By Jon Herskovitz
AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - Three top leaders of the Bandidos Motorcycle Club, considered an outlaw gang by U.S. authorities, have been arrested on charges of racketeering, assault and drug distribution that could bring up to life in prison, prosecutors said on Wednesday.
The arrests are expected to send shock waves through the Bandidos, who have about 1,500 to 2,000 members in the United States, prosecutors said. The Bandidos, one of the biggest U.S. motorcycle gangs, with branches overseas, are suspected of being involved in a shootout last May in Waco, Texas, between rival gangs that killed nine people.
The three named in a grand jury indictment unsealed on Wednesday were national president Jeffrey Pike, 60, national vice president John Portillo, 56, and national sergeant at arms Justin Forster, 31, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of Texas said in a statement.
Bandidos officials were not immediately available for comment.
While none of the charges are directly connected to the Waco shootout, prosecutors said, many of the suspected crimes stemmed from a turf war starting in Texas in 2013 between the Bandidos and the Cossacks, another prominent motorcycle gang allegedly involved in the deadly central Texas city fight.
The indictment charged that the three men were behind the shootings, stabbings and assaults of Cossack members.
"This really is an all-out war we got going on," Portillo was quoted as telling members in June 2015 after brawls across Texas fought with guns, knives and fists, according to the indictment.
The indictment, stemming from a 23-month investigation, detailed several alleged incidents where Bandidos members appeared bristling with weapons and killed or assaulted members of rival gangs. Extensive drug transactions are also alleged.
"Of course, the defendants will have their day in court, but today's arrests have struck a significant blow to the Bandidos' criminal enterprise," U.S. Attorney Richard Durbin, Jr. said in a statement.
All three men are in federal custody.
(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Additional reporting by Jim Forsyth in San Antonio; Editing by Peter Cooney)