One Night, El Cajon Felt Like Baghdad

By Bill Manson,
Chaldean Social Club Raid Is a Touchy Subject
“Look. Look! They took our money! Ten thousand dollars, from some. They came in with their shotguns raised. ‘Down on the ground!’ They cuffed me, hands behind my back, threw me on my face on the ground. Hit me twice on the shoulder. Made me lie there for two hours. I’m an old man. I have diabetes. Where is the respect? They were kicking people. Yelled at me to shut up! Is this the kind of humanitarian freedom the U.S. stands for? It was like Baghdad!”

It’s nine o’clock at night. George Kharat is mad. Hopping mad. He and a dozen other Chaldeans, mostly older, crowd around me in the parking lot outside the Chaldean social club at 811 East Main in El Cajon. We’re outside the club entrance, in a narrow parking lot that tees off Main Street and runs the length of the building. A gate allows access to the alley behind. This is the club that SWAT teams raided recently, looking for guns, money, drugs, evidence of gambling.

Local police, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and other authorities believed the club was a hub of illegal activity, including illegal liquor sales, firearms sales, drug sales, gambling, even attempted murder.

That night, Wednesday, August 17, as part of Operation Shadowbox, it seemed as if everyone, from the El Cajon police to federal drug agents to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives descended on 811 East Main and stormed into the parking lot, shotguns raised, yelling at the groups of men smoking and chatting outside to get inside the club and lie down. They cuffed over 100 people with their hands behind their backs, made them lie on the floor or on the ground outside, while SWAT teams spent a couple of hours, allegedly seizing a ledger and more than $16,000 in cash in their search for evidence of illegal gambling.

But the real search was for bigger fish: evidence that club members were shipping narcotics, acquired from the Sinaloa drug cartel, to the Chaldean organized crime syndicate in Detroit.

Authorities claim their arrests in Operation Shadowbox, which began in January, has netted over 4 pounds of ecstasy, 13 pounds of methamphetamine, pharmaceuticals, crack cocaine, heroin, cocaine, 3500 pounds of marijuana, $630,000 in cash, 3 luxury cars, 34 firearms, and 4 IEDs, improvised explosive devices.

And the club? Allegedly, it sold liquor illegally (Christian Chaldeans, unlike Muslims, are allowed to drink alcohol) and was the go-to place to get your drugs, if you went late enough at night.

These are heavy charges, so I’ve come to see what Chaldeans think about them.

And, yes, it’s a touchy subject.

“Guess I’ll have to pass on that,” says a guy down the street, at Ali-Baba Restaurant.

“I am Muslim Iraqi,” says the old guy I meet out front of the restaurant, crossing Main at Avocado. “You should go to one of the Chaldean coffee shops.”

“We were honestly shocked,” says Steve Shammas, who is Chaldean and runs El Cajon Market and Produce with his sister, who owns it. They have run it for 17 years. “I hadn’t gone to the club. I never knew who the people were.”

Which seems funny when you realize that the club is only four blocks farther east along Main. But you do get a sense that there may be several communities within the Chaldean diaspora here and that what counts most is family and church.

The Chaldeans are a Catholic Christian people who live in Iraq. Since 1889, they have been migrating to America for a better life and to escape persecution. For a century they sought out Detroit and its auto jobs. But the last three decades have seen an increasing number choosing El Cajon, especially since auto jobs dried up in Detroit. Why El Cajon? Partly because its climate and granite mountains remind them of home.

“This is shameful for the Chaldean community. They shouldn’t do that,” says Rafal. She’s Shammas’s cashier. “I have only been here one and a half years. Before, I was in Turkey. I hear many people here [get involved in] drugs, but not Chaldean. Maybe young Chaldean people born here are different. But in Iraq, we didn’t even think about drugs. And you worked for your family. You didn’t have time for other things.”

“I feel bad for the kids who were caught because they’re young,” says Martin. He’s a barber, Chaldean-born, maybe 25, having a smoke out back. “People say, ‘Why?’ But they can get caught up easily. And everyone needs money. I never knew it was going on because I never went to the club. Old men go there to play cards. I hope it doesn’t happen again.”

“I love what happened, that they carried out the raid,” says Mike (not his real name), who runs a nearby restaurant. “I happened to be out walking that night. Must have been 20, 30 plain white cars came speeding right past me, heading down there. The [people arrested] were probably mainly newcomers [from Iraq] who had survived back there by bypassing the system because there was no system. They got used to jumping to the front of the line, cheating, not obeying rules, living by their wits, outsmarting everyone. I know. I ran from the older regime in 1991, when I was 19.”

Mike, who is Mandaean, a people whose Gnostic religion is “older than Judaism,” served several years with the U.S. Army in Iraq as a cultural and intelligence adviser. “I didn’t believe [the accusations] in the beginning. Even going to the coffee shop [at the social center], people played backgammon, smoked hookahs, drank tea. You never sensed anything else was happening. But, no question, it’s a black eye for the Chaldean community.”

“And,” he says, “the drug thing didn’t come from Iraq. In Iraq there were very few drugs. Saddam didn’t allow it. He would hang you if he caught you smoking marijuana — really.”

“I tell you, these Chaldeans, they’re taking over this town,” says this young guy who offers to tell me all about the El Cajon Chaldeans if I buy him a $1 taco at a taco stand on Main. “They launder money. They’re into illegal gambling. You can get drugs, knives, pistols, bombs. It’s all happening where their social club is. I call it Chaldean Alley. Five blocks down, man.”