Most of us believe the Hells Angels are merely a bunch of wild-living bikers but, as BBC producer Sam Bagnall found out, they could be one of the fastest growing criminal networks in the world.
By Sam Bagnall
Producer of This World: Hells Angels
"When I started in 1991, there were 83 chapters of Hells Angels worldwide. Today there are 231. They used to be in 14 countries, now they are in 28.
Hells Angels membership continues to grow worldwide
"They seem to want to have a presence almost everywhere in the world," says Jean-Pierre Levesque of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
Mr Levesque is the world's leading police expert on biker gangs and he believes the Hells Angels - and rival gangs - are one of the fastest growing organised crime threats in the world.
In December 2003, 57 Hells Angels and their associates were arrested for gun running and murder conspiracies across the western United States.
The arrests followed an undercover police investigation that was just the latest in a string of covert operations that have exposed violence and drug dealing among US biker gangs.
For years US Angels have been associated with making and distributing methamphetamine, a drug also known as "meth" and "crank". One famous seizure in the 1980s netted enough raw materials to produce one metric tonne of the drug.
In Canada, dozens of Angels have been convicted for, in effect, running the country's cocaine distribution network.
More than 60 Angels and their associates have also been convicted in Montreal following an eight-year reign of terror that resulted in at least 160 murders.
But despite these successes, the Canadian police have not stopped the organisation spreading.
"Now we have Hells Angels in every province from Vancouver to Nova Scotia. We've got seven provinces out of 10 that have a Hells Angels presence. Their influence is from coast to coast," says Mr Levesque.
The Hells Angels Motorcycle Club, founded in 1948 in California, fights hard to present a much more benign image to the public and organises charity events, such as "Toys for Tots", and sells caps, badges and T-shirts to the growing biker community.
The Harley Davidson Motorcycle Company, which has just celebrated its centenary, is enjoying a boom in sales as the urban middle classes indulge their easy-rider fantasies and take to the roads at weekends.
Among this group many see the Hells Angels as heroes - freedom-loving wild men in the great tradition of the American outlaw.
"We ride motorcycles and have fun. That is what our lives are all about," insists Ralph "Sonny" Barger, the legendary figurehead of the Hells Angels.
But for many in the law enforcement community, the Angels are indulging in a ghastly confidence trick.
Timothy S McKinley, a former FBI special agent, remembers one incident that sums up the Hells Angels' potential for brutality.
After a member had left the club in "bad standing", Mr McKinley says: "Within two weeks, he was shot dead in his residence, his wife was shot dead, his 17-year-old stepson was shot dead, and his five-year-old daughter Dallas was shot, wounded and then nearly decapitated with a knife stroke.
"The bodies were then set on fire and the house destroyed."
For Mr McKinley, the biker gangs, with their semi-autonomous chapters around the world and their rigid rules of membership, are unique in the criminal world.
"The Hells Angels are not organised crime in the sense of traditional organised crime.
"Traditional organised crime - such as the Italian mafia and the Japanese Yakuza - are typically organised on a pyramid structure with one boss who gives the orders flowing downwards and to whom the money flows upward.
"Within the Hells Angels it's much more of a tribal or family concept."
The Angels brand
In fact the Hells Angels act more like a franchise than a traditional corporate structure. In order to earn the right to wear the famous patch, with its distinctive - and copyrighted - death's head logo, individuals or whole clubs have to go through a rigorous selection process.
Julian Sher, co-author of Road to Hell, an account of the Hells Angels rise to power in Canada, says: "One of the leaders of the Hells Angels in Ontario said: 'We are among the world's top 15 brands,' and I think it's true.
The Hells Angels brand is fiercely protected by members
"People know Nike, people know Coca-Cola. You can go to any country in the world and say certain names, like McDonalds or Hells Angels, and people know immediately what you're talking about.
"Hells Angels is a franchise name that means bikers, it means tough, in many ways it means terror."
It is a far cry from the image of the Hells Angels in Britain, where they tend to be viewed as an eccentric throwback to the 1960s and 70s.
But the Angels have also expanded steadily in the UK too and the National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS) biker gang expert - who we cannot name for operational reasons - has little doubt that some bikers here are also involved in serious criminal activities.
"The Hells Angels particularly are very involved in the drug dealing scene. Traditionally their commodities were cannabis and amphetamine, but they are moving more and more into Class A drugs," he said.
And with prospective chapters in Chile, Russia and the Caribbean soon to come, the worldwide Hells Angels network is still growing.
This World: Hells Angels was broadcast in the UK on BBC Two on Sunday, 4 January, 2004 at 2100 GMT.