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In an unexpected move that underscores the Hells Angels' drive to become a national organization, Alberta's Angels have taken command of their long-time rivals, the Bandidos.

Bolstered by the recruitment of all 18 to 20 members of the Edmonton-based Bandidos, who became probationary Hells Angels in a low-profile "patchover" ceremony in Red Deer two weeks ago, the Angels effectively tripled their small presence in the province.

Police voiced concern at the merger but said it made sense in terms of consolidating the Angels' control of the drug trade.

Criminal Intelligence Service Canada, the central clearing house for police information, has contended for years that outlaw motorcycle gangs in general, and the Hells Angels in particular, are a major player in the drug trade.

"But what is so surprising to us is that almost overnight, the momentum from the establishment of the Bandidos in Alberta [two years ago]has flipped to the Hells Angels," said Staff Sergeant Guy Slater of the Calgary Police Service's organized-crime section.

The Hells Angels' purpose in opening up its membership is twofold, suggested Guy Ouellette, a former Sûreté du Québec biker specialist who often testifies in court as an expert witness: to avoid the attention sure to be generated by any eruption of gang warfare and to expand their sphere of influence.

"They really want a monopoly," Mr. Ouellette said. "They had one before the arrival of the Bandidos. This is a way of getting their monopoly back."

With about 600 members worldwide, the Bandidos number roughly one-quarter the Hells Angels' global strength. In Canada, the disparity is greater still, with no more than a few dozen full-patch Bandidos -- most of whom are in jail -- balanced against an estimated 500 Hells Angels or close associates.

Formed in Texas's Galveston County in 1966, the Bandidos have chapters in a dozen other U.S. states, Australia, Thailand and 10 Western European countries. And in late 1999, they secured a foothold in Canada with two chapters in Ontario and three in Quebec.

Most of Quebec's Rock Machine biker gang, which fought a deadly mid-1990s war against the Hells Angels for control of drug sales, was subsequently folded into the Bandidos.

The U.S. gang's recruiting campaign in Canada was widely seen as the catalyst for the expansion of the Angels into Ontario and Manitoba four years ago.

Since then, however, almost all the Bandidos have either been jailed or have joined the Hells Angels. This month's patchover in Alberta means the sole functioning Bandidos chapter in Canada is in Toronto, with an estimated 25 members.

In Alberta, the gang first drew public attention in February of 2003, when several Bandidos sporting their colours attended the funeral of founding member Joseph Campbell.

Widespread speculation that the Hells Angels had killed Mr. Campbell stirred predictions of a reprise of Quebec's bloody turf war. Instead, an uneasy calm has prevailed.

"We can speak about a strategy in which a dominant group such as the Hells Angels would want to mitigate the threat to themselves, absorbing other biker gangs. This is consistent with [trying to]establish a monopoly. You're able to co-ordinate any illicit activity," Staff Sgt. Slater said.