On August 18, the El Cajon, California Police Department set off alarms with a press release that mentioned an association between the Sinaloa Federation and an organized crime group run by Iraqi Chaldeans.
But while the knee-jerk reaction by some might be that this roundup of Iraqi criminals by multiple law enforcement agencies in San Diego County finally provided solid evidence that Mexican transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) are working with terrorists, it didn't. Far from it. Yet, there are some very interesting aspects of this story regarding how certain TCOs are behaving in southern California and why they are reaching out to groups like the Iraqis in San Diego County.
Chaldeans are Iraqi Christians who were persecuted after the fall of Saddam Hussein and sought asylum in the United States. A large percentage of them have come - and continue to come - through the port of San Ysidro in southern California to join the vast community of Iraqi Chaldeans in San Diego County.
These Iraqis are carefully scrutinized when they declare themselves because Iraq is still considered a "special interest country" by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which means it is considered to be a country with ties to terrorism. Therefore, Iraqis attempting to enter the US are considered "special interest aliens," or SIAs.
[Editor's note: For more on Special Interest Aliens, see Sylvia Longmire's earlier report, What Can We Learn from Trends in 'Special Interest Alien' Migration Into the US?]
The criminal group of Iraqi Chaldeans who were snared in the “Operation Shadowbox” operation is likely no different than many of the other foreign-origin TCOs like the Russians, Italians or Japanese.
“The targets of this investigation are members of an Iraqi drug trafficking organization which has suspected affiliation with the Chaldean Organized Crime Syndicate,” according to the press release. “This syndicate began in the early 1980s in Detroit, Michigan. Crimes associated with the syndicate include murder, arson, weapons and narcotics trafficking, money laundering, fraud, theft, counterfeiting, racketeering, alien smuggling, assault, kidnapping and armed robbery.”
The “Chaldean organized crime has historical ties to the Sinaloa Cartel, and the Mexican Mafia,” the statement said.
The association between the Chaldeans and the Sinaloa Federation makes a lot of business sense. Given the criminal activities that the Chaldeans are allegedly involved in, they definitely need a big drug supplier, and who better to supply them than the Sinaloa Federation?
But a big question remains. With these Chaldeans operating just across the US-Mexico border adjacent to territory that reportedly belongs to the Arellano Félix Organization (AFO), why are the Iraqis getting their drugs from the Sinaloa Federation, and how does their arrangement impact security along the California-Mexico border?
One possible - and plausible - answer comes from an unvetted source within the AFO who explained that the San Diego Iraqis are getting their drugs from the Sinaloa Federation through the Mexicali/Calexico area of the border, which they then transport west into El Cajon. This operation correlates to DHS and law enforcement intelligence indicating that the AFO has control of Baja California from Tijuana south to Los Cabos, and that the Sinaloa Federation has control of the border east from Tijuana into Mexicali and beyond.
Current intelligence also indicates that there is some sort of business arrangement between the AFO and the Sinaloa Federation over smuggling rights in the Tijuana corridor. However, there is disagreement about the deal: US government sources say the AFO pays piso, or right of passage, to the Sinaloa Federation in Tijuana, and human sources in Tijuana say it’s the other way around – that the Sinaloa Federation has to pay the AFO in order to smuggle drugs though their corridor.
The AFO source also said the AFO has a tight lock on the gangs in San Diego County that distribute drugs for them. The Sinaloa Federation has tried repeatedly to penetrate these gangs, the source said, but has had little success because of their loyalty to the AFO. Consequently, they’ve had to seek drug trafficking relationships with other criminal groups in order to make money in AFO-influenced San Diego - hence their affiliation with the Chaldeans. This would also explain why the Sinaloa Federation would prefer to use the Mexicali/Calexico corridor instead of paying piso to get product through Tijuana.
It is very important to understand that this association between the Iraqis and Mexican TCOs does not rise to the level of alarm that it might seem to be at first blush, or to assume that anything more profound than a profitable business relationship is going on (i.e.; there is no information to indicate any of the Iraqi suspects have ties to terrorism).
Despite reports in recent years that the AFO is disintegrating, this TCO still has a significant amount of control over drug trafficking operations in Baja California, as well as in San Diego County. Meanwhile, the Sinaloa Federation - always looking for ways to make money - has had to explore other business markets and less direct transportation routes as a workaround due to the AFO’s influence in these areas.
It’s also important to remember that Mexican TCOs have a presence in over 270 US cities, where they have trafficking arrangements with criminal groups and gangs to distribute their drugs. Considering that Mexican TCOs are supplying an estimated 90 percent of the marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin that’s used in the United States, it can reasonably be assumed that they have similar business arrangements with other foreign organized crime groups.
The good news is that US law enforcement may have obtained vital and actionable counterdrug intelligence from the Iraqis who were arrested, depending on how high up in the organizational chain of command they were. Mexican TCOs are notorious for minimizing their exposure in business dealings. However, an Iraqi criminal might more easily be turned into an informant than a Mexican “narco” working directly for the Sinaloa Federation.
The El Cajon Police Department and Drug Enforcement Administration did an admirable job in investigating, identifying and arresting 60 Iraqis on multiple drug and weapons charges. But the investigation is ongoing and there is still much more work to do. Additional arrests are almost certain. Thus as the investigations continue, authorities are hopeful that important new details about Mexican TCOs’ operations with foreign organized crime groups in the United States will be uncovered.
A retired Air Force captain and former Special Agent with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, Homeland Security Today correspondent Sylvia Longmire worked as the Latin America desk officer analyzing issues in the US Southern Command area of responsibilty that might affect the security of deployed Air Force personnel. From Dec. 2005 through July 2009 she worked as an intelligence analyst for the California state fusion center and the California Emergency Management Agency's situational awareness Unit, where she focused almost exclusively on Mexican drug trafficking organizations and southwest border violence issues. Her first book, "Cartel: The Coming Invasion of Mexico's Drug Wars," is scheduled to be published in Sept. To contact Sylvia, email her at: sylvia(at)longmireconsulting.com