EL CAJON — For its many regulars, the Chaldean social club in El Cajon is a place to drink tea or coffee, play Dominoes and discuss the news of the day.
But federal and local authorities say the social club, tucked in a nondescript brick strip mall behind a metal security door, is also the headquarters of an Iraqi drug- and gun-trafficking organization with ties to a Mexican drug cartel and a Detroit crime syndicate.
Sixty people associated with the social club at 811 E. Main St. have been arrested over the past 10 days in the investigation, dubbed “Operation Shadowbox,” and investigators were continuing to hunt for others implicated in the scheme.
SWAT teams served search warrants on the club late Wednesday night, seizing more than $16,000 in cash as well as evidence of illegal gambling, authorities said.
More than 100 people inside the club at the time were detained and then released.
The cornerstone of the alleged operation involves club members arranging narcotics shipments from Mexico with help from the Sinaloa drug cartel. The illicit products were then trafficked to the Chaldean Organized Crime Syndicate in Detroit, officials said.
The syndicate has operated since the early 1980s in Detroit, which has the largest concentration of Chaldeans in the nation, and has been associated with crimes including murder, arson, money laundering, fraud, human smuggling, kidnapping and armed robbery.
The El Cajon area boasts the second-largest concentration of Chaldeans, with a population of more than 47,000.
Undercover agents made several drug buys over eight months, in El Cajon and around San Diego County, with the amounts getting bigger and bigger, said El Cajon Police Chief Pat Sprecco. Agents and confidential informants also purchased or were offered guns, explosives and even a hand grenade supplied from a Mexican military source.
The operation began in January, two months after Sprecco asked the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration for help to combat a spike in drug sales and violence on the city’s streets.
After a number of hand-to-hand undercover drug buys, investigators realized all roads led to the social club, Sprecco said.
The club has long been a source of complaints from the public and a suspected hub of criminal activity, officials said.
Crimes documented there have included attempted murder, drug sales, gambling, illegal liquor sales and firearms sales.
Complaints have also been plentiful over the years. Wives of men who attend the club have complained about how their family’s money is being gambled away.
Neighbors have complained about drug sales and prostitution. Even club members have registered their distaste for a criminal element hanging around the club.
Investigators learned that the club managers were aware of the criminal activity and demanded a portion of the proceeds. Armed guards are often on hand during high stakes card games, Sprecco said.
There have been a number of busts and arrests at the club over the years, including a 1998 investigation into illegal gambling and a 2009 probe of gun and grenade sales.
Infiltrating the tight community of Iraqis proved to be difficult, Sprecco said. Help from the DEA, as well as from a host of state and federal agencies, helped strike at the heart of the organization this time, he said.
“We didn’t expect this level of success,” Sprecco said. “We were happily surprised with the inroads of this investigation.”
Eight defendants, including one of the alleged leaders, Nofel Noel Suleyman, 22, were arraigned in federal court in San Diego Thursday afternoon, and a ninth has also been indicted.
At least 21 defendants are being prosecuted by the District Attorney’s Office, mostly on methamphetamine-related charges.
Other agencies that participated included Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Border Patrol, Internal Revenue Service, sheriff’s and FBI bomb squads, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
“This is one case that has the ability to have a real impact on life and on the enjoyment of the quality of life,” said San Diego U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy.
The investigation has culminated in the seizure of more than 13 pounds of methamphetamine; more than 5 pounds of ecstasy, pharmaceuticals, crack cocaine, heroin and cocaine; and more than 3,500 pounds of marijuana, most of which was likely smuggled through maritime routes controlled by the Sinaloa Federation.
The cartel, headed by one of the world’s most wanted men, Joaquin “El Chapo,” Guzman Loera, has recently been allowed access to areas the Tijuana cartel once controlled.
Investigators also seized more than $630,000 in cash, three luxury cars, 34 firearms and four improvised explosive devices. The club has been shut down by the city and will undergo an abatement process.
Several club patrons said Thursday that for the most part the club hosted good Chaldeans who were just there to socialize. But they said the club also drew a bad element, with illegally stashed liquor and people doing drugs in the back alley late at night.
Saud Khairo, who has run the Kevin’s Hair Salon barbershop at the front of the strip mall for 12 years, said he hopes the raid will help his business by bringing back customers who may have been scared away by the club’s activities.
Mark Arabo, a local Chaldean and president of the Neighborhood Market Association, applauded police for making the city safer.
“This in no way, not even a half of one percent, is representational of the Chaldean community at large,” Arabo said. “Chaldeans are hardworking, great family people, Christians and give back to the community. There are so many great things Chaldeans do for the community, so this just comes as a shock.”