San Francisco

Deportation scheme for Tenderloin drug dealers picks up pace amid leniency fears

Franklin Hernandez-Cruz violently resisted attempts by police to arrest him for selling fentanyl in the Tenderloin on August 24. It took nearly 30 officers from local, state and federal agencies to subdue him and to quell a raucous crowd who, in the commotion, stole narcotics and cash thrown to the ground by the drug dealer.

Today, less than two months later, he sits in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in McFarland, California awaiting deportation to Honduras – having taken advantage of a Government deal whereby he avoided a lengthy prison term in exchange, effectively, to agreeing to be deported.

This ‘fast track’ scheme, in operation for three months, is a key plank of the U.S. Attorney’s strategy to address rampant drug crime and an atmosphere of lawlessness in some city neighborhoods. It aims to “immediately” and “permanently” remove illegal alien drug traffickers from the country while relieving the pressure on Government attorneys to prosecute all of the narcotics cases being brought to them.

It is a convoluted procedure which, in effect, ‘launders’ the deportation of foreign criminals through federal authorities so as to preserve the amour propre of San Francisco officials who refuse themselves to cooperate with immigration enforcement and who have hitherto, in fact, shielded drug defendants.

Even those arrested with substantial quantities of drugs are benefiting from these sweetheart deals. Pedro Melendez-Soto was found with a staggering 540 grams of fentanyl, a substantial quantity of methamphetamine and crack cocaine. The ‘guideline range’ for possession of this haul is 7-9 years imprisonment but Melendez-Soto too is now in ICE custody awaiting his return to Honduras.

Both Hernandez-Cruz’ and Melendez-Soto’s guilty pleas and sentences were accepted by U.S. District Judge Edward Chen. Other federal judges have green-lit similar case disposals.

U.S. District Judge Susan Illston approved a ‘time served’ sentence for Oscar Abelino Cheverria-Chavarria, 28, who was arrested by DEA agents on September 27 in the Tenderloin in possession of 17 grams of fentanyl. Just over two weeks later he pleaded guilty and now also awaits deportation, having avoided a guideline sentence of between one-and-a-half and two years.

And one of the first defendants to be dealt with under the new scheme, 18 year old Honduran national Candy Cardona-Zuniga, having been arrested on August 2 with 148 grams of fentanyl and 52 grams of heroin, was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer to ‘time served’ on August 30.

“In an easier case, even against my better judgment, I might go along with the leniency of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, trying to get drug dealers out of the Tenderloin, but in a case of this seriousness I just can’t do it.”

U.S. District Judge William Alsup

But in one case a judge balked when asked to impose what he saw as too lenient a sentence and insisted that the defendant be prosecuted in the normal way.

U.S. District Judge William Alsup upended a joint attempt by attorneys for the Government and El Salvador native Santiago Gonzalez-Gonzalez to provide him with a ‘time served’ sentence and be handed over to ICE.

“I find it hard to believe that I could give such a lenient sentence,” said the judge, pointing to Gonzalez-Gonzalez’ substantial rap sheet and the nearly 300 grams of fentanyl in addition to methamphetamine and crack cocaine with which he was found after a drug dealing arrest.

“In an easier case, even against my better judgment, I might go along with the leniency of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, trying to get drug dealers out of the Tenderloin, but in a case of this seriousness I just can’t do it.”

“We don’t want to send a message to other drug dealers: come to San Francisco, come to the Tenderloin, and then sell your drugs and the USA will give you an easy out.”

Alsup went on to say that he thought the changes of the defendant coming back in the country were he to be deported were high in any event.

To the judge’s point it is an open question whether these deported dealers will make their way back to the United States and whether the ‘stay away’ order telling them to keep out of the Tenderloin is worth more than the paper it is printed on.

Some of the cases where deportations are being granted involve large amounts of illegal narcotics, particularly fentanyl, always involve defendants who are already in the country unlawfully and, in some instances, have a track record of illegal reentry.

And many of these defendants have previously appeared in San Francisco Superior Court, handed ‘stay away’ orders, which were ignored, and then released.

But there are evidently limits to the U.S. Attorney’s Office largesse. One example of a type of case not permitted a ‘fast track’ disposition is that of Jorge Rodas Salguero. He was arrested on September 27 in possession of 170 grams of fentanyl and had been convicted on no fewer than four occasions for illegal reentry into the United States.

These arrests are based on strong on-the-ground cooperation between law enforcement agencies. SFPD officers are assigned to DEA taskforces operating in the Tenderloin, and ex-SFPD officers are now FBI special agents assigned to drugs work.

On the prosecutorial side, coordination is somewhat less evident. In Ms Cardona-Zuniga’s case, for instance, officials from the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office later appeared in Department 9 of Superior Court expecting to move forward with their case, based on the same conduct, unaware that one week earlier she had appeared in federal court, been convicted, been sentenced and already handed over to ICE.

San Francisco ordinances severely limit and in most cases prevent entirely city staff from assisting Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents with respect to criminals in local custody. Officials claim that the law “helps keep our communities safe by making sure all residents, regardless of immigration status, feel comfortable calling the police and fire departments during emergencies and cooperating with city agencies during public safety situations.”

In practice this has given every enterprising Central American drug dealer with carte blanche to peddle fentanyl, crack cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin on San Francisco’s streets.

It is unlikely to change. If even the horrifying death of city visitor Kate Steinle at the hands of illegal alien Jose Inez Garcia Zarate wasn’t enough to dissuade officials from this ultimate expression of what might be termed a ‘luxury belief’, then the succor it gives drug traffickers is unlikely to provoke reconsideration.

The U.S. Marshal’s Service has no such compunctions and does liaise with ICE to ensure defendants are handed over successfully.

There is no sign of the deportation scheme abating. Indeed, during one hearing last week, of the dozen Spanish-speaking drug dealers brought before U.S. Magistrate Judge Lisa Cisneros, each requiring an interpreter, four were being considered for a fast track deal.

The court was told that a fast track offer had already been extended to defendant Kevin Mandiel Martinez Rivas, arrested on October 11 with 316 grams of fentanyl. Martinez-Rivas had been arrested four months previously in San Francisco for possession of narcotics for sale “but it appear[ed] no criminal case was filed for that offense thereafter.”

A fast track offer was “probable” for Mainor Havier Mandoza Cruz, 25, who was arrested with 220 grams of fentanyl, 226 grams of cocaine and other drugs. Both Luis Zuniga Cruz, 26, who was arrested on October 11 with 343 grams of fentanyl and other drugs and has four previous drug-dealing arrests and Bayron Daniel Acosta Cruz, 33, who was arrested on October 12 with 41 grams of fentanyl, were also possible candidates the court heard.

At San Francisco federal courthouse, the impression is one a system already bursting at the seams in an effort to cope with the influx of drug offenders – illustrated by the careful checking by judges of the workload of pretrial services officials who may be hard pressed to keep up with the consistently high throughput of new defendants.

While it is probable that the impending arrival of world leaders for the APEC summit in mid-November is a further driver of federal authorities’ counter-narcotics activity, it remains to be seen if enforcement will continue at the same level beyond that and what position the Tenderloin will be in thereafter.

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