“Shame on the president,” said Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera.
“Shame on the president,” said Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera. “He's trafficking in pain and divisiveness." Elise Amendola/AP

Known as the “immigrant city,” Lawrence, Massachusetts, has been at the forefront of sanctuary city battles.

Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera was in a budget meeting last Monday when he received a text that President Donald Trump was calling to execute drug dealers and pointing at his city as a haven for cartels.

“If we don’t get tough on the drug dealers then we’re wasting our time, just remember that, we’re wasting our time, and that toughness includes the death penalty,” said Trump, announcing an opioid plan that centers on doling out tougher criminal drug punishments.

The President continued: “According to a recent Dartmouth study, the sanctuary city of Lawrence, Massachusetts, is one the primary sources of fentanyl in six New Hampshire counties.” In the same breath, he denounced Boston as another “sanctuary city,” and called out the transnational street gang, Mara Salvatrucha or MS-13. “These are not good people, folks. Bad, bad people,” Trump said of the gang. Ending “sanctuary cities,” he said, is “crucial” to ending the drug crisis.

In an emotional press conference after Trump’s speech, Rivera shot back. “Shame on the president,” he said, and challenged Trump to actually visit Lawrence. "He's trafficking in pain and divisiveness, creating boogiemen where we need solutions."

This isn’t the first time Rivera has responded to Trump directly, and it’s certainly not the first time Lawrence has been singled out by other politicians. This time last year, when the Trump administration was first threatening to cut funding from Lawrence and other jurisdictions it deemed sanctuary cities, Rivera was at the forefront of fighting back.

“As if we don’t have enough issues to deal with every day,” Rivera later told CityLab. “The president of the United States want to make hay and, you know, use this city as a punching bag.”

Using Lawrence “as a punching bag” is also something of a regional pastime, despite its small population of just over 80,000.

Known as the “immigrant city,” Lawrence was one of the first cities in the nation to be designed specifically as a factory town in the 1840s. Today, it is majority Latino with a large Dominican population, wedged between two rivers, and cut off from the wealthier surrounding New England cities by design.

New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu, who attended Trump’s speech in Manchester, New Hampshire, has previously said state law enforcement should cross state lines to take on “undocumented drug dealers” in Lawrence. Maine Governor Paul LePage, known for his Trumpian remarks, has commented that the epidemic in his state is propagated by “not white people.”

“They’re all the same type of politician,” said Rivera of Trump and the two New England governors. “Divide, throw rocks, gin up the base.”

Rivera told CityLab he believes Trump is targeting Lawrence “for the hype,” as part of a new campaign rather than an actual initiative.

So what role does Lawrence actually play in the opioid epidemic?

In addition to Lawrence, the 2017 Dartmouth study cited a number of other cities and regions in Massachusetts, New York, and Connecticut as opioid sources. In New Hampshire, it pointed to a lack of treatment facilities as a driver of the drug problem.

The researchers identified Lawrence as a source of opioids in New Hampshire based in part on the accounts of 20 opioid consumers, none of whom are Latin American or Hispanic. These respondents made comments like: “Spanish neighborhoods tend to be more loaded,” and, “it usually comes from ethnic cultures and there’s a lot of ethnic cultures there [Lawrence].”

Responding to Trump’s comments on the study, Rivera said: “I’m not going to fall into the trap that they’re trying to set which is they’re going to blame brown people for selling it, because they want me to blame white people for using it. It’s just stupid. I’m going to advocate at every opportunity for those people to get treatment.”

Still, Rivera is the first to agree that Lawrence is in fact a “drug market.” Lawrence is one of eleven urban centers in Massachusetts dubbed “gateway cities”: industrial towns that once anchored regional economies and offered a “gateway” to the American dream, but have seen an extreme decline in manufacturing jobs over the last several decades.

When many of the factory jobs left Lawrence, a range of illicit drugs came in and stayed, like an infection the city never could get rid of. The Mexican Sinaloa cartel is known to connect with dealers with ties to Lawrence and other gateway cities to sell heroin and fentanyl.

The opioid epidemic was evident in Lawrence before it took over the rest of the region, as depicted in a controversial 2012 Boston magazine profile. Back then, the reaction was that opioids were a shocking anomaly, evidence of a singular damned city, rather than a harbinger of things to come.

The problem of opioids in Lawrence runs so deep that, at least for a while, ripping heroin dealers off became its own cottage industry. Last December, a man was sentenced to life for running a Lawrence kidnapping ring that targeted, tortured, and extorted drug dealers, in a criminal operation that included GPS monitor and fake police uniforms.

But in Lawrence, the drug dealing itself has been described as “grassroots” by the city’s police chief, run without an organized criminal hierarchy, and is separate from MS-13.

Lawrence is not immune from the violent transnational gang, born in Los Angeles and with strong ties to El Salvador. Earlier this year, Josue Alexis DePaz, 21, “a Salvadoran national who once resided in Lawrence,” according to court documents, pled guilty to the 2015 murder of 15-year-old Jose Alexander Aguilar-Villanova. Aguilar-Villanova was found stabbed to death in a Lawrence city park while staying in the city with friends. The case was the only Lawrence connection in the 61-person indictment, the largest MS-13 takedown in history.

To conflate Lawrence with MS-13, as Trump did, is “disingenuousness” says Rivera. Or as Rivera described it, the President threw “a bunch of scary words together [to] create a boogeyman.”

“People don’t come here because it’s a nice place to buy drugs. People come here because they have a habit that’s making them come,” he said. The result has been a large homeless population that the city has been left to contend with.

“The user community that comes to buy here comes from outside,” said Rivera, adding that the cost to execute someone, topping $1m by some accounts, would be better served in addiction treatment.

Rivera says his city is “doing all we can on the supply side,” including investing in his local police department and hiring a “homeless coordinator” to address the large population that has flocked to Lawrence for cheap opioids.

But as a municipality, he says he is only able to go so far to help those struggling with addiction. “That’s really for the federal government to deal with,” he said. “We don’t run detox centers, we don’t run treatment centers. The state and the federal government are really equipped to do those things.”

“Whatever we do,” he said. “it’s going to be a far cry from the full might and power of the federal government.”

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