32 busted in federal drug crackdown in San Francisco

FILE - In this July 25, 2019, file photo, sleeping people, discarded clothes and used needles are seen on a street in the Tenderloin neighborhood in San Francisco. Seventeen federal law enforcement agencies are teaming up for a year-long crackdown on a notorious area of San Francisco where open drug use has been tolerated for years. U.S. Attorney David Anderson said Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2019, that the federal government is targeting the city's Tenderloin neighborhood with arrests of drug traffickers as the first step in cleaning up a roughly 50-block area he says is "smothered by lawlessness." (AP Photo/Janie Har, File)

U.S. prosecutors say they've charged 32 people who sold drugs in a notorious San Francisco neighborhood as part of an international operation stretching from Mexico to Seattle

SAN FRANCISCO — The first step in a sweeping crackdown on crime ranging from drugs to sex trafficking in a notorious San Francisco neighborhood yielded 32 arrests of mostly Honduran nationals tied to two international operations that poured heroin and cocaine into the community, U.S. prosecutors announced Wednesday.

It's not uncommon to see people shooting up or snorting powder in the Tenderloin neighborhood, which contains City Hall and several federal buildings and is just minutes from tourist-heavy Union Square. The neighborhood has long been a public safety problem in a city famous for its permissiveness, and leaders divided on how to address the drug epidemic.

But in his first news conference since being appointed by President Donald Trump in January, U.S. Attorney David Anderson said he could no longer stand by as commuters, tourists, government workers and residents wade through a daily slog of crime. He said an enforcement initiative by more than 15 federal agencies would not affect "innocent" homeless people or drug users but would tackle high-level drug dealing, fraud, identity theft and firearms.

"My belief is that the Tenderloin, in fairness, deserves the rule of law every bit as other fine neighborhoods in San Francisco," he said. "This is not an immigration initiative. This is not a deportation initiative. This is a public safety initiative."

Still, San Francisco is a city that strongly opposes federal immigration sweeps, and immigration agents are among those joining the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. Marshals Service and others in the effort. San Francisco was a sanctuary city before the rest of California largely pledged not to work with federal authorities on deporting people in the country illegally.

San Francisco Supervisor Matt Haney, whose district includes the Tenderloin, said residents are fed up with dealers using the neighborhood as a dumping ground for drugs. He welcomed the assistance but says the city needs to remain vigilant on immigration.

"I hope that this isn't a way to get around San Francisco sanctuary laws," he said. "There can be an important role for the U.S. attorney in going after higher level individuals, and I hope that is where they would put their focus."

Mayor London Breed has also been a vocal supporter of improving the Tenderloin district. Her office did not immediately return requests for comment.

Chris Nielsen, special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration in San Francisco, said an investigation launched in late 2017 uncovered two independent operations stretching from Mexico to Seattle in which mostly Honduran nationals living on the eastern side of the San Francisco Bay Area commuted daily to the Tenderloin to sell drugs.

He said the "commuter drug dealers" acted like "independent contractors," selling drugs in exchange for housing.

"Each morning, drugs were dropped off with dealers in the East Bay and then commuted into the city to sell to people from all over the area," he said.

The organized nature of drug peddling in the Tenderloin was cited in an April city report, which stated that more than half of nearly 900 people booked into jail or cited for incidents tied to drug sales in 2017-18 were cited or arrested by police in the Tenderloin. It said a high percentage of drug sales involve organized crime and "sellers often give drugs to homeless people who are addicted in exchange" for holding the drugs.

The U.S. attorney's office said it is devoting 15 prosecutors to the crackdown for at least a year.

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