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Turf at center of biker gang conflict in N.M.

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Albuquerque’s Bandidos appear to be facing a rare challenge

Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

This is the logo for the Bandidos gang, which law enforcement says is facing a turf challenge in New Mexico.

This is the logo for the Bandidos gang, which law enforcement says is facing a turf challenge in New Mexico.

New Mexico has pretty much always been Bandidos country.

But now there’s a challenge to the outlaw motorcycle gang’s decades-long stranglehold on supremacy here – something of a line in the sand – and law enforcement is watching closely to see whether it gets crossed.

That’s because a handful of members of the California-based Vagos Motorcycle Club seem to be after a foothold in this state. And if they get national backup from their gang for that effort, a violent turf war could ensue, according to current and former law enforcement officials with detailed knowledge of the inner workings of biker gangs in New Mexico.

The static comes from patches called “bottom rockers” sewn onto the back of five or six local Vagos members’ vests. The patches are affixed under two other vest patches that carry the name and logo of the gang. The “bottom rocker” signifies a location – in this case, New Mexico.

“Once you put that bottom rocker on, that means you’re claiming that territory,” said a former Albuquerque Police Department officer. “That’s very serious business to them.”

(The Associated Press)

(The Associated Press)

There has already been violence here, including two recent incidents that prompted the FBI to issue an intelligence report for New Mexico state and federal law enforcement agencies earlier this week that warned of a potential surge in violence among biker gangs, specifically the Bandidos and the Vagos.

The first incident involved a violent exchange between a Bandidos gang member and two Vagos members in April that included gunfire but no injuries.

The second happened on Sunday: a shootout at a North Valley fundraiser that left a Vagos sergeant-at-arms dead. Among the groups participating in the event were the Black Berets, which law enforcement sources said is a Bandidos “support club” that does not embrace the outlaw image. Police collected 72 shell casings from the crime scene.

The former APD officer described those two incidents as indicators of a “targets of opportunity war” in which rival gang members take potshots at one another when an opportunity arises. The conflict will escalate if the Vagos national leadership decides to send an enforcer crew to New Mexico to provide support for the upstart members here.

“If it happens, it’ll happen quietly,” the former officer said. “There probably won’t be fighting in the streets. The guys will go after each other where they know the other gang hangs out.

“They don’t go out of their way to (expletive) with Joe Q. Public, so people don’t need to be scared when they’re going about their everyday lives. Unless you get caught up in one of those targets of opportunity, just don’t go to the places where they’re going to be, because there may be trouble at bike events or bars where bikers hang out.”

The U.S. Department of Justice designates the Vagos and the Bandidos as outlaw motorcycle gangs and warns that they “constitute a growing criminal threat to U.S. law enforcement.” The Bandidos club has between 2,000 and 2,500 members nationwide, according to the DOJ, and the Vagos have around 300 members in the U.S. and Mexico.

Both gangs self-identify as outlaws. That’s evidenced in the clubs’ iconography, the patches they wear and links on their websites to inmate data for their incarcerated members.

Other motorcycle clubs, such as the Black Berets, don’t identify themselves as outlaws.

As of late 2009, there were 50 or 60 New Mexico members of the Bandidos gang, which originated and still has its leadership in Texas. There were 25 or 30 Bandidos in Albuquerque during that time.

Occupying turf alone gives outlaw motorcycle gangs exclusive rights to sell drugs and deal in stolen bikes – their primary source of illegal income, according to law enforcement sources.

For decades, there have been members of other biker gangs in New Mexico, including the Vagos, the Mongols and Hell’s Angels. But they didn’t wear “bottom rockers.”

And in the rare instances that someone tried to claim a slice of territory here, the Bandidos stepped in quickly.

“What they’re supposed to do – what they’ve traditionally done – is go to (the other gang’s) clubhouse or wherever they’re holding church and say: ‘We’re here for your patches, so you can either hand ‘em over, or we’re going to (expletive) take ‘em,'” the former APD officer said. “At that point, the other gang either gives up the patches or fights for them. The Bandidos have done that here for a lot of years, and they’ve always gotten the patches. And after they’ve cut those other gangs’ patches, they take them back to their own clubhouse and hang them on the wall upside down as trophies.”

But that hasn’t happened with the recently emboldened Vagos.

“And when that doesn’t happen, it leads to what you’re seeing now,” the former officer said.

The Bandidos have never faced a serious challenge to their dominance here. The apparent gambit from the Vagos sets up a “mud test,” which essentially is a game of chicken between the two gangs to see who blinks first.

The question for New Mexico law enforcement now is whether national leaders for the Bandidos and Vagos will choose this state as a battleground.

According to the FBI intelligence report, out-of-state Bandidos may already be on the way here. And additional Vagos troops may already be in New Mexico “awaiting orders from their national leadership,” the report says.

Sunday’s shootout was enough to get the full attention of state and federal law enforcement who monitor gang activity here.

Eppie’s Motorcycle Services, 2701 Fourth Street NW, put on a biker swap meet and fundraiser for a teenage girl who is battling a rare disease. The Black Berets participated in the event.

Several Vagos members, including Japheth Seaman, the gang’s 36-year-old sergeant-at-arms locally, and his brother, Malichi Seaman, 37, went to the event apparently looking for trouble, current and former law enforcement officials said.

Malichi Seaman struck one of the fundraiser attendees in the face with a collapsible baton, according to police. Japheth Seaman and a third man, who hasn’t been identified, then pulled out handguns and began firing at the crowd. Several people in the crowd began firing back.

Japheth Seaman was shot in the head and died, police said. It is unclear who fired that shot.

Malachi Seaman was arrested and booked into the Metropolitan Detention Center on a charge of aggravated battery with a deadly weapon. He posted property against $25,000 bail and was released Monday, according to jail records, but he was sent back to jail on Tuesday after Metropolitan Court Judge Sharon Walton remanded him to custody and set a new bond of $100,000 cash only.

He remained at the West Side jail Friday evening.

“Sunday’s incident was more of a personal thing – again, one of those targets of opportunity – but to totally discount it as completely personal and not club-related would probably be a mistake,” the former APD officer said.

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