HOUSTON – For 3 1/2 years, a joint investigation by the Drug Enforcement Administration and the FBI led to convictions and guilty pleas against several high-ranking members of the Bandidos outlaw motorcycle club. The case against club members involved assaults and murders.
“It was a massive investigation,” said Assistant United States Attorney Eric Fuchs. “It had been a criminal organization for 16 years.”
DEA officials said the case actually began as a drug investigation. Federal agents said some members of the Bandidos dealt meth and had a close relationship with the Mexican Mafia gang. In fact, DEA agents said the relationship was so close, the Bandidos were exempt from paying the Mexican Mafia’s “dime” tax.
Federal agents first started monitoring calls made by then-Bandidos national sergeant-at-arms Justin Forster. Some of those calls were between Forster and then-Bandidos national vice president John Portillo. Fuchs and Dante Sorianello, the assistant special agent in charge of the DEA’s San Antonio office, said what was heard on these intercepted calls led to an investigation that went beyond drugs.
“Violence was the one thing they knew they had and they could exert,” said Sorianello. “They funded their activities through narcotics trafficking and then they implemented their policies through their strength.”
The government’s case included murders that went unsolved for years. One was the 2002 murder of Robert Lara, south of San Antonio. Fuchs said the Bandidos believed Lara killed one of their members during a fight the year before.
“You have a rival gang member that has killed your member. If they didn’t react, they would be viewed as weak on the streets,” said Fuchs.
Fuchs also said the Bandidos prided themselves on being the only 1 percent outlaw motorcycle club in Texas and went after anyone who encroached on their turf. Government officials said the 1 percent moniker comes from the long-held saying that 99 percent of motorcycle riders are law abiding citizens, and the Bandidos are the 1 percent who are not.
“It’s the Bandidos’ home. It’s where they were founded. It’s the most important state to them,” Fuchs said of Texas.
Fuchs said protecting home turf led to the 2006 murder of Anthony Benesh in Austin. Fuchs said Benesh was trying to start a Hells Angels chapter in Texas.
“The Bandidos warned him. They said, ‘Hey, stop. Uou need to stop wearing this vest around Austin,’” said Fuchs.
Fuchs said Benesh didn’t heed the warning and was shot and killed outside a pizza shop in front of his girlfriend and two children. A third murder took place at a bar in Fort Worth in 2014 and involved a member of a club that supported a rival to the Bandidos.
Federal officials said another part of the case involved the Bandidos declaring war on a rival organization known as the Cossacks. DEA officials said the Bandidos gave the Cossacks permission to wear a “Texas rocker” on their gear. Fuchs said, while it is not clear why, that permission was rescinded and the Cossacks were ordered to stop wearing the rocker. In fact, the code name for the government’s investigation was Operation Texas Rocker.
“At its core, it was about three things. It was about power, it was about territory and it was about reputation,” said Fuchs. “Those three things matter to the Bandidos more than anything else.”
After years of intercepted calls and undercover recordings, federal officials arrested Bandidos national president Jeffrey Pike, Portillo and Forster. The men were charged with racketeering.
Forster pleaded guilty in exchange for testifying against Pike and Portillo. Fuchs said the Bandidos set up layers to insulate Pike from criminal activities and Forster’s testimony helped pierce those layers. Forester was sentenced to five years in prison without parole.
Another sergeant-at-arms, Johnny Romo, also admitted his role in the murder of Benesh and testified against Pike and Portillo. Romo was sentenced to 15 years in prison without parole. Three other Bandidos members pleaded guilty to the murder, as well.
Frederick Cortez admitted to his role in Lara’s murder and was sentenced to 13 years in prison without parole.
Pike and Portillo were found guilty by a jury and sentenced to life in prison. Both are appealing their convictions. Pike’s attorney, Dick DeGuerin, said his client was convicted on testimony from “a bunch of snitches who were trying to get lesser sentences and lied. Jeff wasn’t involved in any of this and couldn’t possibly know what every member was doing.”
While none of the men were charged in the incident, a jury did hear about the deadly shooting in Waco. Fuchs said that incident highlighted the bloodshed involved in the ongoing war between the clubs.