Seattle police descended on Belltown en masse Saturday, rounding up members of what they described as a tightly organized Honduran drug dealing operation that had apparently taken over the area's crack cocaine market.

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Late last year, Seattle police noticed something unusual about the dealers selling crack cocaine who had taken over Seattle’s Kinnear Park: Most of them were Honduran.

Officers arrested a number of the men at the park near the base of Queen Anne, and “the park was rendered usable and safe for the public,” said West Precinct Capt. Steve Brown.

But in February, officers and detectives learned of a sharp increase in street drug trafficking in nearby Belltown and then noticed the area’s “regular” dealers were no longer around. They had been replaced, it seemed, by a small army of Honduran men.

Undercover buys taught police the men were selling drugs packaged identically and often stored in their mouths so they could quickly swallow the evidence if police showed up.

Saturday, more than 70 officers descended on Belltown, hoping to arrest 52 targeted members of what police described as a tightly organized Honduran drug-dealing operation that had taken over the neighborhood’s crack-cocaine market.

As part of a monthlong investigation, undercover officers bought drugs from suspects while other officers took photographs and identified the suspects, but nobody was arrested. “We lulled them into a false sense of security,” said Sgt. Brian Kraus, patrol supervisor of the night-shift bike squad. “They thought we didn’t know what was going on.”

Police said Saturday’s sweeping bust was necessary as opposed to a traditional buy-and-bust operation in which individual suspects are arrested one at a time, because officers believed the dealers would be alerted and change how they did business.

By 10 p.m., 30 of the 52 suspects had been taken into custody, Kraus said. Police estimate each of the dealers brought in thousands of dollars per day.

The operation began at 10 a.m. and was expected to run through midnight.

The suspects were taken to the West Precinct holding cells.

To keep them from alerting their cohorts, their cellphones were immediately taken, said Lt. Ken Hicks. “We’re keeping them incommunicado.”

Along West Coast

As officers investigated, they learned that well-organized Honduran drug dealers have been plaguing other West Coast cities, including San Francisco, Portland and Vancouver, B.C., since the early-1990s.

The Honduran dealers found success, police say, by deploying a large number of sellers — mostly immigrants lured to the country with the promise of easy money — to swarm a neighborhood known for drug trafficking.

They soon displace the area’s usual dealers and flood the market with high-quality drugs, police said.

The Honduran dealers are provided with a place to live, but their daily activities are closely monitored by their ringleaders. Police say they rarely inform on their bosses because they fear for the safety of their families.

Critics of the nation’s war on drugs and its current methods have said street busts do little to combat the primary problem — a steady or increasing demand for drugs by addicts and recreational users.

At their best, critics say, street busts push dealers out of one neighborhood and into another.

At their worst, massive busts can take down a relatively peaceful drug organization and create a vacuum filled by rival factions competing violently for a piece of what appears to be one of the nation’s few growing industries.

In response, Brown admits that drug problems are “an international issue that’s economically driven.”

But, he said, police have to deal with it locally, dealer by dealer, street by street and neighborhood by neighborhood.

The goal, he said, is usually to “move it, disrupt it or dismantle it. In this case, we want to break it.”

Residents approve

Belltown residents, who have complained about increasingly violent open-air drug markets in front of their homes and have organized “walkarounds” to discourage criminal activity, said they valued the sweep.

“I think it’s a great start,” said Ariel Sanderson, a member of the Belltown Community Council. “My hope is that it sends a message to anyone taking part in illegal activity. The Police Department is on it. It’s time to take it elsewhere and take it out of our city.”

While the operation was ongoing, several people approached various officers with license-plate numbers and descriptions of other people they believed were selling drugs.

“What we’re doing today is significant,” said Brown. “It’s going to make a difference to Belltown.”

“We don’t have the resources to eradicate the problem until the demand is gone,” said Hicks.

“But in the meantime, we’re going to keep doing what we’re doing. I don’t know if we’re nipping it in the bud, but we’re certainly putting a kink in the hose.”

Christine Clarridge: 206-464-8983 or cclarridge@seattletimes.com