Nearly everything looked in place on a crisp September morning in the picturesque adobe shopping center. The art, jewelry and clothing stores that make up the blocks surrounding the downtown Plaza were just opening for business. Tourists leftover from the summer season still dotted the streets, enjoying the high-end shopping, fine dining and comfy lodging that the city’s famed historic district provides.
But just a few hundred feet west of the Plaza, a white Drug Enforcement Administration van spoiled the view of the otherwise quaint, chic scene. Shoeboxes were strewn about inside Heavenly Boutique, the women’s clothing store on West San Francisco Street that sells expensive vanity items like cowgirl boots, designer jeans and southwestern jewelry. There, DEA agents, complete with search dogs, were in the process of raiding the store.
They soon arrested store owner Ashraf Nassar, 30, on charges of drug trafficking. Federal agents say they found about 7,300 milligrams of the powerful prescription narcotic Oxycodone and 270 marijuana plants between his store and two Santa Fe homes. They also seized $1,000 in cash.
Though the DEA raid seems like an isolated incident rare to the happenings of downtown Santa Fe, it is really just the latest sign of inner turmoil that’s been dividing merchants. It’s also a key example of how drastically the Plaza’s retail scene has changed in recent decades.
For some time, a conflict among Santa Fe’s downtown merchants— complete with racial tension and bad vibes— has been rocking the city center’s otherwise sanitized historic atmosphere.
Only recently has the drama seeped into the public eye.
“It’s in the great tradition of the Plaza,” Earl Potter, co-owner of the Five and Dime convenience store, says. “It’s always been the Wild West.”
Peter Komis recalls a bustling Plaza during his childhood years. Then, downtown contained plenty of vibrant neighborhood businesses catering mostly to locals. Komis, who speaks in a deferential and polite tone, says the Plaza, in those days, was the city’s “center of commerce.”
“I could just walk to the restaurant from school,” he says. “I remember giving a 50-cent piece for my school supplies.”
But through the ‘70s and ‘80s, the face of the Plaza began changing as more galleries and souvenir-oriented shops started popping up.
By the ‘90s, most of the stores that had been Plaza staples for many years were either already closed or on the way to shutting down. Potter, with his wife and a business partner, intervened to save one of them—the Woolworth’s retail store, a local landmark on the Plaza’s southern end.
Downtown wasn’t as aesthetically pleasing back then. Potter remembers a central park complete with an unmaintained lawn and a ragged-looking events stage on one of its corners.
“It sort of made the Plaza look really awful,” he says. “The Plaza itself was very poorly maintained in those days.”
He turned the old Woolworth’s into Five and Dime, a popular convenience store that remains a downtown favorite. Aside from selling many of the same goods shoppers can find at drug stores and gas stations—candy, sodas and cigarettes—Five and Dime is chock-full of kitschy, nostalgic items well-fit for Santa Fe’s vacationers. Dry chile samples, picturesque postcards and Mexican jumping beans are some of the Five and Dime’s biggest sellers. The store also features a Frito Pie that comes in an actual Fritos bag and one of the only bathrooms available to visitors on the plaza.
But today, shops on the Plaza are more likely to resemble Five and Dime’s next door neighbor—Divino Diamonds and Jewels, a luxury jewelry store that caters to consumers of the much deeper-pocketed variety.
Whereas Five and Dime’s interior could be mistaken for a Walgreens or an Allsups, Divino wouldn’t be out of place in Manhattan’s posh Fifth Avenue district.
It’s a testament to one of the biggest drivers of Santa Fe’s economy—tourists. Visitors book roughly 1 million hotel room nights in Santa Fe every year, and during the last fiscal year retail sales generated nearly $24 million of the city’s overall $84 million in gross-receipts tax revenue.
Shops like Divino became more common downtown as tourism replaced retail geared toward locals. At the same time, property values skyrocketed. Komis manages a building with two retail spaces on the Plaza that's owned by a family trust. Today he rents to two prominent downtown businesses—Overland Sheepskin Company and Diva Santa Fe—for what’s likely a hefty price.
“It’s probably some of the most expensive real estate,” Komis says, though he won’t disclose how much he charges his tenants. “It’s the center of the tourist hub.”
Retail for rent on 134 Water Street—just three blocks from where Komis leases—was going for $45 per square foot as of press time. That’s twice as costly as available retail space around the city’s more commercial St. Michael’s Drive corridor. It even beats averages in Orange County and San Francisco, which were $29.72 per square foot and $32.42 per square foot respectively, according to the 2013 retail market report by Marcus & Millichap, a national brokerage firm.
The trend has led to criticism of a big gap in Santa Fe between the wealthy and the working class. Homes on the north and east side are far more pricey than those on the south and west ends of the city, and shopping options get more affordable as you travel away from the Plaza.
Potter, for his part, acknowledges that the proliferation of several high-end jewelry and clothing stores around the Plaza has left it with less variety. He also admits that there’s truth to the assertion that shopping on the Plaza is best reserved for wealthy out-of-towners.
But he defends this kind of consumerism because it still drives much of Santa Fe’s economy. In other words, the Plaza is still, in many ways, Santa Fe’s “center of commerce.”
“We wouldn’t have the movie theaters and the entertainment that Santa Fe has if we didn’t have tourists who were able to spend money,” he says.
All of which makes downtown’s business market ripe for the picking of crafty entrepreneurs.
The September drug raid of Heavenly Boutique wasn’t Ashraf Nassar’s first run-in with the law.
He started drawing headline attention earlier this year for his violent disputes with his cousin, Musa Nassar, who owns a competing downtown store (see the sidebar on page 18 for a detailed timeline of their family rivalry).
Musa Nassar’s Santa Fe West Gallery is another high-end jewelry store located just across the street from Ashraf’s store. To make matters more complicated, and perhaps better suited to the plot of a Spanish-language telenovela, Musa is married to Ashraf’s sister, Faten.
Ashraf and Musa come from a family that owns lucrative land in Palestinian territory, according to Faten’s testimony during a restraining order hearing in February. Both are apparently fighting over a $500,000 property that transferred ownership from Ashraf’s side of the family to Musa’s side when Musa married Faten.
In January, months before the DEA raid that would implicate Ashraf with a drug ring, their dispute became public.
By then, the tension between the cousins was so great that Musa was carrying a loaded gun with him.
Musa told police that around 7 o’clock one evening, a vehicle turned down West San Francisco Street and sped toward Santa Fe West Gallery. Musa says he saw a man inside the car pointing a gun at him.
As the car drove past Evangelos and the Matador, Musa fired at least four times with his .40 caliber Glock, then ducked back into his store.
Police determined that Musa shot the gun in self-defense. But his trouble that night didn’t end downtown.
Five hours later, in the dead of night at his south side home, Musa again fired a handgun multiple times out of his window. When police responded to the incident, Musa told them that he was protecting himself from men with rifles outside his home.
Meanwhile, law enforcement kept their attention on Ashraf, who was also detained by police in his store the night of shooting. In February—in the midst of a court hearing regarding a restraining order request from his cousin— police searched Ashraf Nassar’s home acting on tips from confidential informants who said Ashraf had been selling pot. There, inside a gun safe, they found 32 pounds of marijuana in sealed bags.
The gunshots and drug bust only add to the bizarre events that periodically occur downtown.
During the last decade, a handful of Plaza-area business owners’ ethics and business practices have come under scrutiny from fellow merchants, city government and the Attorney General’s Office. That point is most recently underlined by how the city halted a “going out of business” sale by Kokochile De Santa Fe, which sells expensive jewelry and high-priced goods advertised as Native American art.
Kokochile, according to city Land Use Director Matt O’Reilly, wasn’t following the codes for a “distress merchandise” sale in August and so the city revoked Kokochile’s permit for its signs.
The scenario is all part of the city’s efforts to prevent an underhanded business strategy that has become commonplace on the Plaza.
It goes something like this:
“Someone will go out of business, and get a ‘going out of business’ license, and the next day sell the business to their wife who reopens,” O’Reilly says. “And then the wife hires the husband to come work in the business.”
Several Plaza-area merchants interviewed for this story say those kind of advertising and business practices mislead consumers into thinking they’re getting deals on a piece of Native American jewelry or art.
“Indian art is not valued by the hours a craftsman put in,” says one merchant who didn’t want to be named. “It’s valued by, somebody looks at it and says, ‘Oh, I like the way it looks.’”
Since the value is subjective, a merchant, for example, may label a bracelet that cost a few dollars to make with a price tag of $250. Then the $250 bracelet is tagged as being on sale or part of a “going out of business” sale, making matters more deceptive.
In the past decade, constant faux sales like these “screwed up the relationship between the craftsman who makes the jewelry, the retailer who sells the jewelry and the customer who buys the jewelry,” the merchant asserts.
And they’ve made their mark.
“We now have customers every day who ask, ‘Is this your best price?’ Ten to 12 years ago that wasn’t true at all, and now it’s every day,” the merchant says.
City Council acted in 2011 and 2012 by tightening the city’s regulations on how sales are advertised downtown. Now, signs displayed in store windows advertising a “percentage off” sale must be accompanied with city-approved stickers much like the tags on a license plate.
Similarly, a store’s “going out of business” sale must be approved by the city and is limited to a number of days. The city’s Land Use Department also enforces rules that say a store advertising an “out of business” sale cannot add items to its inventory.
Stores tend to hold “going out of business” sales during the late summer—the high point of tourist season—and around Black Friday and Christmas. During these times of the year, the city’s Land Use Department conducts extra sweeps of the area to make sure signs advertising sales are compliant with the city’s codes.
But that doesn’t mean the city doesn’t run into roadblocks. O’Reilly’s department, which enforces zoning laws around the city, is limited on how much time it can devote to downtown. He also says he and his staff sometimes do sign enforcement sweeps in plain clothes so merchants don’t recognize that they’re from the city. That’s because a merchant who recognizes the city can easily remove signs temporarily.
“Sometimes people are sneaky,” O’Reilly says.
He maintains that in the years since the city tightened the ordinances, complaints against downtown business practices have dropped from every week to maybe once a month.
City enforcement has its hands tied when it comes to ending the loophole of businesses closing, transferring inventory and ownership to a family member and reopening with essentially the same store under a new name. Only a change in state law, O’Reilly says, could lead to a bigger crack down.
“On paper it’s all legit,” O’Reilly says. “There’s nothing that prevents selling all your inventory to someone else.”
It’s not just the value of a piece of jewelry that often gets misrepresented in some downtown businesses.
Earlier this month, KRQE-TV reported that Kokochile sold a necklace misrepresented as being made from real turquoise. Sami Hawash, Kokochile’s owner, has since closed the shop’s doors.
In some cases, consumers who feel they’re cheated file complaints with the state’s Better Business Bureau. One from 2008 against Romancing the Stone, a downtown jewelry store, illustrates a classic case of buyer’s remorse.
A History of Violence
Musa and Ashraf Nassar’s family conflict is a complex web involving several people, many of whom have filed competing restraining orders against each other. Here’s a timeline based on public records:
July 2011: Adel Nassar, the brother of Ashraf Nassar, allegedly helps other family members slash the tires on Musa and Yusef Nassar’s cars.
March 2012: Adel allegedly sneaks up on Musa and smashes a bottle on the back of his head.
April 2012: Another relative, Nassar Nassar, purportedly threatens to file a fake police report accusing Musa of attempted murder.
October 2012: Ashraf allegedly tells Faten, Musa’s wife, that he knows where she lives, that he knows where her children go to school, and that he is going to make her life miserable. He also allegedly makes similar violent threats to Musa, Yusef, Adli Safi and Baker Al-Shawabkeh.
October 3, 2012: Musa, Adli and Salem Nora allegedly assault Adel Nassar at Santa Fe Smoke Works on Cerrillos Raod. The two men hold Adel down while Musa repeatedly punches him in the face. Later, Baker Shawabkeh allegedly tells Yahaya not to release a surveillance video of the incident to the police because “we are all Arabic people.” Musa and Baker threaten that Yahaya will be killed if he releases the video to police. He does. Three weeks later two unknown assailants stab Yahaya, who survives, but loses his kidney.
December 2012: Ashraf allegedly sends two men—one with a knife and one with a gun—to threaten Musa. He also allegedly arranges for someone to break the windshield and windows of Baker Al-Shawabkeh’s car. Ashraf also allegedly sends two men to attack Salam Othman in the store where he works.
January 2013: Ashraf purportedly sends people to Faten’s home to harass her. Later in the month, Musa shoots at a passing car on West San Francisco Street. That night, Musa fires shots out his window from his south side home. In both cases, he tells the police he was acting in self-defense.
February 2013: Police search Ashraf’s home and find 32 pounds of marijuana, a .12-gauge shotgun and a .40-caliber handgun.
September 2013: The DEA raids Ashraf’s store, Heavenly Boutique, and two Santa Fe homes. Between the three properties, they find 7,300 milligrams of Oxycodone, 270 marijuana plants and $1,000 in cash. Ashraf is arrested on suspicion of participating in a drug ring for nine months.
“Item I purchased which was described [as] ‘Turquoise necklace by Lorraine Lucero, San Juan Pueblo’ is identical to item on sale at Pebble London, described as dyed howlite and sourced from China,” it reads.
Complaints like these require the state Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division, not the city, to intervene.
In 2008, Attorney General Gary King sued three downtown jewelers for allegedly selling counterfeit jewelry falsely advertised as being made by Navajo artist Calvin Begay.
Mohammed and Jamal Shawabkeh, who at the time owned the now-defunct Golden Bear Trading, eventually agreed to pay $12,500 total in penalties.
The AG also fined Yousef Nassar, who owned the now-defunct Santa Fe Indian Jewelry, fining him nearly $12,000 for misrepresenting the orgin of jewelry.
Like Nassar in Palestinian territory, Shawabkeh is a big name in Jordan, where Diva’s larger flagship store is located. Washington DC journalist Ali Younes recently made the connection that the Santa Fe store owner is the same Mohammed Shawabkeh who assumed a seat in the country’s parliament in 2007. Last year, Mohammed Shawabkeh got into a heated argument with an activist who accused the Jordanian government of being “corrupt parasites.”
During a television appearance, Mohammed Shawabkeh notoriously threw a shoe—a very serious sign of disrespect in the Arab world—and pulled a gun out on the activist. He later defended his actions by saying that the activist had no right to criticize Jordanian politics because he was a supporter of Bashar al-Assad’s autocratic government in Syria, according to Al-Arabiya News.
A number of current Plaza businesses are still owned by people named Shawabkeh. They inlcude Ala Shawabkeh, who also uses the first name Mark, and Theyab Shawabkeh, who currently own or co-own Tsali Nez Gallery, Simply Southwest Trading Post, Diva Santa Fe and Divino Diamonds & Jewels, according to filed city business licenses obtained by SFR. Mavericks of Santa Fe, another Plaza jewelry store, is owned by Sultaneh Shawabkeh.
Two years ago, the AG wrote a cease and desist letter to Ala and Theyab Shawabkeh for operating Simply Southwest Trading Post without a business license.
The letter not only accused the Shawabkehs of running the jewelry and clothing shop without a business license for an entire year; it also criticized the merchants for advertising a misleading “grand opening” sale in both SFR and the Santa Fe New Mexican’s Pasatiempo.
Simply Southwest Trading Post, the letter pointed out, had already been open for months.
“This means, among other things, that the representation that your business is having a ‘grand opening’ sale is false and fraudulent,” William Keller, then an assistant attorney general, wrote in the letter. “We also have an indication that your 50 percent ‘discounts’ are an everyday offer. If that is true, they are unlawful.”
The Shawabkehs and Ashraf and Musa Nassar declined to be interviewed for this story.
Physical conflicts among Plaza area storeowners haven’t been limited to family disputes between the Nassars.
In September 2011, Ledia and Ubaldo Zamora, who own Temptations of Santa Fe, a gift store one block west of Heavenly Boutique, filed a restraining order against Ashraf Nassar.
The couple, who are not related to the Nassar family, alleged Ashraf had slashed their tires five times and made sexual gestures at Ledia.
Ashraf then filed his own restraining order against Ledia Zamora, alleging she conducted a daily ritual of shouting profanity at him for two years.
“She has accused me of being a drug dealer and a gangster,” Ashraf wrote in the restraining order request. “I need this to stop. She is hurting my business.”
Ashraf alleges that Zamora went so far in 2011 as to take a few swings at him, scratching his neck and ripping his shirt.
The courts, however, ended up permanently enforcing only the restraining order against Ashraf.
But the account from public documents reflects how tensions between store owners around the Plaza are deeper and more vast than a territory dispute between and among a couple of families of Middle Eastern descent. With the DEA investigation still pending, no one is sure what other allegations about shop owners are hanging around or how drug charges might shake out.
Many observers are still gung-ho to lodge complaints even when there isn’t a violation of local rules. And they often have no grounds.
“Half or more of the complaints that we get on these kind of issues—going out of business sale stuff and percentage off sale stuff—turn out not to be violations,” O’Reilly says.
Others point to an ugly elephant in the room that drives such paranoia.
“I hear people on the Plaza saying, ‘A-Rabs,’” says Komis, referring to the racially charged pronunciation. “I avoid it. I call it racism 101.”
Komis, who rents one of his properties to Ala Shawabkeh, is clear when he says that anyone faking or misappropriating jewelry “should be prosecuted.” But he laments that some observers have wrongly attributed shady deeds to all downtown store owners of Middle Eastern decent. Such generalizations amount to “fear of the unknown or not knowing what someone is all about.”
“It could be ignorance,” he says. “It could be racism.”
Police report on Musa's Nassar's January 2013 gunfire:
Restraining order application against Ashraf Nassar:
Restraining order application against Musa Nassar:
Attorney General's 2011 cease and desist letter to Mark and Theyab Shawabkeh:
Ashraf Nassar's federal indictment: