Crackdown on San Francisco Drug Markets Brings Surge in Arrests

Oct. 31, 2023
Increased undercover and surveillance operations have increased arrests by San Francisco police and federal law enforcement, as well as curtailing drug dealing during daytime hours in open-air markets.

Five months after local and national law-enforcement officials launched crackdowns on San Francisco's open-air drug markets, one long-time dealer said he won't risk venturing into the Tenderloin much anymore.

"I'm scared," he said in a recent interview, noting that he's lately preferred to work construction shifts. The source, who has dealt drugs in San Francisco on and off for nearly two decades, said what was once a full-time job has been pared down to about an hour a week, and most of the other dealers he knows are avoiding the area as well.

"You go to the city and it's empty now."

Increased undercover and surveillance operations have helped spike the number of people arrested in the city by local and federal police and curtail drug dealing during daytime hours in the open-air markets in the Tenderloin and South of Market areas.

U.S. prosecutors in San Francisco have charged at least 89 people with selling drugs this year, including 28 in October, with almost all of the recent busts coming in the Tenderloin and SoMa. There were 55 such federal cases in 2022 and 59 in 2021, according to a Chronicle review of court records.

Since August, federal prosecutors have employed a new fast-track option for more than a dozen suspected low-level dealers with minimal criminal records, adjudicating their cases in as little as 10 days. They can plead guilty and avoid additional jail time if they agree to stay away from the Tenderloin and remain on probation for three years. If undocumented, they are turned over to ICE for deportation proceedings.

Through Oct. 19, San Francisco police and other local agencies have already presented 34% more drug arrests for prosecution by the San Francisco District Attorney's Office than the average found in previous years, according to a Chronicle review of city data.

Last week, the San Francisco Sheriff's Office announced it would re-open the annex of its San Bruno jail to accommodate a 32% surge in inmates over last year.

Still, after witnessing years of Tenderloin-centered crackdowns — including one in 2019 that resulted in nearly 250 federal cases — the anonymous dealer remained confident that the changes to the drug market are only temporary.

"They do the same thing every four years," he said, noting the upcoming 2024 general election. "After, everything's the same."

Mark Karandang, a drug intelligence officer who tracks overdoses and oversees public safety and public health collaboration programs for the Northern California High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, disagreed. The open-air markets, he said, "have never experienced a (police) surge like this before."

"The sweeps before have lasted a couple of weeks, maybe a month," Karandang said. "But this has been going on for the last four months. And it doesn't look like it's going to abate anytime soon."

Karandang said the police responses are making a dent in street conditions during the day, but acknowledged that, with limited resources, the same efforts aren't happening after the sun sets.

"That's kind of the strategy right now — try to clean it up during the day," he said.

Kevin DeMattia, owner of the Tenderloin bar Emperor Norton's Boozeland, said dealers clad in all black would set up shop at all hours at the corner of Turk and Larkin streets, where Norton's bar is located. The market attracted buyers who would use drugs and sometimes overdose on the spot.

"In the daytime, they seem to have not disappeared, but there's far less of them because the cops are patrolling more," DeMattia said. "The (state police) has really helped that, and they keep putting (the dealers) on the back foot."

Now things are worse a block over, on Hyde Street, DeMattia said.

"I feel bad for the folks down there," he said, noting that dealers have taken to lighting off fireworks in what's believed to be a warning system about police in the area. "You just feel like you're in a war zone."

Gov. Gavin Newsom, Mayor London Breed and Nancy Pelosi vowed last spring to flood the area with police. In court records, federal prosecutors described the Tenderloin and SoMa as neighborhoods "in crisis," and said the latest clampdown reflects the urgency of conditions there. The aggregate effects of allowing open-air drug markets to persist "are catastrophic," federal officials wrote.

While both U.S. and San Francisco prosecutors can charge for similar drug crimes, the risk of severe penalties is significantly higher if a defendant's case lands in federal court. Unlike cases heard in San Francisco Superior Court, a federal drug-sale conviction often leads to years in prison, followed by near-certain deportation if the person is undocumented.

The accelerated prosecution plan, created under recently-appointed U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California Ismail Ramsey, has been used at least 16 times since August, according to a Chronicle review.

An 18-month investigation by the Chronicle found that the Tenderloin's drug market has been dominated in recent years by low-level dealers from Honduras, who sell drugs after fleeing violence and poverty in their home country. Of the 16 cases, 13 of the defendants were from Honduras, two were U.S. citizens and one was from El Salvador.

The fast-track program "results in a drug trafficking conviction within weeks of arrest (not months or years), immediate separation of the defendant from the Tenderloin, and prevention of the defendant from returning to the Tenderloin," federal prosecutors said in a statement used in multiple cases. "The speed at which this case moved will free up other government resources to prosecute additional federal crimes, including in the Tenderloin."

The expedited cases and the prospect of avoiding further jail time make for an attractive option for defendants, said Ken Wine, a veteran defense attorney who has represented accused drug dealers.

"In 30 years I've never been offered credit for a time-served sentence in a federal courthouse," said Wine, who recently represented a client who accepted the fast-track plea offer.

"I think, in terms of a street-level, low-level drug dealer, prison time should be minimal," he said. "And immigration consequences are what they are."

The deals still allow for undocumented defendants to fight deportation by applying for asylum or other protections, Wine said, though such efforts are largely unsuccessful after a conviction.

"Typically," he said, "people deport."

The anonymous dealer, who has twice been sent back to Honduras, said he doubted the deportations would be much of a long-term deterrent, even though the price to illegally cross the border with a personal coyote these days is running at about $17,000.

"The people they're deporting here now in November, they'll be back in January," he said.

For their part, San Francisco police and other local agencies in 2023 have presented 1,336 drug arrests for prosecution, of which nearly 800 were for alleged drug sale offenses. The rest were largely for cases involving a possession offense, according to the review of city data. Police averaged about 1,000 arrests every full year since 2015, dipping to fewer than 700 in 2021.

This year, District Attorney Brooke Jenkins' office has filed charges in 87% of the drug sale cases brought by police, roughly the same as in 2022 and 2021, when 87% and 85% of drug sale arrests resulted in charges from the office, respectively.

Since Oct. 1, there have been at least 18 San Francisco drug arrests that resulted in federal prosecutions, many of them taking place near the Phillip Burton Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse on Golden Gate Avenue and the Speaker Nancy Pelosi Federal Building on Seventh Street.

The drug use and homelessness conditions surrounding the Pelosi building have come under sustained criticism, with officials with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in August advising employees to work from home. Last week, Iowa Republican Sen. Joni Ernst called for the building to be shuttered, likening the complex to a "haunted house."

The additional law-enforcement muscle has been cheered by many residents and business owners in the SoMa and Tenderloin neighborhoods hit hardest by the fentanyl crisis, who credited the efforts for curbing some open-air dealing.

In the past several months, local officials including Breed and Supervisor Matt Dorsey have openly called on federal officials for more help in tackling the city's drug problems, saying the problem is too big and too complex to handle alone. Both told the Chronicle last week they have since seen a much-appreciated boost in federal law-enforcement presence and arrests.

"Their work, along with our state and local law enforcement, is having an impact on our streets," Breed said in a statement to the Chronicle.

Dorsey, whose district includes the Federal Building, noted that the work-from-home directive "didn't go over too well in my neighborhood," where some read it as the federal government washing its hands of a problem it has vast resources to help solve.

"It's not a supermarket, it's the government of the United States of America," Dorsey said. "Certainly there is a role for the feds."

Dorsey said he's grateful for the stepped-up federal police presence since then, and said many of his constituents have praised the visibly cleaner streets.

"I think there's going to be some ups and downs," Dorsey said. "I'm optimistic over the long term, but week to week, depending on what neighborhood you live in, you may see an uptick in problems."

Yoohyun Jung and Susie Neilson contributed to this report.


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