Drug money made in the open-air markets of the Tenderloin and South of Market has fueled a "housing boom" in one impoverished area of Honduras. The Chronicle traveled there and conducted an 18-month investigation into this source of one of the dominant groups running SF's drug trade.

An interesting package of pieces arrived Monday in the Chronicle, an investigative series that homes in on the Siria Valley in Honduras, and small towns like El Pedernal, Orica, and El Porvenir that bear clear evidence of a connection to San Francisco and the Bay Area. In photographs and interviews with dozens of current and former drug dealers working in SF who migrated from the Siria Valley, the paper clarifies what city leaders — including Mayor London Breed in some infamous remarks she later apologized for — have meant when they've pointed to Honduras as a source of many migrant dealers.

Firstly, Chronicle reporters Megan Cassidy and Gabrielle Lurie located a man who many identify as the "OG" of drug dealers from the Siria Valley who paved the path, as it were, to dealing in San Francisco. While they only saw the modest village home in El Pedernal that 68-year-old Alejandro Velasquez travels to occasionally, he mentioned that his primary home is in the mountains, in a place called Montaña de la Flor where he now grows coffee beans.

Velasquez came to the U.S. in the 1980s, and he claims he spent time working in construction in Atlanta. But when he lost a job there, he traveled to San Francisco and was approached by a man of Mexican descent in the Mission District who enlisted him as a street dealer of crack cocaine.

Velasquez now expresses regret for being in the drug trade. "I am favoring myself but I am taking a life [when I deal drugs],” he tells the Chronicle. “It’s practically like pulling out a gun and shooting the person a couple of times."

But nevertheless, Velasquez's daughter followed in his footsteps — per the Chronicle, the daughter, Karol Erazo Reanos, was swept up in an August 2019 federal crackdown in the Tenderloin alongside her husband, posted bail in 2020, and promptly disappeared.

And others in El Pedernal and other towns seem to credit Velasquez with showing them the way to quick riches. Reportedly, some dealers can make $350,000 per year — a lifetime's fortune in a place of the world where people live on $8 a day doing farm work. This has led to the large houses sitting behind gates with 49ers and Warriors logos on them, photographed by the Chronicle, and a mural in one town depicting the Bay Bridge. Many seem to point back to SF as the source of their success.

“The difficulties of the jobs there in Honduras made me come here, because I had to work and work,” says Melvin Lopez, a 28-year-old former dealer from Orica, speaking to the Chronicle. "We are a house of nine siblings. If you doubt, come work there for a while. I have a little sister who is 5, another who is 7, 9, 11 and so on. So I had to come here, to the United States, to give them a better life."

Some of the dealers the Chronicle spoke to, including Lopez, said they had sought out legal work in the States but were told they didn't have proper paperwork, like a green card or work permit, and this led them into the drug trade of necessity.

While we know Velasquez had some operation here decades ago, and that his daughter and husband were arrested prior to the pandemic, the Chronicle pieces cite accounts that suggest Honduran dealers came to dominate the Tenderloin and SoMa drug trade during the pandemic.

Also, "Of the 25 [current] dealers interviewed, most said they were not trafficked or were unaware of anyone being forced to sell drugs." And the reporters only found three who said they were coerced into the doing the work by coyotes or the like.

And Fox News is sure to run with this: The Chronicle found that current dealers from Honduras cite SF's status as a sanctuary city as one reason to come here, because lengthy jail time and deportations are rarer. "Many look for San Francisco because it’s a sanctuary city. You go to jail and you come out," one dealer tells the paper.

The piece also notes that only about 6% of people arrested for selling drugs end up getting convicted of that crime. Some plead to lesser charges, or get diverted, or see the charges dropped; others skip town when they're out on bond.

The other main reason we are seeing so many dealers migrating from this part of the world is pretty clear: extreme poverty. That has led to frequent violence by criminal gangs. And as the Chronicle explains, the Siria Valley was also badly impacted by a gold mining operation that moved in two decades ago, leading to downstream contamination of water that sickened people and livestock.

It's several long reads, but you can start here.

Photo: Carlos Zacapa