The Gang’s All Here

When a beloved brother died last summer, more than four hundred bikers thundered into San Antonio for his funeral. As they swapped stories about the old days and guzzled beer, one message could be heard over the roar of their Harleys: Bandidos forever.

THEY BEGAN ARRIVING AT THE MISSION PARK They began arriving at the Mission Park Funeral Home in San Antonio early on a Friday afternoon. They came in packs, riding two, sometimes three abreast, their motorcycles roaring loudly enough to rattle all the funeral home’s windows.

People who worked in the nearby stores and businesses rushed outside to get a better look. One man, standing in the parking lot of a Mexican restaurant, called a friend on his cell phone and shouted, “There must be a hundred of them!” A woman driving a Ford Taurus swerved to the shoulder of the road and slammed on her brakes as a group of them raced past her, missing her car by inches.

They kept coming and coming, their wind-burned faces grim and purposeful. They were dressed in steel-toed boots, jeans, and their “colors”: denim or black leather vests covered with a variety of red-and-gold patches that carried such slogans as “Loyalty is our honor,” “Our colors don’t run,” and “Expect no mercy.” On the back of every vest was a large patch of a bellicose Mexican bandit brandishing a pistol and a machete.

“It’s the Bandidos!” yelled the man in the parking lot. “The Bandidos are here!”

On this September afternoon, the members of the Bandidos Motorcycle Club were indeed in San Antonio. They had come to pay their respects to one of their early members, Luis Bonilla, a.k.a. Bandido Chuco, who had died at the age of 65 from liver cancer. They thundered into the funeral home’s parking lot, gunning their engines again and again, sending thick clouds of exhaust into the air. One Bandido popped a wheelie on his Harley-Davidson and rode on his back tire for at least thirty yards. Another raced down the parking lot, hit his brakes, leaned his entire body to the left, whipped his motorcycle around, and then raced the other way. On the back of some of the motorcycles were the Bandidos’ wives or girlfriends, known as PBOLs: Proud Bandido Old Ladies.

Standing in the doorway to the chapel, the thin, dark-suited director of the funeral home smiled nervously, his lips as pale as milk. “They promised us there would be no trouble,” he said hesitantly as the Bandidos parked their bikes and began hugging and kissing one another on the mouth—the traditional Bandido greeting.

“I love you, brother!” barked one beefy, middle-aged Bandido, wrapping his tattooed arms around a Bandido whose long gray hair was held back with a bandanna.

“Man, that Chuco was a bad motherf—er,” said another, wearing a T-shirt underneath his vest that read “Snitches are a dying breed!” “Remember how he used to say that if we ever had a problem, we should handle it very, very violently?”

The men roared with laughter. There were more bear hugs and kisses as more Bandidos arrived. A flask or two was passed around. Several of them headed into the chapel to see Chuco in his casket. He was dressed in his favorite black T-shirt, black jeans, and his Bandidos vest. He was surrounded by bouquets of flowers, along with photos of him in his younger days standing beside his motorcycle or next to topless biker chicks.

Suddenly, the Bandidos heard a sound in the distance, a distinct whomp-whomp-whomp. They walked back outside, looked up, and saw a helicopter coming right at them. It banked to the right and began to circle the funeral home. In the helicopter’s open door were a couple of men in police uniforms holding binoculars.

“The pigs are here,” someone said.

For a few moments, the Bandidos stood there, unmoving. And then, as if given a silent cue, several of them lifted their hands in unison and flashed their middle fingers toward the sky.

IF YOU WEREN’T LIVING HERE THIRTY or forty years ago, you might not have any idea who the Bandidos are. You probably have no inkling that they were once the terrors of Texas, so fearsome that when a rumor spread through a town that they were coming, people literally headed inside their homes and locked their doors.

And even if you do know who they are, you could very well have trouble believing they still exist. The Bandidos? The renegade motorcycle gang? Aren’t they long gone, artifacts of the Easy Rider era? Hasn’t the motorcycle world been taken over by lawyers, doctors, and advertising executives, all those self-proclaimed “chromosexuals” who pull back their hair in neat ponytails and don designer sunglasses and expensive black leather jackets so that they can take leisurely rides through the countryside on sunny weekend afternoons?

In fact, the Bandidos are not just hanging on, they are thriving. With an estimated 800 to 1,000 members in sixteen states (about 400 in Texas alone) and another 1,400 members in Canada, Europe, and Australia, they are now as large as the fabled Hells Angels, from California, and according to law enforcement officials who investigate the club, the new Bandidos—or at least some of them—are just as ribald and rebellious as the originals, whom the cops used to chase day and night.

In the past couple of years alone, police around the country have arrested Bandidos for everything from drug dealing and kidnapping to possession of illegal weapons and trafficking in stolen vehicles. Bandidos have been accused of threatening people who were preparing to testify against them in court and of beating and even shooting any member of rival motorcycle clubs who has either not shown them the proper respect or attempted to invade one of their territories.

Last March, for instance, police in Austin announced that the Bandidos were the prime suspects in one of the city’s most shocking murders: the slaying of a 44-year-old local motorcyclist named Anthony Benesh. Benesh, who had been trying to start an Austin chapter of the Hells Angels, had been shot in the head, apparently by an unseen sniper, as he was leaving a North Austin restaurant with his girlfriend and two children. According to homicide detective

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