Squad that targets the worst criminals in Operation Rio Grande says it still ‘gets very, very intense every single day’

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Law enforcement officers from several agencies increase their presence in the Rio Grand homeless area in Salt Lake City Monday August 14, 2017.

A 10-member squad that targets the most violent and dangerous criminals in areas frequented by the homeless in downtown Salt Lake City has been plenty busy the past year and a half — and still is, as it follows crime as it disperses into other neighborhoods.

The Utah Bureau of Investigation’s special Operation Rio Grande narcotics squad released data Monday for its work since the project began in August 2017 through the end of 2018. The result?

• 484 arrests, including 387 arrests of drug dealers.

• 99 fugitives were arrested. Another 305 felony and other warrants were executed.

• Amounts of drugs seized include 22.7 pounds of methamphetamine, 4.6 pounds of heroin, 5 pounds of cocaine, 6.5 pounds of marijuana and 2.6 pounds of spice.

• 33 firearms were seized.

• 27 stolen vehicles were recovered.

• $129,685 in currency was seized.

• 43 search warrants were executed at hotels or residences.

“The first day that I worked on Operation Rio Grande, it was clear that it wasn’t safe — not only for the public, but for law enforcement,” said Utah Bureau of Investigation Capt. Jared Garcia, a member of the special narcotics squad.

“If you go down there today I think you’ll see and feel a much different environment — an environment where anybody would feel comfortable walking through.”

While part of the overall operation seeks to divert those homeless people with minor offenses out of the criminal justice system and into treatment programs, the Bureau of Investigation’s squad seeks to imprison those who are truly violent criminals or drug dealers.

“We’re focused on ensuring that they do get prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law because these are the individuals that victimize people. They prey on the homeless. They prey on our communities. They take advantage of all of you and all of us,” Garcia said.

While crime in the Rio Grande area has vastly decreased, Garcia said work by his squad still “gets very, very intense every single day.”

Some individuals the squad targets “are trafficking people,” and “trafficking narcotics, committing assaults, targeting law enforcement,” Garcia said.

“If they are involved in any serious criminal activity, our agents are going to identify them very quickly,” he said. “We’re going to take a very proactive approach to get them off the street.”

He said many criminals have dispersed out of the Rio Grande area, but said law enforcement officers always expected that — and are following them.

“We knew that there would be dispersion of the criminal element,” Garcia said. He said the narcotics squad members know who “these criminal actors are and they know where they are going” and work with other agencies to arrest them.

He says they are dispersing because agents working in Rio Grande “are making it very difficult for them to commit crime.”

Team members “have done an outstanding job in their effort focusing on the most violent, most dangerous criminals that are tied to the Rio Grande district,” Garcia said.

“They are some of the hardest working individuals I’ve ever met, and that’s because they absolutely believe in what they’re doing,” he said.

Area “businesses are very grateful for our efforts. They know our work is not done and that we have to continually adapt and look for new ways to make an impact,” he said.

A recent legislative audit of programs for the homeless said data collected for them was of little use in determining whether they work to get homeless people off the street and into treatment programs, housing and employment. The audit did not address the law enforcement aspect of project Rio Grande.