Raid.By Jill Replogle
SAN DIEGO â€” Next to Detroit, the San Diego area is home to the nation’s largest population of Chaldeans â€” Iraqi Catholics who trace their roots back to ancient Mesopotamia.
Many Chaldeans in Southern California are refugees, fleeing either Saddam Hussein or one of the last two American-led wars in Iraq. Iraqi businesses line Main Street in El Cajon, and Chaldean-run restaurants, coffee shops and social clubs are popular nighttime gathering spots, especially for men.
The Chaldean community of El Cajon was shaken by the recent news that illegal drugs and weapons were being trafficked out of one coffee shop, located in a rundown strip mall on Main Street. On Aug. 17, local police and federal agents raided the coffee shop, which they called “a hub of criminal activity for Iraqi organized crime.”
The raid was the culmination of a nearly year-long investigation into what authorities are calling an Iraqi drug trafficking organization.
The investigation revealed ties between an El Cajon group, which authorities say was run by Chaldeans, Mexican drug cartels and Chaldean organized crime in Detroit.
Faris Stephan is an Iraqi real-estate broker whose office sits across the street from the coffee shop. He said he knew gambling and fighting took place there, but that he wasnâ€™t aware of the more serious criminal element.
â€œI guess I can say I was surprised about the weapons and the explosives and the drugs, but we are used to seeing police cars around here,â€ Stephan said.
It wasnâ€™t a small-scale criminal affair, said DEA agent Steve Tomaski.
â€œWe found that the Sinaloa cartel had a presence in El Cajon and they were trafficking on their own. But they were also supplying other independent drug-trafficking organizations, some of whom just happen to be made up of people of Iraqi descent,” Tomaski said.
Local and federal authorities said drugs were being distributed by the crime ring both in El Cajon and in the Detroit area.
So far, 30 people have been indicted in the case, called Operation Shadowbox. But despite authorities’ characterization of the group as a Chaldean drug ring, it turns out only a handful of the indictments are for people of Chaldean decent.
Mark Arabo, a prominent businessman and first generation Chaldean-American, said singling out the Chaldeans is unfair.
“Out of 30 people charged, five were of Middle Eastern descent; and out of five, four were Chaldean,” Arabo said in an interview at St. Peter Chaldean Catholic Church in El Cajon.
“A crime is a crime and you should be punished, but don’t blame an entire community, an entire culture based on four people,” Arabo said. “I mean no oneâ€™s talking about the other ethnicities of the other folks.”
Based on surnames, the lists of state and federal indictments appear to confirm that only a few of those charged are Middle Eastern.
Steve Walker, communications director for the San Diego County District Attorney, said perhaps two of 21 people charged at the state level were Chaldean.
However, one of the alleged crime bosses, Nofel Noel Suleyman is apparently of Iraqi decent. Suleyman faces a series of charges at the federal level, including engaging in a continuing criminal enterprise.
El Cajon police Lt. Steve Shakowski stands by his department’s characterization of the crime group.
“I’m very comfortable saying it was a Chaldean organized crime ring,” Shakowski said. “It is run by Chaldeans that were operating out of, or within, the vicinity of the Chaldean social club.”
While Arabo applauded authorities for breaking up the ring, heâ€™s concerned about the bad mark the media attention may have left on the entire community.
“The Chaldean people are a great people who love our country and are law-abiding citizens,” Arabo said.
He’s also upset that police and the media are referring to the raided coffee shop as a “Chaldean social club.” He said the only legitimate Chaldean social club in El Cajon is a place called the Crystal Palace, an elegant, membership-based event hall where community members hold weddings and baptisms, as well as weekly social gatherings.
Arabo said the Chaldean church had received menacing phone calls in the wake of the crime bust.
“People are calling our church and saying, ‘What are you guys doing, the Chaldeans? Why don’t you guys go back where you came from?’ ” he said, adding that he noted “a lot of racial undertones.”
Arabo called a press conference for later today in an effort to clear the Chaldean community’s name.
Authorities said their investigation into Operation Shadowbox was ongoing, and that there were still outstanding suspects.
Meanwhile, the coffee shop has been shuttered while police continue to investigate gambling that they say took place there.