texasmonthly.com: Last year, you got the opportunity to closely observe two of Texas’s most infamous sub-cultures: the world of MS-13, the violent inner-city street gang in Houston (which resulted in your December 2006 story, “You Don’t Want to Know What We Do After Dark”) and the world of the infamous outlaw motorcycle club, the Bandidos (which resulted in this month’s story, “The Gang’s All Here”). What feelings did you have prior to meeting each group?
Skip Hollandsworth: In all honesty, I was scared half to death. Like a lot of people, I had been reading almost all my life about gang violence but had never actually been around a full-fledged member of one of those gangs. And I had never before been around hard-core bikers. The Bandidos were especially terrifying to me. As I pointed out in the story, when I was boy growing up in the North Texas city of Wichita Falls, the Bandidos were like the bogeymen: the source of my darkest, most imaginative fears. At school recess, my friends and I used to hang around the playground and swap stories about the Bandidos’ legendary (if apocryphal) exploits. I literally believed back then that Bandidos were so wild that they had sex with dead women.
And I have to say I was very hesitant about meeting the two men who became the lead characters in those stories. When I met Alex (the main character in the gang story), he was one of the veterans of the southwest Houston gang scene. By his own account, he had committed many crimes, and he was the driver during his gang’s drive-bys against other gangs. I assumed that he would not think twice about pulling out a gun or knife and killing me if something went wrong. And at the time I met Jeff Pike (the international president of the Bandidos), the Bandidos were considered suspects in a couple of high-profile murder investigations. Canadian authorities were even speculating that Pike and his cohorts had ordered a brutal mass murder of dissident Bandidos in Ontario.
texasmonthly.com: Who turned out to be more intimidating? Who turned out to be friendlier?
SH: Here’s where it gets interesting. Alex, who was 20 when I started interviewing him, was in many ways just a regular kid who loved soccer and telling stories and swooning over girls. It took a long time to win over his trust, but even during our first conversations, he wasn’t threatening in any way. He seemed to appreciate me coming into his world and asking about his life. I never once felt threatened (well, except for the time he did his little pretend drive-by with me in a rental car.) And Jeff Pike, who was 51 (just a few years older than me), turned out to be as congenial as anyone I’ve ever met. Before I finished reporting the story, we met for dinner at Kirby’s, an upscale steak house in the Woodlands (just north of Houston). We were like any of the other middle-aged guys you’d see there throwing back a couple of drinks and talking about families, sports, and our jobs. He, too, seemed to appreciate that someone actually wanted to see through all the stereotypes that might exist about the Bandidos.
texasmonthly.com: But what about going to the Bandidos funeral? Here you were, this Yuppie reporter in a button-down shirt, surrounded by some of the toughest bikers in America. And surely, when you went into the biker bar with all the Bandidos, you had to have felt a little anxious.
SH: Frankly, I didn’t feel all that anxious because I knew that Pike had gotten the word out that I was to be left alone. Nevertheless, when I drove up to the funeral home and saw all those guys coming on their bikes, I felt my heart stop. These are tough men, and they love being tough. I’m not sure I convincingly conveyed in the story my fear during that moment at the funeral home when the professional wrestler-size Bandido, who is nicknamed F.O., came up to me and poked his finger in my sternum to tell me the Bandidos would never be brought down. But by the end of the next day, F.O. was pounding me on the back at the biker bar, acting like we were old friends. He was even letting me make fun of him for having two women. (I was doing all those old jokes about it being hard enough for a man to deal with one woman, let alone two—ba-dum, ba-dum.)
But let me say something else. I absolutely know that if F.O. or Pike or any of the Bandidos thought I was doing something to seriously damage their club—that if they thought I was snitching on them to the Feds, for instance—they would come hunt me down. That’s the Bandido way. They love their club that much.
texasmonthly.com: So how dangerous do you think the Bandidos are?
SH: Well, it’s a huge exaggeration to say that the Bandidos are dangerous to everyday citizens. It’s a myth that they are tearing through small towns, snatching away nubile young women from the arms of their fathers, and plundering from the towns’ businesses. There are reportedly Bandidos who do commit crimes to make extra money (or, for that matter, all their money), and I do think for a long time, the club had a problem with some of its members being involved in the methamphetamine trade. But there is no evidence that Bandidos are required to commit crimes either to join or to stay in the club (another long-held stereotype). And there is certainly no evidence whatsoever—or at least none that’s been made public—that the club is running Mafia-like criminal operations.
I do think, however, that the Bandidos can be dangerous in certain situations. In the motorcycle world, they see themselves as kings of the hill, and those members of other clubs that challenge them are, in my opinion, simply taking their lives in their own hands. Furthermore, a guy who gets drunk in a bar and tries to take on a Bandido learns just how quickly other Bandidos will appear. They defend one another. They watch each other’s backs. That’s part of their brotherhood. So I would tell anyone out there who rides a motorcycle to keep away from the Bandidos—or at least to show them immense respect.
texasmonthly.com: Were there any stories you heard that didn’t make it in the final draft? Anything you had to take out that you wish had been in there?
SH: Because of space limitations, I did end up cutting a lot of the sections involving the history of the Bandidos. During my reporting, I could not get enough of the stories about Bandido life in the old days. I heard, for instance, that at a Bandidos wedding, a Bandido and his bride took their vows with their hands placed on a Harley-Davidson manual instead of a Bible. I heard that if a Bandido missed one of his chapter’s weekly meetings, which were called “church meetings” or “card games,” he was likely to receive a black eye from a sergeant-at-arms, and if he missed one of the “runs” (long road trips) that the Bandidos took every year to biker rallies as far away as Sturgis, South Dakota, he would receive another black eye.
And here’s a great example of how daring they were in their early days. According to Bandidos lore, a group of Hells Angels came from California to Houston in the late sixties or early seventies to start a Hells Angels chapter there. Donald Chambers and some of his top men, whom he called his “missionaries” because they did missions for him, paid the Hells Angels a visit, pulling out various weapons and suggesting the bikers return to California—or else. The Hells Angels were soon packed up and gone.
texasmonthly.com: What do you think it will take for the Bandidos to finally disband, knowing that they have survived so many transfers of power?
SH: Actually, I started the story thinking that I would write about how the Bandidos are getting old and barely hanging on. And the truth is that the average age of a Bandido is much older than it was during its early years. There was a Bandido in the original days who was nicknamed Medicare because he was 41 years old. Well, most of today’s Bandidos are over 40. But I did see some Bandidos in their thirties. There’s always going to be a new generation of motorcyclists who will get caught up in the outlaw biker lifestyle. And there’s a new generation of good-looking biker chicks who want to be part of the scene. So I don’t think you’ll ever see the Bandidos die.
texasmonthly.com: So did writing this story make you want to run off, buy a motorcycle, and join up with the Bandidos?
SH: Good Lord, no. The one thing that a lot of people forget about the Bandidos is that they are great motorcycle riders. They ride fast, and they ride on the edge. If I tried to keep up with them, I’d crash and be laying on the side of the road in about five minutes.