The year is 1965. USA are in the middle of the Vietnam War, Martin Luther King has recently marched from Selma to Montgomery and Roger Miller’s ‘King of the Road’ is number one. Thirteen bikers meet on the corner of Eighth and Davidson in San Bernardino, California to form the Vagos Motorcycle Club, beginning a history that would involve drug trafficking, clashes with the police and a violent rivalry with the Hells Angels.
The elected president was Rudy Esparza, nicknamed Puro, who led the new club in selecting their name. Other names considered included Coffin Dogers MC and Satan’s Saints MC, but Vagos MC, Spanish for vagabond, was chosen. Their new patch, a red devil on a green background, was inspired by an image of a devil in LIFE magazine entitled ‘Return from hell.’
More Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs (OMGs) were established in the 1960s than in any other decade. The outlaw status is given to groups who are not sanctioned by the American Motorcyclists Association (AMA). They are also known as 1%ers, a term which originated after the Hollister biker riot in 1947 when the AMA allegedly claimed the 99% of bikers were law abiding citizens, although the AMA have no record of issuing this as an official or public statement.
Bikers would often move between clubs or find their club being absorbed into a larger club. Puro had previously been with the Psychos MC and others joined from clubs including El Diablo MC. The question of whether the Vagos would absorb or be absorbed was very quickly answered as more Chapters sprang up across California. In 2014 the FBI listed the Vagos as one of the largest Outlaw Motorcycle Groups in Western America with 600 members in 24 Chapters throughout America, as well as Chapters in Canada, Mexico and Europe.
The Mafia on wheels?
Described by Vagos infiltrator Charles Falco as “the mafia on wheels” the Vagos have more than earned their 1%er patch. Drug related arrests have been made throughout their colourful history. In 1987 the head of the South Bay Chapter and President of the Desert Hot Springs Chapter along with three others all pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute methamphetamines. Over 40 pounds of cocaine and eight pounds of methamphetamines (and a rocket launcher!) were seized in a 2011 raid. And in 2014 four Vagos members were arrested by the FBI for selling methamphetamines.
Alongside money laundering and weapons trafficking, the Vagos are also known for their general violence, especially with rival OMGs. As the Vagos attempted to expand their territory tension erupted between them and other OMGs most notably the Hells Angels. In 2001 a bloody melee broke out between the Vagos and the Angels in the Californian city of Costa Mesa. And in 2010 an argument over which gang got to hang out in the Starbucks in Santa Cruz escalated. A brawl outside the coffee shop led to a gunfight in Chino Valley, several drive by shootings and a bitter feud.
The authorities have successfully infiltrated the Vagos a number of times. George Rowe, a street criminal whose friend had disappeared after an incident with the Vagos, volunteered to go undercover as part of Operation 22 in 2003. His evidence gathered over 3 years resulted in 42 arrests and convictions for crimes as serious as murder. Whilst Charles Falco worked his way up to number two of the Victorville Chapter and provided the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) gathering enough information to make 62 arrests for crimes including assault and murder. Fun fact, both Rowe and Falco have written books about their experiences and actually appear as characters in each other’s books.
However the Vagos have their own weapon in their ongoing battle with the police- the lawsuit. In 1990 the Vagos sued the police and received a $2 million settlement claiming they were targets of massive police abuse in the early eighties. And in 2010 when the Vagos were blamed for a spree of homemade booby traps that targeted the police, they once again sued and received a settlement that included a public statement and the return of property seized the previous year.
As with all criminal groups the Vagos don’t advertise their more notorious crimes. Their PR website vagosmcworld.com, presents them as a club rather than a gang. Their consistent response to arrests is that it is not all of their members committing crimes, but a few bad apples. So, organised crime syndicate or a club where just 1% of the 1%ers are giving them a bad name…?