Monday, May 5, 2008
A New Blackwater Controversy on the U.S.-Mexico Border
A proposed project run by the private military contractor Blackwater Worldwide is once again kicking up political hay on the US-Mexico border. Earlier rebuffed in its attempt to open a large training camp in the rural San Diego County community of Potrero, Blackwater now finds itself in a battle over the company's bid to open a training facility for the US Navy. Like Potrero, the latest controversy has pried open a Pandora's Box of thorny issues ranging from border relations to the Iraq war. The current dispute centers on Blackwater's plans to manage a 48-student school in San Diego County's Otay Mesa on the US-Mexico border and just down the road from US Border Patrol offices. According to Blackwater's plans, the site will offer indoor shooting instruction and simulated ship training to improve the anti-terrorist skills of naval personnel.
US Congressman Bob Filner (D-CA), a leading Blackwater critic, said in a radio interview late last week that the presence of a "private mercenary army" on the border, where it is hard to tell who is a citizen and who is not, was a "recipe for disaster." Rep. Filner and other Blackwater opponents often cite the company's record in Iraq as grounds for opposing the North Carolina-based firm's further expansion into the public sphere. Blackwater has been mired in controversies arising from the 2004 killing of four company personnel in Fallujah, Iraq, and from the shootings of 17 Iraqi civilians by Blackwater employees last year. "They shoot first and ask later," Rep. Filner charged.
On April 25, Rep. Filner and San Diego City Councilman Ben Hueso joined about 30 community activists for a rally against an Otay Mesa Blackwater school.
Brian Bonfiglio, Blackwater vice-president, dismissed the opposition as ideologically-driven. Bonfiglio said that Blackwater has been conducting military training for five years at other locations in San Diego County, including the privately-owned American Shooting Center. The Otay Mesa school would not train private security contractors, he said.
The San Diego Development Services Department issued a permit March 19 for the Otay Mesa site without a public hearing. Kelly Broughton, department director, said Blackwater's permit complied with an earlier designation of the Otay Mesa building as a vocational school. Broughton said the training of "future police or security" guards would be a proper activity meeting a vocational trade definition.
But Rep. Filner and members of the San Diego City Council contend that Blackwater could have used deceptive practices to obtain the permit, which was obtained by Raven Development Group, a Blackwater affiliate. The design plans for the school were submitted under the name of Southwest Law Enforcement, another Blackwater affiliate. According to the California congressman, he is working with the city council and county attorney to investigate the permit and determine if there are reasons to revoke it. He urged community activists to "take a look" to see how many places along the border Blackwater was operating under different names.
In earlier comments to the local press, Blackwater's Bonfiglio insisted that the company had nothing to hide and that the legality of the permit was above-board. Bonfiglio added that the Otay Mesa row could have repercussions for others. "If they go after our range, they are getting ready to take on every other firearms business in the county," he said.
Last March Blackwater withdrew its application for an 824-acre training camp in Potrero after gunfire tests showed potential noise from the facility would exceed county standards. The proposed Potrero camp generated stiff citizen opposition, resulting in the voter recall of all five members of the planning board who approved the project. Initially surfacing in Potrero, anti-Blackwater sentiments are now focused on Otay Mesa.
"We need more training for peace," said Jeanette Hartman, chairwoman of a local Sierra Club committee. "I'll be happy when they open a peace center."
Sources: Pacifica Radio/Democracy Now, May 2, 2008. San Diego Union-Tribune, April 23, 26 and 29, 2008. Articles by Anne Krueger and Tanya Mannes. NBC-San Diego, April 22, 2008. Stopblackwater.net
Frontera NorteSur (FNS)
Center for Latin American and Border Studies
New Mexico State University
Las Cruces, New Mexico
(Reprinted with authorization from Frontera NorteSur, a free, on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news source. FNS can be found at http://frontera.nmsu.edu/