Lawrence, Mass.: City of the Damned
Crime is soaring, schools are failing, government has lost control, and Lawrence, the most godforsaken place in Massachusetts, has never been in worse shape. And here’s the really bad news: it’s up to controversial Mayor William Lantigua to turn it all around.
NEW HOPE AROSE in January 2010 with the inauguration of William Lantigua, the first Dominican-born mayor in Massachusetts’ history. Many in Lawrence believed they had found their champion.
On the night of the election, which Lantigua won with 54 percent of the vote, Luis Medina, a campaign volunteer who was born in the Dominican Republic and grew up in Lawrence, was among the throng of Lantigua supporters at his headquarters on Essex Street. When word spread that Lantigua had won, “it was a joyful moment,” says Medina, 44, a union electrician who works in Boston. “Some were crying. The rest were jumping up and down.”
But the honeymoon was short. Lantigua immediately generated controversy by trying to keep his job as a state representative while serving as mayor. He also feuded with the fire and police departments, the disagreements becoming acrimonious and personal and culminating in a claim that police officers had actually tried to run him down in an unmarked car. Two years into his first term as mayor, Lantigua has been the subject of four voter recall attempts, and is the target of a federal probe into campaign-finance improprieties.
ON A BITTERLY COLD DAY, we’re in an SUV on our way to buy heroin. The driver is a burly fellow in an old ski vest who doesn’t say much. In the back seat is a fortysomething middleweight with a pugilist’s flattened nose.
The two men resemble the small-time dope dealers they purport to be, but in reality they’re members of a drug task force operating in Lawrence and surrounding communities. (Their identities are not being revealed because of the risk to their effectiveness and safety.) Street dealing and its attendant violence are worse than ever in Lawrence, but the task-force agents stay focused on the big picture — the major players in the area, and the out-of-town heavies bringing the stuff in.
The undercover cops are on their way to make a “controlled buy” from a house that’s been identified as a major source of heroin. Crossing the bridge, we turn left and run alongside a park near South Union Street, empty but for a man walking his dog. A squat man in his forties appears — the informant who will make the buy.
The informant climbs into the SUV and one of the task-force agents searches him, joking when his hand rests on the man’s phone.
“Is that a gun?”
“Yeah, but I got a permit,” says the informant. Everyone laughs.
“Let’s buy small,” an agent says. “I want to have it tested, see where it’s coming from. See who’s shipping.”
Minutes later, the informant gets out of the SUV and walks to the house. A tall man in a hoodie greets him in the driveway and leads him inside.
Five minutes crawl by. The longer it goes, the better the chance something bad is happening. Suddenly the door to the house swings open, and the informant jumps down from the porch and walks away, head down, hands in his pocket. Back in the car, he’s holding a baggie with a gram of heroin. It’s the size of a pencil eraser.
“That’s a nice piece, bro,” says the agent in the back seat. “He cut that off a finger?” The informant shakes his head. “He don’t fuck around with fingers. Just fuckin’ bricks.”
Over the next half hour, the task-force agents point out a dozen more such targets, houses across the city where high-volume drug dealing is being done.
“We could do this all day, every day” in Lawrence, says the driver. “A house a day.”