The Chaldean social club at 811 East Main Street, El Cajon
"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.”
∗ ∗ ∗
It is a dank, dark parking lot from the outside. But beyond Kevin’s Hair Salon, among a dozen parked cars, clumps of men stand around talking and smoking outside a modest entrance. Twenty feet of windows stretch either side of the door, and through them you can see men at tables, playing cards or backgammon or dominoes.
When I turn up around 9:00 p.m., the group outside clusters round me and asks what I want. Soon the word sahafi — journalist — is doing the rounds. And that opens a floodgate of emotion as the men crowd in to tell of the humiliation of the night of the 17th.
“Look at us. Old men!”
“They gave no respect to old people! They have no respect for Chaldeans! Many of us worked for the U.S. Army in Iraq. We are Americans. This is their thanks?”
“They had us on our faces, on the ground, for three hours. More. From 7:00 to 11:00. Hands tied behind our backs! They left us there. We couldn’t breathe!”
“I have lived in San Diego for 20 years. Never been in jail. We pay taxes. They had an old man in a wheelchair. They cuffed him! This is really insulting. Insulting to the Chaldean people.”
“I have asthma,” says Saad Younan. “I have to take my inhaler. I told them. They took me out to the road. Two men, one either side of me. I went to lift my inhaler; they reached for their guns! I said, ‘No! It’s just an inhaler.’”
George Kharat and Kamal Odeesh are still furious over an
August 17 raid of the Chaldean social club.
“They came here expecting to find drugs and guns and gambling,” says George Kharat. “They didn’t find shit. They were just after propaganda. And drug deals behind the coffee shop? They looked. If they’d found anything, they would have arrested us all. They didn’t arrest anyone. And of the 60 arrests they’ve made since, only what…five are Chaldean? Every society has its problem kids.”
Kharat points to that white-painted cinderblock wall at the end of the parking lot and the apartment buildings beyond. “Yes, a few punks in that alley and those apartments sometimes do deals. We call the El Cajon police. We have called a dozen times to tell them when it’s happening. They don’t respond! They have two Chaldean cops, but they won’t let us deal with them because they’re afraid they’ll be too easy on us. What can you do?”
But what about the money that authorities said they collected off the members?
Someone produces a paper. “This is all we have of it. Our money.”
“Chaldean people,” says Kharat. “We like to carry cash. Not credit cards. When we buy something, we like to pay cash. Yes, there were people with cash that night. But not for drugs, not for gambling. But they took it from us! To get it back we have to go before a judge.”
Kamal Odeesh received this receipt for $10,207 confiscated by Department of Justice agents.
And suddenly there’s a flutter of papers. Men bring out the U.S. Department of Justice — Drug Enforcement Administration “receipt for cash or other items” that agents gave them in exchange for the money they lifted from their pockets. Kharat gathers them up. The amounts vary from $133, taken from someone named Jojis, to Kajy Wadea ($1405) to Sybi Kheder ($1620) to — wow — $10,207 that belonged to Kamal Odeesh. He’d had the money in his pockets, in two wads.
“You can understand them believing he had brought this to gamble with, can’t you?” I ask.
“I tell you,” says George Kharat, “that is our way. We carry our money in our front pockets. Cash. There’s no hiding. The Chaldean police officers would have understood. But they did not bring them.”
Kamal Odeesh hauls out another piece of paper. This is a typed, notarized statement.
“I, Nabeel Qiryakos, hereby state under the penalty of perjury under the laws of the state of California that on August 17, 2011, I had an appointment to meet Mr. Kamal Odeesh at 8:30 pm at the Chaldean Social Club located at 811 East Main Street, El Cajon, CA 92020 to sell him my 2008 Toyota Camry.
“Mr. Odeesh had promised to pay me $8,500 in cash for my vehicle as agreed previously when he first looked at my car.
“When I arrived, the club, the building and the surrounding streets were blocked by the police and federal agents.
“I decided to go back to my house and await a call from Mr. Odeesh.
“Later that night, at 12:00 midnight, Mr. Odeesh called me and informed me that the police had taken his cash money that he was carrying with him to purchase my car.
“Therefore I signed and dated this Statement in front of a notary public.”
“My wife and daughter helped me get this money for the car,” says Mr. Odeesh. “They work at a Subway and a hotel. And another [relative] in Germany sent a gift for the car.”
“We are being penalized because of a few punk kids,” says Kharat. “I know some of their families. The kids have been thrown out. And thrown out of high school. They get desperate for money. It’s not easy here, so they do bad things. We tried so many times to call the cops before it got too big. It’s not easy to talk to these kids. They’re 19, 20, 22. But people they’re dealing with… [The kids] say they can’t get out, even if they wanted to.”
“Come in now,” says Saad Younan. “We didn’t know you were coming. So we have arranged nothing. Come in and see if you can find anybody gambling. The winners get tea, Pepsi, yogurt, or water. Or the losers pay for the food. Maybe $5 or $10. So, where’s this high-stakes gambling?”
I realize that high-stakes games could happen tomorrow. But tonight this looks like the normal Middle Eastern men’s social club. Men sit around tables crashing domino tiles or playing backgammon or a card game called 51. No sign of roulette wheels, money flying around, or alcohol.
“Of course, we have some people who have not chosen the right path,” says George Kharat. “But what society doesn’t?”
He holds up his right hand. “All your fingers are not the same. Just like people. We’re Christian. We came here to live the good life. But now, in the morning, people pull up across the road and yell, ‘Don’t shoot!’ Then they drive off, laughing. The worst thing is we have gotten calls from all over the world. Relatives wanting to know what’s going on. It’s the shame of it.”
∗ ∗ ∗
Do other Chaldeans understand their brothers’ dilemma?
Maybe not. Half an hour later, I pay a call on Mr. Sagmani at his restaurant on West Main Street. By now it’s about 10:30 p.m., but his restaurant, stuck beside a garage and tire shop, is overflowing with Chaldean gents playing games at tables, inside and out.
Steve Sagmani comes out to the front steps with his son Frank.
“So, what do you think about the raid on the Chaldean social club?” I ask.
“I don’t,” says Frank. Steve nods in agreement. “I don’t hang around with that group,” Frank continues. “I couldn’t care less. I want nothing to do with it.”
∗ ∗ ∗
According to the U.S. attorney’s office, 20 individuals arrested in Operation Shadowbox have been charged with federal crimes. The San Diego district attorney has charged 21 individuals. The rap sheet on the 41 contains only 10 names that look clearly of Middle Eastern origin.