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Sanctuary Sellout 

Before: S.F. coddled undocumented teen criminals. After: S.F. punishes undocumented teens who commit crimes (and some who don't, too).

Wednesday, Nov 18 2009
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Many of those lawbreakers protected under the sanctuary ordinance came from Honduras. In the early '90s, as part of a larger trend along the West Coast, San Francisco police started arresting young Honduran drug dealers in SOMA and the Tenderloin. Of the 252 undocumented youths detained at juvenile hall from 2005 to February 2009, 79 percent were Hondurans. Some clearly took advantage of the juvenile system's sanctuary rules. Some were adults who falsely claimed to be underage, knowing cops would take them at their word if they had no identification. The Chronicle reported last year that several youths sent to group homes in Southern California under the old policy had simply walked away from custody. While the benefits of being a juvenile are gone under the new, tougher rules, the bluffing continues. Of the 150 supposed minors reported by San Francisco's juvenile probation department in the last 16 months, 24 — or 16 percent — have turned out to be adults, ICE spokeswoman Kice says, though she added that the number is tapering off.

Yet just about everyone directly involved with the Hondurans says the juvenile crack dealers are victims themselves. Many are unaccompanied minors who are dealing crack to pay off debts to the coyotes who brought them here. "The Hondurans, that's out-and-out human trafficking," longtime Tenderloin Station Captain Gary Jimenez says. "They're more victims of it than society is [a victim] of their drug dealing."


Still, the Honduran dealers have been held up by Mayor Gavin Newsom as reason not to sympathize with youths turned over to ICE. U.S. Attorney Russoniello told SF Weekly, "Most of these guys are lone wolves and involved in drug trafficking, and people need to get ahold of themselves here." Even activists have preferred to highlight the cases of those who have family here, perhaps realizing it's a political nonstarter to stand up for drug dealers.

But anyone demonizing the dealers would probably be surprised to meet Rafael Guerrero. The optimistic young Honduran with a quick laugh, curly hair, upturned nose, and elfin face does not exude "street-worn thug." Yet he is the relic of the old policy, a teenage crack dealer shielded from deportation. He met with SF Weekly at El Paisa, a Honduran restaurant in the Mission, to explain how he ended up in the drug business, and how he got out.

When he was 14, Guerrero says he escaped from his dirt-floor house in the tiny town of Esquias to iron shirts for 12 hours a day at a clothing factory in the country's industrial capital, San Pedro Sula. After six months, he had saved $100. When he was laid off and returned to Esquias, he says two local MS-13 gangsters beat and cut him in an attempt to rob him. After he reported the incident to the police, he says the thugs threatened his life, and he feared they'd make good on their threats if he didn't leave.

Like many Honduran youths who immigrate alone, Guerrero didn't have thousands of dollars to pay a smuggler to shepherd him to the U.S. So, five years ago, he went the cheaper way — riding atop freight trains rolling north through Mexico. Migrants call it the "Tren de la Muerte," or "Death Train," because so many of them have lost limbs or even died after falling off and being run over by the wheels. Guerrero also had to pay off Mexican officials, who demand bribes from the Central American migrants all along the route. He says his uncle made it to the United States on his ninth attempt. The youngster was luckier, successfully crossing the Texan border at McAllen on his first try.

After stints painting apartments in Houston and landscaping in Los Angeles, Guerrero joined friends in Oakland, but work wasn't as easy to find. For three months, he searched for restaurant and construction jobs. If he was lucky, he could work one day a week as a day laborer. He says he was getting desperate and skinny. So he gave in to what seemed to be an easy source of income for many unaccompanied Honduran youths: having a friend introduce him to an American drug dealer to get some stash to sell.

Guerrero's first drug dealing was in the early morning hours along International Boulevard in Oakland. But after he was robbed there at gunpoint by black dealers, he decided to move. First he sold around 24th and Mission streets and then in the Tenderloin, paying "rent" to the Norteño and Sureño gangs, respectively, to sell on their turf.

Guerrero says he felt guilty selling the $20 crack rocks that he sealed in a bag and stuffed under his tongue so he could quickly swallow it if stopped by police. "At the beginning, I was embarrassed," he says. "I felt like I was selling poison, that I was killing people." Over the phone, he told his mom he was working as a day laborer: "I didn't want to tell her, because she would have started crying."

The income barely covered his $200 rent for lousy living conditions in an Oakland apartment. Dozens of young men would sleep in one room — some as young as 13 or 14, he remembered — and many of them had become addicts themselves. "Some of these kids have a situation where they can't leave," he says. "They want to leave, but they have nowhere to go. ... If they escape, then go back after they don't find work, they will hit them and even tie them up." Guerrero says he once saw two teens tied up in the garage of the apartment he lived in.

Exactly who "they" are is a mystery. Probation officials say that under the old sanctuary policy, older men would bail the kids out of juvenile hall. The men usually identified themselves as "uncles," although police suspected they were really drug runners just getting the youths back out to sell more crack on the street. Guerrero says some of them would come by his place. One helped him with rent money several times, with the understanding that Guerrero would then be obligated to buy drugs from him to sell.

About The Author

Lauren Smiley

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