TIMOTHY APPLEBY in Toronto TU THANH HA in Montreal
Restaurant Déjeuners Eggstra!, an unsightly concrete hunk of a building in north-end Montreal, is on the same block as the neighbourhood police station. That didn't deter two hooded men from barging in this month and pumping several bullets into two patrons.
The brazen violence was a sign of the times in Quebec's murderous six-year war between the Hells Angels, the world's most notorious bikers, and the rival, upstart Rock Machine.
Killed that morning was loan shark Bob Savard, a confidant of Maurice (Mom) Boucher, Canada's most feared Hells Angel, whose henchmen have taken intimidation and countersurveillance to an unprecedented level.
Police communications are routinely monitored with scanners. Clubhouses have their own Internet servers. Police have been followed home and jail guards have been killed.
For years, the Hells Angels have been identified by Criminal Intelligence Service Canada as the country's foremost organized-crime grouping. Today, they are more powerful than ever. CISC's assessment for 1999 is still being written. But when released, it will show that despite a wealth of police and legislative initiatives, the underworld influence of the Angels stretches from coast to coast and even to the Arctic. Among the big provinces, only Ontario still has no formal Angels presence.
"The Hells Angels keep growing; they're growing all the time," says the agency's Staff Sergeant J. P. Lévesque. "They now have 18 chapters throughout Canada. Since 1997, they've taken over Alberta, then it was Saskatchewan a year later and now they're halfway to getting Manitoba. The last is Ontario."
In Ottawa, meanwhile, more than 25 different federal committees are pondering the complexities of organized crime.
"It's the flavour of the day, but the majority of those people don't know what they're talking about," a police source says bitterly. "There is no co-ordination -- nothing."
The same is not true for the bikers.
Their cellular structure -- akin to that of terrorist or spy networks -- makes investigations extraordinarily difficult. Business is rarely discussed on the phone, in cars or in buildings. Orders are conveyed on the street, or by modem, sometimes using elaborate codes.
Equally concealed are the bikers' assets. Through highly paid lawyers and investment advisers, property is commonly purchased through numbered companies, while their market share of a drug trade worth at least $10-billion in Canada annually is skillfully laundered or sent abroad.
There is also concern that law-enforcement agencies have been systematically infiltrated.
"I think they've become very good at it, whether through girlfriends or associates," says RCMP Inspector Garry Clement, who heads the force's proceeds-of-crime unit. "People are very naive if they think they haven't patched themselves into some police organization."
For instance, when two Quebec City-based Rock Machine members were arrested on drug charges a few months ago, they were found to have internal police documents about bikers, including photographs and details of gang affiliations.
Within Quebec, the war for control of the drug trade has claimed about 150 lives since 1994, a dozen other people have disappeared and there have been at least 159 attempted homicides. Over the past five months, the killings been so numerous that this year may prove the bloodiest yet.
Now, with the discovery this month of a powerful unexploded bomb outside a motorcycle shop in Georgetown, west of Toronto, and the recent arrival in Ontario of two Rock Machine chapters, concern has surfaced that the struggle for drug profits will spawn further mayhem.
Canada's richest province offers a tempting prize. As things stand, the drug industry is divided among an array of disparate players, although among Ontario's 11 biker gangs the Hells Angels have plenty of friends.
The bikers' image, aided by slick Web sites and self-serving literature, is awash in myth. Gang emblems are still flaunted on motorcycle runs, and hard-faced men with scraggly beards and tattoos are still the main denizens of the heavily fortified clubhouses.
But the real power these days, by every estimate, rests with multimillionaires with stock options, fancy condominiums and expensive suits. White organized crime might be the best working description of the vast enterprise.
Beneath the colourful veneer of the biker rebel lies a cruel, ruthless world where rivals are beaten, tortured and killed, bar owners extorted and strippers told to pull double duty as telemarketers, hoodwinking the elderly out of their life savings. Car theft and prostitution are other big earners.
But drugs are the big revenue source, and Insp. Clement is watching developments with dismay.
"I've been with the police for 28 years and when we started out the bikers were street thugs, very disorganized," he says. "And unfortunately they [represent]a failure in law enforcement because we've watched them grow into a multinational criminal corporation. We're talking hundreds of millions of dollars."
Prosecution is particularly hampered by the reluctance of witnesses to remember much -- even as the bikers gun one another down in broad daylight, in crowded public places.
The shooting at Restaurant Déjeuners Eggstra! sent 15 patrons diving under their tables and left a waitress injured in the leg.
"I didn't see anyone. All I remember is the sound of the pistols -- Pow! Pow!" says Mr. Savard's wounded breakfast companion, former professional hockey player Normand Descôteaux.
"I'm the boss, we've got nothing to say," barks the chef behind the kitchen counter.
In the past three months, four men with close ties to Mr. Boucher, who heads the Angels' Nomads squad, have either died or vanished.
The latest round of bloodletting began on April 17, when Normand (Biff) Hamel, another Nomad, left a pediatrician's office in Laval, north of Montreal, with his wife and son. Two gunmen chased Mr. Hamel through the busy parking lot, shooting him dead as dozens of bystanders watched.
Ten days later, former union boss André (Dédé) Desjardins was killed outside a restaurant, a day after lunching there with his old friend, Mr. Boucher.
(An infamous labour legend, Mr. Desjardins was alleged to have been behind the mass extortion, corruption and vandalism that marred Quebec's construction industry in the 1970s; lately, police say, he was into loan sharking.)
Last month, still another friend of Mr. Boucher, Louis (Melou) Roy, also a Nomad, went missing. Finally, it was the turn of Mr. Savard, a bear-like man who drove a white Cadillac and reportedly lent out money at a 52-per-cent annual rate.
There is no pyramid shape to the Hells Angels' power structure. Local chapters enjoy wide fiscal autonomy. The closest thing to a godfather is probably "Mom," the 47-year-old Mr. Boucher.
A clean-cut, husky man who favours dark suits and black shirts, he softens his features with wire-rimmed glasses and a toothy smile, and is so famous in Quebec that he is mentioned in stand-up comedy routines.
Authorities believed that they had nailed Mr. Boucher in December, 1997, when they charged him with ordering the murder of two prison guards.
But the prosecution had to rely on the evidence of Stéphane (Godasse) Gagné, a turncoat prospective Angel who testified that he was one of the three hit men. Of the others, the charred remains of André (Toots) Tousignant were found by the roadside, while Paul (Fonfon) Fontaine has vanished.
On Nov. 27, 1998, a jury acquitted Mr. Boucher. With a retinue of 30 supporters, he barrelled out of the courtroom and into a van that roared away through a red light, swerving around a police vehicle in a blatant display of muscle. Later that day, he and his crew made a flamboyant ringside appearance at a boxing event.
Since Mr. Boucher's acquittal, police say, the Hells Angels have become more and more audacious, and by the end of 1999, the Rock Machine appeared -- wrongly, perhaps -- to be losing ground. Several high-ranking leaders were assassinated, such as Richard (Bambam) Lagacé, gunned down coming out of a weightlifting centre, and Johnny Plescio, shot 16 times through the window of his suburban bungalow.
Biker expert and author Yves Lavigne is thus far unconvinced that the Rock Machine's expansion into Ontario signals a spread of the violence in Quebec.
But he thinks that over the years, through bureaucracy and ineptitude, law enforcement has dropped the ball badly.
"The police have enough resources to deal with the biker problem," he says. "But there's been a complete lack of will to do so. The public has a real need to be concerned."
Quebec's biker war started in 1994, while the Rock Machine was reeling from the arrest in the United States of founding leader Salvatore Cazzetta, accused of importing 11 tonnes of cocaine.
Hells Angels affiliates tried to grab the much smaller Rock Machine's drug-peddling turf in downtown and east-end Montreal. But the four-year-old gang refused to roll over.
To date, the war has mostly killed low-ranking prospects. Only three full-fledged Hells Angels and 11 Rock Machine members have died.
But several innocents have perished too, the first being 11-year-old Daniel Desrochers, killed in 1995 when a bomb exploded outside a biker hangout.
Outrage in Quebec over Daniel's death was a catalyst in the creation of Bill C-95, the 1997 organized-crime legislation that stiffened the penalties for convicted offenders shown to be members of an established criminal enterprise.
But so far, C-95 has yet to score a single big hit.
Unlike the United States' far tougher Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations statute, which over the past decade has inflicted severe damage on the big New York Mafia families, C-95 does not make it an offence per se to belong to an identified crime clan.
The big biker gangs would seem to fit that description. Worldwide, the Hells Angels have grown from their 1948 inception in California to a network of about 1,800 members, scattered across 22 countries.
In Canada, there are an estimated 250 full-fledged Hells Angels, plus perhaps 2,000 or 3,000 associates. The Rock Machine is much smaller, with no more than 60 full-patch members, mostly in Quebec.
What they share is a rich criminal history. Within Quebec, where the Angels opened their first chapter in 1977, 106 members are currently identified and all but three have criminal records. Among the Rock Machine, the percentage is almost as high.
Staff Sgt. Lévesque thinks that it is a joke to regard the members of the Hells Angels and the Rock Machine as anything but career criminals and he would like to see them designated as such.
"But you've got that minority of people who will say, 'You can't do that, it's against the rights of people to associate.' But what about the rights of people to live in a free society where there is no crime, no drugs and no war?"
There have been other law-enforcement initiatives in the past three years: the creation among Canada's police chiefs of an anti-biker committee, headed by Toronto Police Chief Julian Fantino; a gun-control law; long-stalled money-laundering legislation, which has received royal assent but is still months away from taking effect.
Yet thus far, nothing seems to have slowed the Angels' expansion.
More than 300 Hells Angels and Rock Machine members and their associates are currently behind bars in Quebec -- housed in separate institutions. But prison is no obstacle to the smooth running of a criminal organization and the laundering of drug money.
"They're into a lot of legitimate businesses. You can't make the kind of money they're rolling in and not invest it," Insp. Clement says. "They've got hundreds of millions."
BATTLE OF QUEBEC
Few weeks went by in Quebec this spring without a biker incident. Here are some: Feb. 4: Claude De Serres, reportedly a police informant trying to infiltrate the Hells Angels, is found dead. April 17: Hells Angel Normand (Biff) Hamel is shot dead. April 23: Hells Angels sympathizers riot in a holding jail in Montreal and try to storm a wing reserved for the Rock Machine. April 27: Former union boss André (Dédé) Desjardins is killed a day after meeting his friend, Hells Angels chieftain Maurice (Mom) Boucher. May 1: A Rock Machine associate is shot dead at a Montreal street corner. May 6: In a protection-racket move, three Hells Angels underlings pepper-spray clients in a Quebec City tavern. May 9: Police arrest two Hells Angels affiliates in a stolen van with two pistols, a can of gasoline and hoods. Later that day, Gilles Lesage, an in-law of a Rock Machine member, is found dead inside a burning car in Montreal. May 12: Two Rock Machine supporters are wounded in a machine-gunning at a stop light in Montreal. May 24: Rival bikers scuffle on the bus taking them from jail to a courthouse appearance. May 30, 31: Police dismantle a drug ring linked to the Hells Angels that used express post to mail cocaine and hashish to Inuit villages in northern Quebec. June 6: A Montreal drug dealer with ties to the Rock Machine is shot dead. June 9: A Rock Machine supporter in Quebec City survives an ambush. June 11: A Hells Angels crew vandalizes three Montreal illegal after-hours bars, beating up patrons and employees in a protection-racket display of muscle. June 16: Hells Angels affiliate Stéphane Hilareguy goes missing. His wife, Natacha Desbiens, is shot dead and their house set on fire. Their two-month-old baby is left safely next door. June 22: Hells Angel Louis (Melou) Roy vanishes. July 3: Hells Angels supporter Christian Marcoux is found dead inside a burning car. July 7: Loan shark Robert Savard, a Boucher friend, is killed. Later that night, Rock Machine supporter Martin (Frankie) Bourget is shot dead in a Granby camping ground.