SAINT-NICOLAS, Quebec -- The bomb was simplicity itself. Fifty pounds of dynamite affixed to the gasoline tank of a Jeep. Insert detonator. Set timing device. Leave vehicle on the quiet street where Hell's Angels live.
On March 8, the blast, attributed to a rival gang, shattered the stillness of this community, but hardly scratched the intended target -- the steel-shuttered, concrete-reinforced headquarters of the local chapter of "Les Hells," as riders of the world's most infamous motorcycle gang are called in Quebec.
The neighbors weren't so lucky. Windows were blown out, siding was torn from outer walls, and, in one family's house, shards of shrapnel whipped over the crib of a slumbering 4-week-old baby, drawing no blood but causing anguish.
"The Hells are making life hell for us," says the infant's mother. "The bombs, the shootings -- my God, how could this be happening in our peaceful Quebec?"
North America's bloodiest biker war is raging across the province, a war of midnight ambushes outside sleazy roadhouses, satchel bombs hurled through the windows of Montreal businesses, and brazen daytime shootouts in Quebec City.
"We are in a state of crisis," says Quebec Public Security Minister Robert Perrault, urging Canada to pass anti-gang legislation modeled on U.S. laws meant to counter organized crime.
Over the past three years, there have been dozens of slayings in a ferocious struggle for control of Quebec's multimillion-dollar drug trade.
The battle pits Quebec's Hell's Angels against a rival bunch called the Rock Machine, a mercenary outfit that reputedly does the dirty work for the province's traditional organized crime groups, including the Mafia.
"It is a to-the-death struggle that neither side can afford to lose," says Staff Sgt. Jean-Pierre Levesque of the Criminal Intelligence Service of Canada. "This isn't about macho 'honor' or gang pride. This is about greed, business, and market share."
At least 48 people have been murdered and about 88 bombs have exploded in Quebec since the biker war erupted in late 1984, an onslaught of criminal violence without precedent in Canada.
Most victims have been bikers or thuggish hangers-on. Increasingly, however, bystanders are getting caught in the cross-fire.
In March, Marcel Lagrange, a retiree in his 60s, was lunching in a favorite cafe in Quebec City's lower town. He was unlucky to have chosen a seat near Alain Proulx, a drug dealer and notorious Rock Machine hard case.
Hell's Angels burst through the entrance, nailing Proulx in a hail of bullets and also terribly wounding Lagrange.
Police say the Hell's Angels' push in Quebec is part of a grab for Canadian-wide control of drug trafficking, prostitution, money laundering and smuggling -- mostly firearms, liquor and cigarettes from the United States.
The group operates scores of businesses, mainly saloons and strip joints but also repair shops, trucking companies, auto supply stores and tanning salons.
According to police in Canada and the United States, there are 105 full-fledged Hell's Angels chapters operating in at least 18 nations.
The only biker wars that can match the intensity of Quebec's are those being fought in Scandinavia, where rocket-propelled, anti-tank grenades and AK-47 assault rifles have been used in bloody showdowns between Angels and the rival Bandidos in Denmark, Sweden and Norway.
The Hell's Angels boast 11 chapters in Canada, five in British Columbia, five in Quebec, one in Nova Scotia.
But the relatively small number of bikers entitled to wear the Winged Death's Head "colors," or emblem of the club, belies the Angels' powerful criminal clout in this country.
"People have this image of hairy, hard-partying toughs who drink too much and bathe too little," Levesque says. "The reality is much more chilling. Many of these bikers are highly sophisticated organized criminals in the same way as the Sicilian Mafia, the Colombian cartels, the Asian triads. They run empires and deal in millions."
Through domination of lesser gangs, Canadian Hell's Angels reign over a criminal organization stretching from Vancouver's bustling harbor, where Angels have infiltrated the longshoremen's union and control smuggling and other rackets, to the Atlantic Maritimes.
In the prairie provinces, gangs such as the Spartans in Manitoba, the Grim Reapers and Rebels in Alberta are little more than proxy forces for the Hell's Angels, according to police.
But the two most populous and potentially lucrative provinces in Canada, Quebec and Ontario, are still up for grabs -- and traditional organized crime groups are fighting to turn back the Angels' assault on their territory. But there are signs that the Angels are conquering Quebec.
"The fighting will end when the Angels win, period," says Daniel Wolf, professor of anthropology at the University of Prince Edward Island and an authority on Canadian biker gangs. "In Quebec, the Hells did not anticipate the fighting resolve of the Rock Machine, did not realize they were in for a prolonged, costly conflict. But the Hell's Angels have never lost a war."
The Hell's Angels trace their roots to California in the 1940s, when combat veterans of World War II, bored by peace, formed " the first nomadic motorcycle bands. The first chapter was incorporated in Oakland, Calif., in 1948, with a simple set of bylaws:
"You must be a white male, 21 years old. You must have a Harley-Davidson. Don't mess with another member's old lady. Don't burn another member in a drug deal. Don't inject drugs."
The Angels first invaded Canada in 1977 but have not secured a strong foothold in Ontario. That situation is not expected to last past this summer, and police there are bracing for a biker war as bitter as the one in neighboring Quebec.
"Short of divine intervention, they are going to kick in here and totally wipe out the competition," says Detective Jim Downs, head of the Metro Toronto Police biker squad. "With Quebec and Ontario nailed down, they will be poised to take on the whole Eastern Seaboard" of the United States.
In Ottawa, federal Justice Minister Allan Rock said in March that the biker war represents "an emergency for Canada."
He pledged to push for changes in the criminal code making it easier for police to secure search warrants and use high-tech surveillance gear against gang hangouts.
However, Rock is reluctant to heed pleas from police groups and Quebec mayors to create a sweeping new anti-gang law that would outlaw membership in biker gangs and allow police extraordinary powers in cracking down on riders.
Such a law would be politically popular but probably would violate Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms. "There's no sense proposing a law which in a month or six months will be struck down by a court as invalid," Rock said.
At least one Quebec town, however, is seeking to smash the chains of fear. In a highly unusual and perhaps even courageous protest, hundreds of residents of Saint-Nicolas recently held hands and formed a circle around the Hell's Angels clubhouse, chanting: "No more violence. Bikers go!"
Pub Date: 5/17/97