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Roundtable: Crime Ring, Rent Control and Grocery Strike

Rent Control Advocates
Rent Control Advocates
Roundtable: Crime Ring, Rent Control and Grocery Strike
Roundtable: Friday August 19, 2011

Roundtable looks at alarming arrests involving members of an Iraqi social club in El Cajon and grocery workers vote Friday on whether or not to strike. In the North County, Escondido is looking at ways to ease its contentious relationship with its Hispanic citizens and Oceanside's city council voted to end rent control at the city's mobile home parks and now is backtracking.


Tony Perry, Reporter, Los Angeles Times, San Diego Bureau


Eric Anderson, KPBS business reporter

David Garrick, reporter, North County Times

Ray Huard, reporter, North County Times

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

ST. JOHN: So in a dramatic sting operation, the drug enforcement administration and the El Cajon police force arrested 60 people and revealed a criminal connection between the Iraqi Christiani Chaldean community in east San Diego and Mexican drug gangs. We've one of the largest Chaldean communities in the country here in San Diego, and many of them are refugees. So the news comes as a shock. There may be misconceptions about the story. And we'd like to hear your take on the issue. What does it mean for the Chaldean community, which has a pretty positive representation in San Diego in general. Does this make you concerned about Mexican gang activity spreading across the border? Our number, 1-888-895-5727. And act fast because we do move fast here on the Roundtable. So Tony, tell us, first of all, what did investigators discover in this sting, which I gather was called operation shadow box?

PERRY: When they discovered was, as you suggest, shocking. It was not particularly surprising. What was the shocking is the numbers. 60 arrests. $630,000 in American green backs, 3500 pounds of marijuana, 34 weapons, including automatic weapons, improvised explosive devices, including some indication that the Mexican army will sell grenades to bad people, all very shocking. And then of course the interconnection between the Mexican cartel in Sinaloa, a very violent group of individuals, the Chaldean conspiracy here, if you will, and also in Detroit. So you've got kind of a triangular thing going. All very shocking in its size, complexity, and its potential for violence.


ST. JOHN: Well, I think that's the thing that people are wondering. What does this really mean? And the thing that has caught a lot of people by surprise is the link to the Chaldean community. Can you give us some history to that connection?

PERRY: Well, they shouldn't be surprised, frankly. 811 East Main Street has been in the news how many times over the last decade? Investigations having to do with gambling, car theft, drugs, you name it. The feds and the locals have centered on the social club there, the gathering spot for the Iraqi immigrants in El Cajon. So we've been there before. One wonders why since it had been busted numerous times before, this group of folks would have decided to keep it as their club house for this current conspiracy. But apparently they did.

ST. JOHN: What is the history, though, behind this connection between the Chaldean community, that's the Christian Chaldeans, who many of them are refugees, came across the border. Tell us why they had this connection to the Mexican drug cartels.

PERRY: There's two great Chaldean communities, Iraqi communities, that also include by the way some Shiites and curds. But mostly as you suggest, it's the Iraqi Christians and Chaldeans. They come to two places, here, east county, are 20,000, 30,000, and they go to Detroit and the suburbs there. Many of the Chaldeans came through Mexico, all right? So they've got a Mexico connection. Some of them came legally, some came illegally. Now, what do we have? We have a large ethnic immigrant community. They own a lot of small markets. They open a lot of liquor stores. They're getting into the progressions, the sheriff's deputy who patrols my neighborhood is a Chaldean. I have metical deans who have enlisted in the Marine Corps in that classic immigrant way, to prove their loyalty to their new country. But as with every ethnic group that immigrate, a small percentage of them seems to move toward organized crime. I give you half a dozen Martin Scorsese movies that are centered on this, and it doesn't matter whether it's the Iraqis or the Italians, or if you watch the sopranos, in contemporary terms, the Eastern Europeans who are coming here. It's a small percentage organizes around organized crime, religion, ethnicity, and race.

ST. JOHN: Eric, but we should be shocked.

ANDERSON: I think the thing that got my attention so much is that the cartels in Mexico have made such an effort over the years to keep any drug related violence or activity as much as they can south of the border. And it was surprising to me, involved with drugs. Of course they're bringing drugs into the kitchen. But drugs and guns. And organized in the east county. That's where my surprise it.

PERRY: It is more sophisticated and complex than we have seen before. You're exactly right. And they have made, we believe, some effort to keep the violence south of the border. And also a lot of hard work by U.S. law enforcement federal and local to keep that violence south of the border too.

ST. JOHN: David?

PERRY: I haven't seen these folks linked to a lot of violence.

ST. JOHN: The Chaldean.

PERRY: Yes. Now, that's not true in Detroit a lot of street crime in Detroit allegedly being done by these folks. But you ask how this reflects on the community, and I suggest it doesn't reflect on the wider community a bit. This is classic American phenomenon. Large groups come and a small percentage of them organize up this way.

ST. JOHN: So Tony, maybe the bigger gain activity is in Detroit.

PERRY: Absolutely it's in Detroit.

ST. JOHN: And the main risk is now San Diego might become a sort of conduit.

PERRY: Well, we're the tail on the dog as this goes. And the dog is in Detroit. A serious problem here, serious problem here, but nowhere near what it is in Detroit

ST. JOHN: Thanks for giving us that perspective. David, in North County has there been any news between connections between Mexican drug gangs with any elements in the community up there? Does this come out of the blue for you too?

GARRICK: It does. Vista and Escondido are both actually Latinos outnumber whites in those two cities now. But we haven't heard anything with organized crime or any problems like that. It's possible it's going on and we don't know about it.

ST. JOHN: Ray, do you get the feeling like Eric is saying, that this is sort of a crack in the firewall that the border has provided between Mexican violence and we sort of feel like oh, it's on the other side of the board are? How do you feel like this is affecting San Diegans' feeling of safety?

HUARD: I don't know 'cause I don't think we've really seen any violence. What we've seen is this group collecting weapons and what not, drugs, is a lot of concern. But so far I haven't seen any violence happening here.

PERRY: It it it used to be said, I think it's still said and true, San Diego is a branch off the city. That's true for big corporations, I believe it's also true for organized crime. We're a pass through. We're where the marijuana comes before it's shipped in trucks here there and everywhere across the country. My very good colleague rich Morossi just did a multipart series in the LA Times pointing out the multilevel marketing, if you will, of the Sinaloa folks, that they're very good in getting trucks here and there. And they have local contracts, local vendors, if you will, and I believe now, we see that the Chaldeans and the social club on east main street in El Cajon are probably one of those vendors.

ST. JOHN: And yet, Tony, it turns out that many of those arrested were young, right? But the social club, am I right, is a lot of older generation people who have lived hoar a long time?

PERRY: It's sort of the geezers, if you will, they're the folks who don't go to MacDonald's at six in the morning to have their coffee. They go there instead. But the folks doing the lift, the cannon fodder folks are young. That's true regardless of what gang you're talking about. Every so often we Trump down to the federal building for a U.S. attorney FBI press conference, three-dozen folks arrested, and they're all under 25. And as these cases, 30 in federal court, as I understand it, 30 over in state court as I understand it. As these cases go through the system, we'll learn more about this network and more about, okay, these folks who were busted, they just easily replace the folks off the street or are they at least midlevel people? Have we really struck at the organization or are we just churning through large numbers of arrests?

ANDERSON: Tony, what do you think about the fact that it was the Sinaloa cartel that was implicated and not the Ariana Felix cartel.

PERRY: Kudos again to the United States attorney for really whacking the Arriana Felix folks with all sorts of convictions and such. But whack a mole, knock down in one place, it pops up another. Sinaloa, if they had -- if you could buy stock in them, their stock is rising, where Arriana Felix is tanking. While there is a market in this country, they say, there will be folks -- they'll be called one thing one time and one thing another time who will fill that need. And currently that need is being felt by the Sinaloa. There have been some really good busts but they're still in action.

ST. JOHN: What's your reaction to the fact that they found some IEDs as well in that seems like a step above the drugs and guns.

PERRY: It really does. I mean, IEDs, things used in Afghanistan and Iraq to kill Americans by exploding beneath their vehicles. When were these going to be used? That's really scary. Grenades, there was talk that one of the undercover folks was told we can get you grenades from the Mexican army. Also very scary. Not yet fleshed out as part of the prosecutions. Where are these IEDs going? Who planned to blow up what? We'll see.

ST. JOHN: So this could be something that really affects the whole country in a sense in that it's again we're talking about the crack in the firewall of the border that may not threaten the safety of San Diegans but may have a much wider implication.

PERRY: Well, it can because again I think there are certain indication this is we're a pass through, we're where it comes across the border and gets distributed, and away it goes be it weapons or drugs or even in some cases, illegal immigrants themselves. But we'll see. What we found with the Mexican cartels is that they're testify in Iowa and testify in Maine and Washington. This is a national situation, international, if you will, situation. And while we are on the border and on the front lines, it doesn't stop here, but we see it as it moves through, and it does impact our community.

ST. JOHN: People in our news room have called people in the Chaldean community and of course they're very upset about how their representation is going to be affected.

DEFENDANT: As they should be. And this doesn't reflect on the larger community at all. This is as I say, I refer to Martin Scorsese movie, check it out. All immigrant groups it seems in this country, a small slender percentage of them organize up into crime while the rest of them go about their business, owning businesses, and raising their families, and enlisting in the U.S. military to show their patriotism. It doesn't reflect on the community at large at all.

ST. JOHN: Now, they are what? One in four of the population in El Cajon? I understand it's quite a large proportion.

PERRY: The best figure I see is about 30,000 if you also include the Kurds, and some of the Shiites and other figures. 80% of liquor stores in east San Diego County are owned by the Chaldeans, a large percentage of the markets, the franchise markets or the independent market, a lot of restaurants, a lot of people moving into government jobs if they can. Of course this is a stinko economy. So they're hurting like everybody else is hurting.

ST. JOHN: And David and ray, up in North County, this is not a familiar community. We hear about them. But do you think that there might be a threat, a risk of some misconceptions of people thinking this is Muslims? That this could be connected to Muslim terrorism whereas in fact this is a Christian community?

GARRICK: That's certainly possible. And I cover in Escondido a community that struggles with representation and image all the time. And I empathize with El Cajon, because I knowledge the city itself is going to struggle with this. The I think tourism to El Cajon might be down after this story unfortunately.

HUARD: I'm not sure people make the connection between being Chaldean and coming from Iraq. I don't think people understand that much about the different groups.

ST. JOHN: You feel that people understand Chaldeans are Christians?

HUARD: I don't think they really know about Chaldeans that much.

ST. JOHN: Much at all.

PERRY: There has been some comments left after news stories on websites, often not the most erudite of comments, but there have been certain comments that say, well, this shows why we shouldn't allow people to move into the country, blah blah blah. We'll see if that morphs into something larger that makes it more difficult for the Chaldeans or Iraqis to get political asylum. I don't think it will, but I've been wrong before.

ST. JOHN: And just to wrap this up, Tony, what's the next step in the indictments?

PERRY: Prosecutions. Now we go to court. And I would imagine they'll squeeze the little fry to rat on the large fry, and we'll see whether they can work up the chain, the El Cajon police chief at the press conference the other day said this thing isn't over, we're sustaining. To which one should say absolutely accident, because we have not seen through the years one giant bust, as good as it may be, cuts off the head of the snake when it comes to drugs and now guns. More police work more arrests, onto court.

ST. JOHN: Okay. Stay with us. Coming up in the next segment, we'll be talking about the threat of another grocery worker strike. It's getting more and more real. What are the issues and how will you react to the picket lines? We'll also head up to North County and check in on Escondido's controversial policies. And ask why is rent control such a hot political potato in Oceanside right now?

ST. JOHN: And you're become back on the KPBS Roundtable with me, Alison St. John and also we have with us today, Tony Perry of LA Times, ray Huard of the North County Times, David Garrick of the North County Times, and Eric Anderson who is KPBS's business reporter. It's a dilemma for anyone who shops at Ralph's, Albertson's and Vons, would you honor the picket lines if this is another strike? Would you be able to look your cashier in the eye if you didn't? The workers are voting today about whether to go on strike, mainly over healthcare benefits. And we'd like to hear your views too. If you have any comments or questions, call us at 1-888-895-5727. So Eric, how many workers does this affect? Judge.

ANDERSON: It's roughly 60,000 workers in the Southern California region. Workers are scattered in San Diego County, LA County, Riverside County, and they work at the three big grocery store chains, the ones you're familiar with, Vons, Ralph's, and Albertson's. And it's the checkers, the baggers, and some butchers, meat handlers, in the stores that are back at the bargaining table, trying to get a new contract worked together. One of the big sticking points this time around is the big sticking point that we saw back in 2003, 2004, and there was this long five-month punishing strike. It's the same sticking point. It's healthcare. Who's going to pay for healthcare and how much are the stores going to pay for, how much are the workers going to pay for? Workers are not satisfied with their contract. Union leaders are urging at a meeting this morning at the Scottish rate center here in San Diego, they were urging their members to vote no. In fact, they said after the meeting that they'd like to see a 90 plus percent of their membership vote no to send a strong message to the grocery store chains that they're not happy with the latest contract offering they have been given. And I that want something better, and that something better has to include healthcare benefits that the stores pay more for than the workers do.

PERRY: Refresh my memory. Who won the strike in '03?

ANDERSON: I don't think anybody technically won that strike. It was a five-month strike. The stores going into the strike major players in the market, they lost market share. They host about $2 billion in revenue during the strike because people stayed away. They didn't want to cross the picket lines. They saw their checkers out carrying sign, and they wanted to respect that. So the stores lost business, the workers didn't get what they were looking for. They got a two-tier contract. The older workers who had been there kept most of the benefits they had but assumed a larger percent of their healthcare. But the newer workers who started since then came in at a much lower rate. They paid a much larger percentage of their healthcare benefits so the unions didn't win there either.

GARRICK: Do we know how much the corporations have saved since that happened? Maybe they've saved more than two billion with the low are wages? No one's done that math?

ANDERSON: No one's done that math. But you can look at the last year, last year's profits. The corporations are making money. They are big companies. They're megacorporations. They're food corporations, Safeway, Kroger. There are chains all over the country. This is just one small area where they have stores, and they have big stores and a lot of muscle, and they have a lot of interest in fighting it out in a competitive marketplace. And they want to try and lower their costs as much as possible.

ST. JOHN: You're saying they didn't really win it last time. It's sort of the same issue coming up again. A lot of workers lost a lot of pay didn't they?

PERRY: I talked to Kent long yesterday up at the UCLA laborer center, and I said it's almost as if we didn't miss a beat because the dispute that they had become in 23 and 2004 is the same despite that they're having now. They got to a point that both sides could live with it back then. They went back to working sign aid contract, signed another subsequent contract. But they didn't really resolve the underlying issue. And that's the fact that the companies want to make more money and shift a little bit of that healthcare burden to the workers, and the workers are saying we don't want to that.

GARRICK: Well, the economy is so much worse now than this was in 2003. Does that change the dynamics in any way of the strike.

ANDERSON: The people I talk to say no. It's kind of a coincidence that this is happening in a really bad economic environment. But the issue needs to be resolved. And so they say, you know, it may make it more difficult for workers to be out on strike, it may make it more difficult, put more economic pressure on the stores. But it really doesn't figure into the debate. The question that has to be answered is, who's going to pay for the healthcare?

ST. JOHN: That's what I'd love to find out from our listeners, whether they would support the picket lines again this time. Or has the economy changed?

PERRY: What is the -- I'm the son of a -- or grandson of a laborer organizers, so I can't cross a picket line lest he come back and hadn't me. It's genetic. How loyal are people to brand? A pound of Hamburger and a six pack of light beer one place or another is pretty much the same.

ANDERSON: I think it's a very good question. And I think that's the question that the stores and the union workers are both weighing. They're both trying to consider that, they're both trying to value that. Obviously if the union workers go out on strike, they don't want anybody going into the stores.

ST. JOHN: 1-888-895-5727 is the number to call. One of the questions is the reputation of laborer unions which is under assault at the moment with pension pensions and healthcare, if people do honor a picket line is it supporting unions or is it supporting the workers? Where do you think people would be coming from on that? David?

GARRICK: I was wondering about leverage as well. In North County we have stater brothers, which is a different chain. And I imagine the dynamics might be different there. You can always go to trader Joe's or Henry's. It seems like the striking workers maybe have less leverage as people can get groceries in other places.

ANDERSON: The market has changed in the intervening years. There are no are more vendors. Fresh and easy was a UK grocery chain that came into the market since the strike. There are more options. But I think we found even then, back in '03, the customers when they sat down and thought with what their options were in terms of buying, they could find places to go. Keel's, Henry's, windmill farms. Whole foods is another one that's in the market. There are lots of different people selling food. And the big retailers, Walmart you mentioned, and target, has a pretty big food section as well. There are a lot of options there, and that does reduce the leverage a little bit, but I was talking about mickey Casparrian down at the union hall today, and he said wee not trying to kill the stores here. We want the stores to make money because if the stores are making money, they can pay the workers. But he does want to get their attention. He says, look, we also to protect our workers at the same time. We want to make sure they get the benefits that they should get.

PERRY: What do we know about the teamsters who drive those trucks?

ST. JOHN: I want to get in a caller here before we lose him. We've got David on the line. 1-888-895-5727 is our number.

NEW SPEAKER: I don't really support unions as much as I do the workers. And I would support the workers and not cross the picket line. I think our corporate -- the corporate culture that's ark live today is basically based on greed. If you look at the fraud that was in the banking system over the last few years, I think it's systemic I don't think it's something now ear something that's just 307ed up. I think it's something that's been going on for a long time. And it's continuing. I don't think that the -- if the stores are making any money, okay, there's no reason why they can't afford to share the wealth. And I think that a lot of today's people our generation and even a generation ago weren't around during the beginning of the unions and didn't -- don't realize how hard they had to find in order to achieve the sort -- the pay scale and the benefits that they have enjoyed in the last 20, 30 years.

ST. JOHN: David, thank you so much for your comment. Really appreciate that. Gina is on the line also from Claremont. And we'd like to hear your point of view, Gina. Go ahead.

NEW SPEAKER: I also go back to the days when my father was testify in unions because in those days, and that's a long time ago, immigrants and people falling out of the buildings with fires because they didn't have access to fire -- what are they called? Sweat shops and all the most awful things. And unions really helped people in those days. I wonder if the times are such that -- and I am a -- I'm not crazy about super markets, actually. In the stores that I go to, the specialty stores, they don't have unions. And they seem quite happy. My general impression of these people is that they don't mind not being unionized.

ST. JOHN: Let's hard to tell whether someone has healthcare from just looking at them. And that is the big question. And I appreciate your call, Gina. And I think this raises a question, Tony, do you think that people still see laborer unions as, in this case, upholding the shrinking middle class?

PERRY: No, probably not. They perhaps should. But the poles that I've seen say with a decline of laborer unions in the private work force, and with the rise of them in the public work force, the former group has rethought laborer unions and when they're good or bad. But I want to ask Eric, okay, a strike is smash mouth politics. It's not nice. So we're talking force on force here. Can the laborer unions shut the stores down by getting the teamsters to honor their picket line? Those big sweaty guys in the trucking bringing the resupplies in? Will they honor the picket line.

ANDERSON: They did last time to a certain degree. You'll understand how that worked. What they tended to do last time, the teamsters deliver all the goods to the stores. So when they tended to do last time, they would drive the trucks basically just off the property are, get out of the trucks, and somebody else would come in and pull the truck in the rest of the way. So they didn't really --

PERRY: That's not really in the --

ANDERSON: In the spirit of Walter Ruther and Jimmy Hoffa and folks. And I think we see in some of the laborer contracts, although I'm not an expert by any means, but in some of the laborer contracts, there are agreements and clauses built in that say, okay, if another union goes on strike, here's what you are allowed to do and still be considered testify under your contract.

PERRY: That you understand sounds a lot, like, I got mine, jack. Sorry about you.

ST. JOHN: The laborer unions haven't got a solid front on this point.

PERRY: It certainly sounds like that.

ST. JOHN: We're getting a lot of calls here. Let's go to raven in San Diego.

NEW SPEAKER: Good afternoon. Thank you. I'm also a product of a union family. And it is absolutely not okay to cross a picket line. The unions are not what they used to be. But they are definitely still there, attempting to do their best, do what's best for the workers of all these companies. And when you go in and support the company that's not doing great by their workers, then you're ultimately perpetuating the downfall of these individuals who do need healthcare, who do need better pay and wages. Because how are you supposed to live here, even working in a grocery store? Not being able to afford the food that you work with all day long. When you talk to your friends and say such things do they agree with you?

NEW SPEAKER: If they disagree that's their opinion.

ANDERSON: And that's another thick I want to bring up too. It's an understanding of what this grocery marketplace is here in Southern California. The woman who called a while ago, she says it's totally different than what she grew up. The small markets, then it became big market, there was a big push for consolidation. And while there are still big companies I think in that grocery marketplace, what you're seeing is a trend toward small -- like a smaller unit. It's -- I think that the big is finding a way to move down the line, and that the really successful people who work well in a very competitive environment like we have here in Southern California are smaller companies that are a little bit more nimble that can still -- they're still large enough where they can buy the food they want at a sufficient discount and make their money, but they're smaller.

ST. JOHN: Interesting. Big is not always better. Let's take Aaron from North County. What's your perspective?

NEW SPEAKER: Oh, hi. Thank you. Well, I worked in a grocery store 20 years ago when I was in college. And it's basically a nonskill job. It took about two weeks to learn how to be a cashier, and that was memorizing codes and everything else, and even then they were being paid $15 or more per hour. I think it's ridiculous that they assume that they deserve a fantastic benefits, incredible pay for a job that is really a nonskilled job.

ST. JOHN: Wow. Okay, well, that's a different perspective. And I don't know. We probably will have the phones lighting up now with people who worked for the company and say a very different perspective. But perhaps -- what do you think? In some ways what this is is a comment on whether the average job should pay enough for someone to be able to support a family. And that would include healthcare. It feels like that's the question that's being challenged here.

PERRY: All grocery store jobs going the way of fast food jobs? That it'll be a job that your teenage will have after a senior year or such, and it won't be a career job. It won't be unionized, it won't have health benefits. It'll be a job that you hold for six months to a year, and then a new group comes on. The previous caller is fairly mean spirited in his tone of voice there, but he does reach out and suggest something significant, should jobs be career jobs or should they be sort of pass through college high schoolesque jobs?

ST. JOHN: Okay. Well, just let's ask Eric when will we know whether this dilemma that's going to face many of those people who shop at these stores judge.

ANDERSON: The unions are going to be voting today and tomorrow in the Southern California region. They'll probably have number or numbers of how the locals voted by end of the could with. Everybody has agreed to come back to the bargaining table 381 more time. The federal mediator got that out of both sides before they had this strike vote. So you're going to have at least another bargaining session. And if that doesn't result in a new contract, then you're probably going to see the unions give their 72-hour notice, which they're rye required to do. And Casparrian told me today, he says we're going to know either day by Labor Day, which is a little bit ironic there. It's either going to be a new contract or a walk out.

ST. JOHN: Let's leave it there. Stay with us. Coming up after the break, we're going to head up to North County and talk about issues going on in Escondido in Oceanside. This is the KPBS Roundtable.

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