Law enforcement agents allegedly bought narcotics, firearms and explosives… (Lenny Ignelzi / Associated…)
Sixty reputed members of an Iraqi drug-trafficking organization in El Cajon have been arrested and authorities seized more than $630,000 in cash, 3,500 pounds of marijuana, dozens of high-powered firearms and several explosive devices, law enforcement officials said Thursday.
The organization was run out of a social club and has suspected links to the ruthless Sinaloa Cartel in Mexico and an Iraqi organized crime syndicate in Detroit, according to law enforcement officials.
The social club, located on East Main Street, has been a "hub of criminal activity conducted by Iraqi organized crime," El Cajon police Chief Pat Sprecco said.
According to authorities, over the last decade the club has been the center of other investigations for alleged drug sales, gambling, car theft and gun smuggling.
The undercover investigation that led to the latest arrests and seizures, dubbed Operation Shadowbox, has been underway since January as investigators gathered evidence, arrested suspects and served search warrants. A search warrant was served Wednesday at the club, where authorities seized $16,000 and uncovered evidence of illegal gambling, Sprecco said.
Over the years, thousands of Chaldean Christians fled Iraq and arrived in the United States to start new lives in cities such as Detroit and El Cajon, where about one-quarter of the roughly 96,000 residents have Iraqi ancestry.
The undercover operation announced Thursday found connections between the club and members of a suspected Iraqi Chaldean crime organization in Detroit, according to officials with the Police Department and the San Diego branch of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Operatives from the Sinaloa Cartel, Mexico's most powerful crime organization, supplied the El Cajon traffickers with large amounts of marijuana, which was sold in Detroit for up to three times the purchase value, DEA spokeswoman Eileen Zeidler said.
"That's a typical drug-trafficking pattern," Zeidler told The Times.
In April, an undercover agent was shown a grenade and told that other grenades were available for sale from a Mexican military source, Sprecco said.
Four improvised explosive devices were seized by authorities during the investigation. Police said the 34 confiscated firearms included semiautomatic assault rifles and several fully automatic weapons.
Half of the suspects arrested are expected to be charged with state violations, including sales, possession for sales, conspiracy to distribute narcotics and pharmaceuticals, and possession of firearms by convicted felons, authorities said.
The others will be charged in federal court on suspicion of participating in a continuing criminal enterprise; conspiracy to distribute and distribution of narcotics, marijuana and pharmaceuticals; conspiracy to import marijuana; and possession and distribution of automatic weapons.