SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Federal prosecutors said Wednesday that they charged nearly three dozen people, mostly Honduran nationals, after investigators uncovered twin international trafficking operations that poured heroin, meth and cocaine into a notorious San Francisco neighborhood crawling with rampant drug use.
The drug charges are the first step in a yearlong crackdown in the Tenderloin neighborhood, near the city's downtown, that aims to clean up a roughly 50-block area long plagued by poverty and where open drug use has been tolerated for years, U.S. Attorney David Anderson said.
He said the 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 in an area "smothered by lawlessness."
"My belief is that the Tenderloin, in fairness, deserves the rule of law every bit as other fine neighborhoods in San Francisco," said Anderson, in his first news conference since being appointed to the post by President Donald Trump in January. "This is not an immigration initiative. This is not a deportation initiative. This is a public safety initiative."
The crackdown comes as California has become more tolerant of casual drug use after voters reduced penalties for possession of cocaine, heroin and opiates in 2014 and legalized marijuana in 2016. It also comes as San Francisco Mayor London Breed and the elected supervisor for the area have pledged to target flagrant drug dealing.
But San Francisco also strongly oppose federal immigration sweeps, and immigration agents are among those joining the FBI, 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 who are in the country illegally.
And while city officials know the Tenderloin is a problem, they're torn on how to address drug dealing and drug addiction, with some saying the city shouldn't waste resources going after low-level offenders and criminalizing homelessness.
The mayor's office did not immediately return a request for comment on the crackdown.
Chris Nielsen, special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration in San Francisco, said the investigation launched in late 2017 uncovered two independent operations stretching from Mexico to Seattle in which largely Honduran nationals living on the eastern end of the San Francisco Bay Area commuted daily to the Tenderloin to sell drugs.
He said they acted like "independent contractors," selling drugs in exchange for housing.
Anderson said open drug use is imperiling elderly and school-age children who live in the Tenderloin, where housing is cheaper than other parts of a city struggling with income inequality.
The federal action targets a neighborhood with a high concentration of homeless people, single-room occupancy hotels and used needles. A portable toilet program was launched in the Tenderloin five years ago after children complained of having to sidestep human waste on sidewalks to get to school.
Supervisor Matt Haney said in April that he would create a task force to come up with a plan to tackle the problem. More than half the 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, according to an April report.
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 effort for at least a year.
An initial round of multiple arrests in recent days largely targeted the drug trade, but Anderson said future sweeps will focus on firearms offenses, robberies, sex and labor trafficking, identity thefts and benefits fraud in the racially and ethnically diverse neighborhood.
Future efforts may include targeting those using false passports and visas.