SAN FRANCISCO — As accused low-level drug dealers in a massive conspiracy case continue to accept plea offers, many defendants have incredibly similar stories: They came to the United States to escape poverty in Honduras, ended up agreeing to sell drugs in San Francisco, and were busted by undercover cops before catching federal charges.
But many defendants also share another notable trait: They were purportedly recruited by large-scale drug distributors, who offered these otherwise-destitute Bay Area residents access to low-income housing in exchange for regularly selling $20 and $40 bags of crack cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine in the Tenderloin, a neighborhood known for high rates of drug abuse.
In two federal cases, the suspected leaders of drug trafficking rings were able to sublease low-income housing to street dealers, in exchange for rent and drug proceeds, prosecutors wrote in court records. Rent would be picked up by middlemen, who also resupplied the tenants with drugs to sell.
Last August, dozens of suspected drug dealers were arrested in a massive federal investigation aimed at reducing drug sales in the Tenderloin. Low-level dealers were arrested thanks to San Francisco police undercover operations that saw drugs bought for as little as $10 at a time, court records show.
Higher-ups were implicated through a federal government wiretap on the suspects' phones, authorities said. Those accused of running the trafficking rings are still awaiting resolution in their cases, though many of the accused street dealers have accepted open-ended plea deals.
And so far, many of the accused low-level dealers have been able to use their plight to successfully argue for shorter prison terms.
On Wednesday, a federal judge ignored a prosecution's contention that Oakland resident Gustavo Gamez-Velasquez deserved at least 13 months in prison, and instead allowed Gamez-Velasquez to be released from jail immediately. The defense argued that Gamez-Velasquez's involvement was minimal and that he'd been taken advantage of by his alleged bosses, the leaders of a group known as the Viera Drug Trafficking Organization.
Last week, a defense attorney secured a one-year jail term for his client, Jose Franklin Rodriguez-Garcia, who was a low-level drug dealer, purportedly under a man named Andy Reanos Moreno, and was given cheap housing for agreeing to sell drugs, according to court records. Prosecutors had argued for a three-year stint in federal prison.
The catch: Rodriguez-Garcia and Gamez-Velasquez, like many others in their situation, face immediate deportation upon their release from jail.
“Gustavo is one of dozens of Hondurans swept up by the government in a year-long investigation,” Gamez-Velasquez's attorney, Kenneth Wine, wrote in a sentencing memo. He later added: “Deportation is a form of banishment, one of the oldest forms of punishment in existence. From the tale of Adam and Eve being thrown out of the Garden of Eden, to a defeated Napolean being sent to the Isle of Elba, banishment has served as a powerful deterrent throughout history. … Clearly, Gustavo's deportation should fairly be considered a serious ‘collateral consequence,' as it is a punishment from which he can never escape.”