Four men from El Cajon were arrested last week after a two-year undercover investigation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) into an alleged conspiracy to steal luxury cars in the U.S. and ship them to Iraq for sale. The four men are accused of being part of a conspiracy with nine others in Detroit whom the government claims organized auto thefts with the intention of smuggling the stolen cars through Canada to Turkey and then to Iraq.

According to federal indictments handed down at the conclusion of ICE’s “Operation Hot Wheels,” some of the Detroit-area defendants obtained the cars by renting them from national car rental chains around Michigan and Ohio. They would then drive them into Canada and file false police reports that the cars had been carjacked or stolen in Detroit.

Once the cars were in Canada, the alleged kingpin of the auto theft ring, a 67-year-old man from Sterling Heights, Michigan, would step in. He owned a car dealership in Detroit and would arrange to have the stolen cars loaded onto container ships at the Port of Montreal. Five of the cars were intercepted at the Port by the Canada Border Services Agency.

ICE did not describe what role the men from El Cajon could have played in the conspiracy, which seems to have taken place in Ohio, Michigan and Quebec. All 13 defendants, however, face federal charges of transportation of stolen property in interstate and international commerce, along with conspiracy charges. A fourteenth defendant, also from El Cajon, was charged with mail fraud in connection with the scheme.

The Los Angeles Times noted that 60 people were rounded up last week in San Diego and charged with gun- and drug smuggling. That alleged criminal operation was also said to involve people from both El Cajon and Detroit intending to smuggle items to Iraq. Those arrested were Chaldeans — Christians from Iraq — who had immigrated to eastern San Diego County. It is not clear whether any of those accused in the alleged auto theft and smuggling conspiracy were Chaldeans.

Often enough, the federal government carries out mass arrests and then triumphantly announces that they have stopped an important criminal enterprise. When those announcements are made, however, they all too often contain little or no information about what each defendant is accused of. It’s important to remember that criminal charges only add up to finger-pointing without provable facts to back them up.

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