Randel Parks pushed his hands into the pockets of his jeans and rocked back on the heels of his cowboy boots. "I've been here 30 years," he said, staring at the ground, "and I've spent most of my adult life working on this property, turning it into my piece of paradise. I'll be damned if I'm going to let them spoil it."
A mile away, around a bend in the mountain road that runs past Parks's property, his new neighbours spread a map out on the ground to discuss plans for the 325-hectare (800-acre) site they are in the process of buying. "There will be eight 100-yd carbine ranges here, and three 50-yd pistol ranges here. And we'll have a 10,000-sq ft armoury and a bunkhouse for 360 students over here."
Welcome to Blackwater West, the latest expansion from the company that dominates private security operations in Iraq. Last month Blackwater's chief executive, Erik Prince, appeared before Congress to defend the company's role in the alleged shootings of unarmed civilians. This week, reports alleged that it had turned a blind eye to the use of steroids among its employees.
Now the company is looking to expand domestically. So it has come to the border hamlet of Potrero, population 850. Eight miles from Mexico and 40 miles inland from San Diego, Potrero has found itself at the centre of a controversy.
But it is a dispute that goes beyond the rights and wrongs of a large company intent on developing farmland. Opponents fear that it will be the first step towards Blackwater moving in on the potentially lucrative and politically sensitive job of patrolling the US-Mexico border. While Congress has authorised increased recruitment for the Border Patrol, the federal agency that polices the border, many have asked how it is going to be paid for and who is going to do the training. Enter Blackwater West.
"We're here by happenstance," said Brian Bonfiglio, Blackwater West's vice-president. Bonfiglio, who was previously in charge of security for Paul Bremer, the former head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, was dispatched a year ago from the company's base in North Carolina to oversee the expansion west. "We're a training company. This site was not chosen because of its proximity to the border. The Border Patrol has not approached us and we're not chasing Border Patrol contracts. If the government said here's a contract we want you to bid on, I can't say what the company would do."
Bonfiglio may not be able to say, but the company's president did. In his book Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army, journalist Jeremy Scahill recounts company president Gary Jackson's May 2005 appearance before the House homeland security committee. "Just as the private sector has responded in moving mail and packages around the world more efficiently," Jackson told the committee, "so too can Blackwater respond to the customs' and Border Patrol's emerging and compelling training needs."
The first salvo against Blackwater's plans comes on December 11, when a recall election - called as a result of a petition by residents - will be held to replace the majority of the Potrero planning group. The group has been criticised for unanimously approving Blackwater's application to build a training facility on a dilapidated chicken farm. Set in 824 acres, the valley that would be Blackwater West is surrounded by low brush and hills. The land includes part of the Cleveland national forest, although Blackwater says it will not use any of the forest land on its property.
Approval was given last December before all but a handful of residents were aware of the plans. Once details emerged, some locals decided to act. "A lot of my neighbours were of the opinion that you couldn't do anything about it," said Parks. "But as time went by I found out that we had some supporters. Now there are more people who aren't afraid to come out and speak."
Rather than being upset about the controversy surrounding Blackwater, most opponents are more concerned about the potential loss of their rural way of life. "When we first moved here in 1977 we didn't have any neighbours," said Cathey Ramsey. Sitting in the town's only shop, the 94 Cafe and general store, she listed her objections: "My concerns are water, wildlife, traffic, noise, all the firing ranges."
Her son, William Crawley, who is standing for election to the planning group, said: "I want to make a change. The group has been neglectful of its duties."
Outside the landscape is charred, the result of the fires that raged across southern California in October. At Barrett lake, alongside tents set up for the 17 Potrero households who lost their homes in fires, stand three Blackwater trailers. "They were the first ones here," said Brenda Wise. "Blackwater called up and gave us everything we needed. If their centre had been in place when the fire started maybe we wouldn't have had fires at all." Wise, who is standing as a pro-Blackwater candidate in the planning group election, said: "I'm sorely offended by groups hiring protesters and trying to take over the community for their own political gain."
The protesters she referred to are the 200 or more people who attended a rally against the development held on Parks's land. Those behind the rally deny that anybody was paid to attend.
A smaller, counter rally was held on a neighbouring property belonging to Shirley Reider and her husband. "To me it's a matter of patriotism," said Reider. "Blackwater has done a lot for our country. Every organisation, even the marines, gets a bad apple now and then, but you deal with that. We should be thankful that we have patriotic Americans who'll defend us."
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Jan Hedlun, who was elected to the planning group this year and is the only current member to oppose Blackwater's arrival in Potrero, has other concerns. "I didn't move out here to live next to a shooting range and driving track," she said. "I came out for peace and quiet and for my health. This facility doesn't belong in our rural community."
She added: "There's a cronyistic dynasty among the current power structure and then there's everyone else. All of a sudden this has dropped in our lap, and the power structure isn't listening to what the people want."
Should the planning group be replaced with officials more sympathetic to the opponents of Blackwater, it is not certain that the development would be stopped. The planning group offers advice to the county planning department. The project could still go ahead.
"I like this place so much," said Parks, standing in his garden, which is decorated with animal skulls and cart wheels. "I don't think I'd ever pack up and move on."
Founded 1997 by former navy Seals Erik Prince and Al Clark
Mission: "To support security and peace, and freedom and democracy everywhere"
First government contract in February 2000
Trains more than 40,000 people a year at its base in North Carolina
$1bn five-year contract to protect US officials in conflict zones and US embassy in Baghdad
Four staff were lynched in Falluja in 2004
Involved in 195 shooting incidents between 2005 and September 2007, when licence to operate in Iraq was revoked by Iraq government following shooting of 17 Iraqis
In October Prince testified before congressional committee investigating Blackwater.
Company is being investigated by FBI.
© Guardian News and Media Limited 2007