‘Operation Rio Grande’ pushing drug dealers out of state, officials say

SALT LAKE CITY -- "Operation Rio Grande," which has cracked down on crime surrounding the downtown homeless shelters and resulted in hundreds of arrests, is pushing drug dealers out of the neighborhood and out of Utah, officials tell FOX 13.

At the state's annual summit on homelessness on Wednesday, Utah Lt. Governor Spencer Cox and Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown said they had intel that revealed many high-level drug dealers had packed up and left town. They've been spotted in other states where they are setting up business.

"I've heard reports that some of those that were down there for those type of nefarious activities have moved to other states," Brown told FOX 13. "Which doesn't make me feel bad."

Cox said some of those who have been spotted in other states have links to drug cartels. He said many of those who would spend time in the neighborhood for criminal activity have also moved on.

"We have other people that came here because they heard there was free housing and drugs were cheap and it was a great place to come and party," Cox said. "And it’s not a great place to come and party."

The crackdown that began in August calls for police to maintain a heavy presence around the downtown homeless shelters until at least 2019. Hundreds have been jailed, mostly for minor crimes and warrants.

Operation Rio Grande has faced criticism and accusations that it is "criminalizing the homeless." However, officials behind Operation Rio Grande insist it is paying off.

"When you drive down there, it is completely different," Brown said.

Homeless advocate Pamela Atkinson said there are still drug deals that go down in the neighborhood, but not nearly to the level of what was seen leading up to the operation.

"I broke one up just last week when I was on a walkabout down there," she said. "Someone said, 'Here comes Pamela' and somebody took off and it was a drug dealer. I recognized him. There are very few drug deals going on down there. Not nearly as many as there were before August 14th."

Atkinson said the number of people who stay at The Road Home and use St. Vincent de Paul Center for food have remained steady.

Operation Rio Grande is now attempting to focus on substance abuse and mental health treatment options. But funding continues to plague it. Lawmakers and the governor have been negotiating with the Trump administration for a 70/30 Medicaid waiver (the feds pay 70% of the costs and the state pays 30%). Cox was optimistic they would get it by the end of the month.

Asked if Utah doesn't get it, Cox replied: "We’ll cross the bridge when we get there. We’re going to get it. We will get it."