first published in 48 hills, July 18, 2017


Jose Ines Garcia Zarate (also known as Juan Francisco Lopez Sanchez).

A ‘dangerous felon’ who was never convicted of a violent crime

The ‘seven felony convictions’ of Jose Ines Garcia Zarate are all minor — but that’s not what you read in the news media

by Matt Gonzalez

Two years ago Jose Ines Garcia Zarate was arrested for the death of Kate Steinle on San Francisco’s popular waterfront. The case gained national attention as then-candidate Donald Trump exploited Garcia Zarate’s immigration status to propose sweeping immigration reforms. Although the shooting appeared to be an accident — the fatal bullet ricocheted off the ground — conservative commentators repeatedly used Garcia Zarate’s seven prior felony convictions to argue he was a serious criminal.

But a review of Garcia Zarate’s criminal record shows his convictions are for relatively minor offenses, none of which involve a crime of violence, weapons offense, or even theft charge.

First, all of Garcia Zarate’s narcotics convictions are over 20 years old. They occurred in Washington State: three “possession” and one “possession with the intent to sell” offense.

The most serious of these, the 1993 possession for sale offense, was a weak case. Police allegedly observed Garcia Zarate in a transaction, but when arrested, he had no money in his possession.  Police discovered a piece of plastic in his jacket containing material that later field-tested positive for cocaine. Garcia Zarate pled guilty to a probationary sentence not knowing the conviction would ultimately cause him to spend 18 years in federal prison.

The conviction had magnified consequences since federal immigration laws categorize any drug sale (or possession for sale) as an aggravated felony making any illegal reentry to the U.S., much more serious. He was now labelled a “drug trafficker” under the law, even though the case was minor, thus equating him with those who’ve been deported after serving sentences for murder, rape, and kidnapping. (8 U.S. Code §1326).

As a result, whenever he entered the U.S. — Garcia Zarate faced 20 years in prison just for crossing the border. Not surprisingly, each time he appeared in court, he plea-bargained his cases, for 5, 6, then 7 years when given the chance. Yet, none of these illegal reentry sentences would have been impossed if he didn’t have the “drug trafficking” conviction twenty-five years ago; otherwise he would have been facing one or two years in jail each time he entered the country.

Similarly, whatever you may think of drug offenses, Garcia Zarate’s aren’t serious. States like California and Oregon are decriminalizing drug possession, making them misdemeanors. Minor sales cases don’t disqualify you for drug treatment either. But in the early 90s, the drug war was in full swing. Garcia Zarate is one of its casualties.

A research team at Syracuse University found that immigration prosecutions like Garcia Zarate’s make up more than half of all criminal cases brought by the federal government. The cases are the “low-hanging fruit” of the federal judicial system since the accused rarely contest them – they usually take two court appearances to resolve. By comparison, prosecutors refuse to prosecute nearly half of the white-collar cases referred to them, while they charge 97% of the immigration cases.

As it stands, immigrants comprise the largest growing percentage of inmates in our federal prisons. A recent U.S. Government Accountability Office report found that “almost seven in every 10 foreign prisoners in U.S. jails are Mexicans” and that “[m]ost of the prisoners were convicted for immigration offenses (65%).” Federal Bureau of Prisons statistics (Aug 2015) show that nearly 16% of all federal prisoners are Mexican nationals with the number rising to over 20% when Central and South Americans are included.  In total, foreigners make up more than 25% of the U.S. prison population.

Taken together, Garcia Zarate has spent 18 years in federal prison, plus a year in jail for the convictions from the early 90s.  This exceeds the time he ever lived in Mexico as an adult.  That’s two decades of imprisonment for non-violent offenses.

Jose Ines Garcia Zarate is being portrayed on the national stage as a dangerous felon without ever having been convicted of violence.



On May 23, 2015, photographer Jay Martin took these striking images of Jose Ines Garcia Zarate (also known as Juan Francisco Lopez Sanchez) on San Francisco’s Pier 14.  You can read about Mr. Martin’s photographs in a San Francisco Chronicle article by Kevin Fagan here.







  1. Mary Marzano

    He obviously was dangerous having killed someone while breaking our laws on immigration. Do you think if he wasnt a repeat offender that young woman would still be alive? If he has been so harshly treated perhaps he should have stopped breaking in to this country.
    He told different stories about the gun, by that alone it leads me to believe he knew what he was doing.
    You seem to write here that this fellow has been wrongfully treated. I believe instead the woman shot dead by his illegal hands was treated worse. I cannot imagine the pain her father went through while she bled to death in his arms. And the pain of these ridiculous statements made here by you.

    • fmsbw

      I think you have to give more consideration to the fact that a jury that heard the evidence believed it was an accident. If Garcia Zarate hadn’t picked up that bundle, which turned out to be a firearm, someone else likely would have. So my question for you: would you be as upset if a high school kid or employee with the Dept. of Public Works picked that bundle up? If the accidental shooter was a citizen would it be any less of a tragedy?
      Btw, there are many examples of non-citizens interrupting crimes and saving the lives of American citizens in the United States. Look them up.

  2. Mary Marzano

    Yes, i would be wanting justice no matter WHO pulled the trigger.

    Even IF you have “reasonable doubt” as to 1st degree murder, involuntary manslaughter, etc, the bottom line is this man broke the law entering the US illegally multiple times. Then lets see these felony drug charges are NOT some poor teeny bop smoking a joint, the charges were for heroin, use of and intent to sell.

    So multiple illegal activities even prior to this tragedy that SHOULD have been prevented by stopping this illegal from re-entering the US. Oh and let us not forget the amount of taxpayers dollars spent housing, feeding, and trying this guy– it is frankly unbelievable to me that anyone could feel badly for this guy. If SF had alerted ICE (as they were asked to do) this low life (yes I believe that is what he is) would not have been HERE to *pick up a stolen gun* (which to me, he probably stole himself) to begin with.

    As far as looking up these good samaritan illegals, I find many more that are criminals here and the bottom line is they are here illegally. That is, they broke the law period. I do not believe in open borders and we do not and should not forget that illegals screw it up for the thousands of immigrants that are trying to become LEGAL. There is no evidence this man ever TRIED to legally ENTER, and his behaviors, addictions, and lack of morals speak volumes as to his desirability to enter here at ALL. Running away instead of offering aid or speaking at once about his “accidental shooting” and throwing the gun away…to me that shows his utter lack of human decency. Plus, his story changed so many times it is clear to me he is a cowardly liar. A DESIRABLE immigrant, trying to become a citizen, in similar circumstances, would demonstrate remorse. Any decent person would. This fellow has no such attitude…just wants to be released to return to his life. His victim can’t as his actions ended her life so prematurely it’s heartbreaking.

    Defend him all you want, I think he should face consequences and pay the price of his illegal actions.

    • fmsbw

      This country, all countries in fact, have always had foreigners (with and without permission) living among the populace. Only focusing on the fact that Garcia Zarate was the last link in a chain of circumstances resulting in death ignores the larger truth about the ubiquitous nature of guns in our society. It is estimated that there are 400 million guns in our country. That’s more than the number of persons living in the United States. There are 40 or 50 accidental shootings every day. Someone dies every day from an accidental shooting, actually the number is 3 deaths every two days. What happened to Kate Steinle is all too common.
      Why focus on the last link in a chain of unfortunate events? Why not start at an earlier event? Read this: “Federal agent’s loaded gun, left unsecured in a car, killed Kate Steinle”
      Also, in Garcia Zarate’s case, the authorities released him from custody rather than deport him. He wanted to be deported. But they let him go on the streets of San Francisco, without any food or money, or even a jacket to protect him from the cold. Sorry, but you only want to focus on Garcia Zarate and make him a scapegoat for all of our ills. It’s not convincing.

  3. In most jurisdictions, to qualify as an underlying offense for a felony murder charge, the underlying offense must present a foreseeable danger to life, and the link between the offense and the death must not be too remote. For example, if the recipient of a forged check has a fatal allergic reaction to the ink, most courts will not hold the forger guilty of murder, as the cause of death is too remote from the criminal act.

  4. Sarah h

    You are a sick person if you think “too many guns” killed that woman. Open your dumbass eyes. A man who shouldn’t have been here, with no regards to our law, i.e. a CRIMINAL murdered her… and you take his side?!? How do you sleep at night?

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