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'Smothered By Lawlessness'; Feds Launch Drug Crackdown In San Francisco's Tenderloin District

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF/AP) -- Seventeen federal law enforcement agencies announced Wednesday a yearlong crackdown on San Francisco's crime-ridden Tenderloin neighborhood where open drug use has been tolerated for years.

U.S. Attorney David Anderson said the federal government was targeting the city's Tenderloin neighborhood -- a roughly 50-block area -- with arrests of drug traffickers as the first step in cleaning up a roughly 50-block area he says is "smothered by lawlessness."

Federal authorities also announced that 32 people have been charged with selling drugs in the Tenderloin.

Chris Nielsen, special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration in San Francisco, said that most of the dealers were Honduran nationals and part of an operation that stretched from Mexico to Seattle.

Nielsen said an investigation that began in 2017 uncovered two independent drug trafficking networks that operated in the same way. The feds said that people living in the eastern end of the San Francisco Bay Area crossed into the Tenderloin daily to sell cocaine, meth, heroin and fentanyl.

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 opposes federal immigration sweeps, and immigration agents are among those joining the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. Marshals Service and others in the effort. 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 drive is not aimed at the area's massive homeless population or people addicted to drugs, Anderson said in remarks prepared for his first news conference since being appointed to the post by President Donald Trump in January.

Anderson said open drug use is imperiling elderly and school-age children who live in an area where housing is cheaper than other parts of a city struggling with income inequality.

"Innocent residents, commuters, tourists, and persons with business in one of the four major federal buildings in the Tenderloin should not be required to run a gauntlet of crime," he said. "The Tenderloin neighborhood deserves the benefits of the rule of law every bit as much as other neighborhoods in this city."

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.

A map of drug crimes reported to the San Francisco Police Department in June and distributed by federal prosecutors glows red — the highest proportion — over the Tenderloin, in contrast to a few smaller islands of red in the rest of the city.

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.

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