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Gonzalez ‘Breaks Bad’ on Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs

Whether it’s millions of viewers tuning in to the popular television show "Breaking Bad" or college students reading Hunter S. Thompson’s bestselling book "Hell’s Angels" almost 50 years ago, the image of the motorcycle outlaw enjoys a certain degree of popular appeal in American society.

But the men and women of U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Anti-Gang Initiative are aware that certain outlaw motorcycle gangs are involved in a wide variety of criminal activities including drug-, weapon- and human trafficking as well as money laundering, murder, fraud, theft, weapons trafficking, passport- and visa fraud, corruption of public officials and trafficking in stolen property as part of far-flung, worldwide criminal enterprises.

"There may be a narrative out there that members of these organizations are anti-heroes," said Jorge Gonzalez, a policy advisor with CBP’s Office of Policy and Planning and a student at the Naval Postgraduate School Center for Homeland Defense and Security. "However there is a clear, compelling body of evidence demonstrating that certain outlaw motorcycle gangs are sophisticated, international criminal organizations."

Most recently, for example, on September 23, 2011, the Hell’s Angels and Vagos outlaw motorcycle gangs were involved in a fatal shooting in Sparks, Nev., that led to a state of emergency in that small town.

Gonzalez was part of a three-person team honored September 14, 2011, with the President’s Award from the International Outlaw Motorcycle Gang Investigators Association for the successful work of CBP’s Anti-Gang Initiative and the Department of State, with strong support from the Department of Homeland Security Office of Policy and other federal law enforcement agencies.

The award stems from work that did not require going undercover while wearing leather chaps, roaring along Route 66 atop a self-modified Harley-Davidson or listening to old Steppenwolf records. Instead, the Anti-Gang Initiative methodically leveraged a national and international network of law enforcement colleagues and CBP’s and Department of State’s legal authorities.

The team first documented the wide variety of illegal activities perpetrated by these organizations and then disrupted outlaw motorcycle gang operations by identifying and interdicting foreign members of these organizations seeking to travel to the United States. The team succeeded in amending Department of State’s Foreign Affairs Manuel to prevent foreign members of these organizations from obtaining visas or otherwise traveling to the United States.

"The practical effect is that once the Anti-Gang Initiative is able to establish that a foreign national is a member of one of the designated organizations, they are either ineligible for a visa to travel to the United States or are interdicted by CBP as they attempt to travel to the United States under the Visa Waiver Program unless adjudicated differently in a particular case," Gonzalez said.

The Anti-Gang Initiative was able to take existing provisions that have applied in the past to organizations, such as the Mafia and MS 13, and applied them to the Hells Angels, Outlaws, Mongols and the Bandidos outlaw motorcycle gangs as well as the Japanese organized crime syndicate known as the Yakuza.

The approach is effective because some gangs, such as the Hell’s Angels, boast chapters around the world and members often convene in the United States to conduct gang business.

"By preventing them from traveling to the U.S., we prevent their foreign leadership and members from meeting in the United States with American members of these organizations, which they are accustomed to doing," Gonzalez said. "Further, it creates a powerful consequence to prevent criminal activity by current members and to which our foreign law enforcement partners can point to deter prospective members from choosing to join these groups."

This specific initiative is only one aspect of the increasing and successful cooperation between the Anti-Gang Initiative and foreign partners. On September 19, 2011, for example, CBP officers at Los Angeles International Airport spotted a heavily-tattooed traveler arriving from Australia. In coordination between CBP and the New South Wales (Australia) Police Gang Squad, the airport officers determined he was a wanted fugitive and gang member who had failed to appear in court six days earlier. The individual was taken into custody and immediately returned to Australia.

That is not only an example of the value of the CBP Anti-Gang Initiative’s work, but also highlights the importance of relationships and cooperation, two major components of the CHDS ethos.

"It was the relationship between the Anti-Gang Initiative and the police in New South Wales in this case that ultimately led to the information that helped us return this guy to the custody of Australian law enforcement," Gonzalez said. "This and so much of what we do really is relationship-driven."

The virtue of such relationships has been a key lesson taken away from the CHDS program as well. Mingling and learning alongside professionals from the state and local level is invaluable for federal officials working in Washington, Gonzalez added.

"Collaborating with operators and understanding their objectives is critical for advisors such as myself in the Office of Policy and Planning, where we contribute to the agency’s mission by providing policy support to cross-component units such as CBP’s Anti-Gang Initiative.

"By virtue of the CHDS program, I have a much deeper appreciation of where other agencies are coming from by sitting in a class with state and local colleagues. I really like and learn from this mix very much. I believe this work by the Anti-Gang Initiative was a case where we were able to combine CBP’s authorities and capabilities with intelligence and objectives of foreign partners – including those in the equivalent of state and local levels – to achieve significant, mutual law enforcement benefits."