texas.” It described the Cossacks as “a national club with members in the east, north and west Texas.”
A recent Justice Department report on outlaw motorcycle gangs also warned that the Bandidos “constitute a growing criminal threat.”
Sunday’s regional meeting of the Texas Confederation of Clubs and Independents at the Twin Peaks sports bar was the match that ultimately lit the dry kindling. Meetings of the confederation, ostensibly a lobbying and biker rights group, are held regularly in various spots around the state.
The confederation is dominated by the Bandidos; the Cossacks are not members. When the Bandidos insisted on holding Sunday’s meeting in Waco — a town the Cossacks consider their home turf — the stage was set for tragedy, gang experts and local bikers said.
Waco police said the Cossacks showed up “uninvited.” Both sides were armed with brass knuckles, knives, batons and firearms.
“If you know you are going into an area where another club has told you to [get out], do you want to go there with just your fists?” the central Texas biker said.
Two days later, precisely what set off the fight remained unclear. Waco police said Tuesday that a rider’s foot had been run over in the parking lot. But authorities have also pointed to an altercation in the Twin Peaks restroom.
Johnny Snyder Jr., a rider with the Boozefighters Motorcycle Club in Waco, arrived at the restaurant just before the 1 p.m. meeting. The bar, which features barely clad waitresses, was packed with riders eating lunch and drinking beer. Snyder said he didn’t sense any tension when he stepped outside to smoke.
Then, “while I was standing outside, I heard a shot,” he said. “I ran away until the gunshots got quiet. Then I was told to get down on the ground by the police. And that’s what I did.”
The central Texas rider said his friends had parked their bikes in front of Twin Peaks when a single shot from a small-caliber weapon rang out.
“It fell deathly quiet,” the rider said he was told. “Then all hell broke loose.”
Bikers and law enforcement offices are bracing for what might come next.
“The police officers are probably right,” said the central Texas biker. “This is not over. Retribution will happen. It may not be a public display like what happened at Twin Peaks. But the issues at hand will be taken care of.”
Madigan is a freelance writer. Peter Holley in Waco and Mark Berman and Alice Crites in Washington contributed to this report.