Hells Angels at War in Canada: Understanding Violence and Measuring Criminal Organisations
I’ve been looking over recent issues of the journal Global Crime. Given my research interest in measuring progress and effectiveness in stabilisation operations, an article by Tremblay, Bouchard and Petit on measuring criminal organisations caught my eye. The point the authors make in their article (“The size and influence of a criminal organization: a criminal achievement perspective”) is that common approaches to measuring and assessing criminal groups, which emphasise looking at the size of such organisations, are often misleading. The larger an organisation gets the less efficient it can become, with its economic position being quite marginal. This also relates to the level of violence an organisation might engage in.
The case that they highlight is that of the Hells Angels organisation in Quebec province in Canada. While a relatively small organisation (around 100 affiliates) compared to other narco-trading groups in the area, they came to dominate the cannabis trade, beginning with the boom in that market in the early 1990s. As a survey of cannabis growers revealed, the market price became “the bikers’ price”. There were two main reasons for this: firstly, the Hells Angels had clubs and chapters throughout the region, giving it a network and social connections that extended beyond just the large urban centres. Because, unlike certain narcotics, cannabis use is not usually confined to any particular stratosphere of society or to major urban areas alone, this gave them an unusual opportunity to secure dominance over a spreading cannabis trade. Secondly, the Hells Angels had a well-established willingness to engage in “warfare”. They had been involved in bloody gang wars in both the 70s and 80s, and with the advent of their dominance over the cannabis trade they became pitted against a coalition of other gangs between 1994 and 2001. This struggle led to 126 deaths (of which only a small fraction were Hells Angel fatalities), with the Angels showing a remarkable aptitude for violence, stealing dynamite from construction sites, carrying out remote-controlled bombings and even conducting intelligence operations against both the police and rival organisations.
So, while being a relatively small organisation, through the exploitation of opportunities presented by the group’s extended and widespread social roots and the willingness to engage in severe violence against rivals, the Hells Angels were able to control an economic network that employed thousands of people.
For sure, all this is a far cry from places like southern Afghanistan, but there are interesting implications for how we understand illicit organisations and the factors underpinning their activities, as well as broader criminal dynamics. I think there’s lots to tease out here for assessments in current operations, particularly regarding the importance of social connections, and factoring in the opportunities for adaptation and endurance that these provide.
Let me close with an extract from the end of the paper, which I think is an interesting exposition of crime-conflict dynamics, albeit in a non “conflict” setting:
It is tempting to assume that the criminal milieu is ‘naturally’ violent, that criminal entrepreneurs lack self-control and do not need strong reasons to engage in ‘warfare’, or that violence is the only way in which an organization can increase its influence. Yet this only begs further questions. Our findings suggest that the creation of affiliated clubs by the Hells Angels coincided with the expansion of domestic cannabis cultivation. In fact many of these clubs were created before the conflict and designed to provide additional structure and coordination to the economic influence of the organization. Over the years (1980s and early 1990s), the Hells Angels had broadened their regional influence on the cannabis and cocaine markets, yet their influence was limited in the crowded criminal markets of the province’s metropolitan area. A key finding of the current study is that the economic influence achieved by the Hells Angels in the 1990s in these markets was about the same as that of all other criminal organizations combined. It may well be that the expanding cannabis market tipped over the balance of economic influence between organizations embedded in these markets. This tipping over seems to have had a fateful domino effect. It may have convinced the Hells Angels that they could move into the metropolitan market (Montreal) and that if a ‘war’ occurred they would win it (as indeed they did). However, the balance of power also convinced the remaining organizations that they could rally a coalition and successfully preserve the status quo. Had the pattern of economic influences of criminal organizations been somewhat unbalanced, the conflict may not have occurred, or would not have occurred at that particular time, or would have not lasted so long, or would not have been so deadly.