Disputed in Iraq, Blackwater Now Splits California Town
POTRERO, Calif. - The scandal in Iraq involving Blackwater, the private security firm, is a world away from this tiny town near the Mexican border. But five members of the community's planning group are expected to lose their posts on Tuesday for approving a Blackwater training camp on an old chicken farm here.
Results of a mail-in-ballot recall election against the members are scheduled to be announced on Tuesday. Three of the group's nine members have already been removed because Blackwater opponents revealed they had been improperly appointed.
Like many Potrero residents, Carl Meyer, 51, a local farmer and environmental activist, never gave much thought to Iraq or private security firms until Blackwater came to town last year. Ever since, he has been opposed to the company's proposal for 800 acres of rifle ranges, dormitories, classrooms and an armory.
"Having them here wouldn't be in keeping with our rural character," said Mr. Meyer, who has helped organize the recall effort. "But it's more than that for me. They're not good for our country."
A federal grand jury is investigating Blackwater for various events in Iraq including the shooting deaths in September of 17 Iraqi civilians by the company's security guards while driving through Baghdad.
An unincorporated community of 850 on the southeastern edge of San Diego County, Potrero is a scrubby nexus of military veterans, border guards, ranchers and recluses who live so close to the nightclubs in Tecate, Mexico, that on quiet nights they can hear Nortec music pulsing over the voices of coyotes.
The controversy about Blackwater has riven the community's social fabric, leading to arguments among longtime neighbors and acquaintances, and at least two anti-Blackwater rallies.
Gordon Hammers, a retired businessman who is chairman of the Potrero Community Planning Group, is among those facing the recall, which both sides expect to be successful. Mr. Hammers steered Blackwater's proposal into the county's standard environmental review process, with the backing of seven of the board's eight other members.
When Blackwater first approached the planning group in September 2006, Mr. Hammers said, he had never heard of the company.
"Once I found out more about them, I thought: 'I need this like I need a hole in my head,'" Mr. Hammers said. "But I also thought they would bring jobs."
Jan Hedlun, the sole member of the planning group to oppose Blackwater and to avoid a recall threat, said she never expected to be taking on such weighty issues when she volunteered.
"I came into this planning group because I wanted to know about a separate proposal to build a few houses near my home," Ms. Hedlun said. "And all of a sudden I'm here tussling with this powerful company. It's just overwhelming."
Diane Jacob, who represents Potrero on the San Diego County Board of Supervisors, which will ultimately decide whether the Blackwater campus will be built, declined to comment about the proposal or the recall drive. The planning group's vote sent the proposal to the supervisors, who will act after reviewing an environmental impact report.
For the better part of the last year, Blackwater has maintained a conspicuous presence in Potrero. Company officials have attended planning group meetings, established a shelter and relief center after wildfires burned down 17 Potrero homes in October - and have attracted some supporters.
Sitting at the 94 Cafe, the town's only diner, Andrew Lindsay, 82, and his wife Inez, 74, counted themselves among those supporters. Mr. Lindsay wore a pin with the firm's bear paw logo on his cap.
"We need a good little bit of industry and employment out here, it'll be good for the economy," said Mr. Lindsay, praising the company's ability to deliver food and propane to residents in the aftermath of wildfires. "Blackwater is very community-minded."
But Mr. Meyer, the farmer, was among the residents who picked up supplies at the fire station after the wildfires. Once he learned that Blackwater had provided the gas tanks, Mr. Meyer said, he tried to return the items or at least pay for them, but a neighbor at the first station who supported Blackwater's relief effort turned him away.
"'Get out of my face, Carl,'" Mr. Meyer recalled the neighbor saying. "'Nobody likes you around here.'"
Company officials said the proposed training camp - in a secluded, mountain-protected site - is part of an unfolding business strategy to diversify beyond the kind of dangerous, controversial operations that have attracted so much unwelcome attention in Iraq.
Each year, according to company figures, more than 25,000 law enforcement officers and military personnel take courses at Blackwater's campus in Moyock, N.C., which is about 30 miles south of Norfolk, Va. Blackwater West, as the facility here would be called, would train law enforcement officials from Western states, said Marty Strong, Blackwater's vice president for communications. The firm recently opened an 80-acre regional training facility in Illinois to serve Midwestern customers.
The proximity of so many military installations in Southern California, borders, ports, and several of the nation's largest local law enforcement agencies make the area an ideal market for Blackwater, Mr. Strong said.
"It seemed like a real logical place to go and build a facility," he said.
Blackwater's new training camps are only one aspect of the company's shifting business strategy.
In August, Blackwater and four other contractors landed what could be its biggest job ever, a series of projects that could total $15 billion for the Counter-Narcoterrorism Technology Program Office at the Pentagon. The contract calls for unspecified technologies, training, logistics, and procurement services to fight narcotics trafficking and terrorism.
"The fact is we use Blackwater to do a lot of our training of counternarcotics police in Afghanistan," said Richard J. Douglas, a deputy assistant secretary of defense. "I have to say that Blackwater has done a very good job."
Blackwater is testing an unmanned aerial vehicle, the Polar 400, a remote-controlled dirigible that can be outfitted with various sensors. Unlike traditional drones, the Polar 400 is designed to remain aloft for several days at a time.
Mr. Strong said that the high-altitude blimp would be ideal for border surveillance operations or drug interdiction. He said the company wanted to win more Homeland Security contracts focused on border security training, and in choosing the location here, just eight miles from the border, Blackwater was banking on an increase in the number of border guards.
© 2007 The New York Times