Potrero-Blackwater battle in national spotlight
By Miriam Raftery
The East County Californian
April 26, 2007
After The East County Californian published a three-part series, and a number of follow up stories, national media attention is now focused on the growing battle between residents of Potrero, Calif., and Blackwater USA over a proposed private military-style training camp. In the past week major newspapers coast-to-coast have covered the controversy, including the Boston Globe and Los Angeles Times.
An interview with community activists and Congressman Bob Filner on Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now
! radio program aired in 500 cities. Michael Moore, maker of the “Fahrenheit 9/11” film and others, has posted links to articles about Blackwater-Potrero on his Web site. Another independent filmmaker, meanwhile, has launched plans to produce a documentary chronicling the looming battle between townspeople and Blackwater, a company described by author Jeremy Scahill as “the world’s largest private mercenary army.”
Blackwater, a private contractor that has drawn Congressional scrutiny for its activities in Iraq, aims to build a private military training camp on a protected agricultural preserve in Potrero on land surrounded by the Cleveland National Forest. The project has sparked opposition from area residents on a variety of fronts including concerns over noise, traffic, environmental impacts, fire safety, and the very nature of Blackwater’s business.
“Clearly this does not fit into the way of life, the rural area of Potrero,” Filner said on Democracy Now
! While noting that land use issues ultimately fall under the jurisdiction of the County Board of Supervisors, Filner said the Blackwater project should be stopped. In addition to issues of community character and environmental impacts, Filner cited concerns over Blackwater’s actions in Iraq and elsewhere.
“Their mercenaries in Iraq are unaccountable to any law there, and they have taken people out who have been accused of murder,” he said. “They have not been upfront with relatives of some of the contractors who were killed. So this is not a company you want in your backyard.”
Former Congressman Lionel Van Deerlin agrees. In a strongly worded editorial in the The San Diego Union-Tribune, he wrote, “… the operation Blackwater intends would be like taking ‘Evangeline's’ forest primeval and turning it over to a Hitler panzer corps. The din of gunfire alone – from eight rifle and three pistol ranges – would reverberate like Coney Island's target concessions on a Sunday afternoon.”
A new website, www.stopblackwater.net, is attracting comments from around the nation. The site was set up by Ray Lutz of Citizens Oversight Panels, a watchdog group that opposes the project.
“Having seen for myself the valley that Blackwater is bent on ruining, I rate it as one of the most exquisite, amazingly pristine valleys left in the backcountry,” Eileen Keyes, a New Mexico resident, wrote in an e-mail. “The place is a sort of hanging valley whose north edge drops off to dramatic vistas all the way across Hauser Canyon. It is ringed on the other three sides with steep mountains,” added Keyes, who described watching bobcats hunting in the valley in the past. She urged citizens to fight Blackwater’s plans.
Last weekend, Potrero residents along with allies in the environmental community, peace groups, and a citizens’ watchdog organization passed out literature and obtained petition signatures opposing the project at Earth Fair, an event that drew more than 60,000 people in San Diego’s Balboa Park.
The San Diego County Democratic Party has weighed in, passing a resolution in April to formally oppose the proposed Blackwater West project in Potrero.
At the California Democratic Convention in San Diego this weekend, Lutz and others hope to persuade the state party’s nearly 2,800 delegates to adopt a more strongly-worded resolution.
That resolution would call upon California lawmakers to “disallow mercenary training camps in the state of California” as well as specifically opposing the Blackwater West project, Lutz said.
“It’s very dangerous putting this kind of training camp into a community,” he said, noting that live fire could pose serious safety and fire dangers in a region where wildfire remains a critical concern. The resolution would also urge that any military, paramilitary or law enforcement training be restricted to government-controlled facilities established for that purpose.
Author Jeremy Scahill, in an interview with Goodman, suggested that Blackwater has had help from Congressman Duncan Hunter, whose district formerly included Potrero before the 2000 redistricting.
In addition, Scahill said that Chris Bertelli, a former Blackwater lobbyist, is now a senior official in Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Department of Homeland Security.
“These are very serious contacts within the administration of Schwarzenegger and this sort of revolving door,” Scahill said. “All of a sudden Blackwater is talking about an expansion into California and talking about responding to earthquakes and other natural disasters in California.”
The Schwarzenegger administration denies having records of Blackwater meeting with the Governor, according to an April 17 Los Angeles Times article. Scahill reportedly learned of a Schwarzenegger-Blackwater meeting from two reporters at the Virginia-Pilot, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for its Blackwater reporting.
Scahill also raised concern over Blackwater founder Erik Prince’s close ties to Chuck Colson, a former Nixon aide and Watergate figure. Prince has funded Colson’s programs to run faith-based prisons, Scahill said in the Democracy Now
In Potrero, rumors abound — and controversy continues to grow.
Potrero Planning Group member Emil Susu is not a registered voter and is therefore not eligible to hold the elected office, The East County Californian has learned. The County has declared his seat vacant.
Susu was voting absentee in Florida, where he has been registered, according to Potrero Planning Group chair Gordon Hammers.
“My understanding is that he plans to reregister in Potrero,” said Hammers, adding that he intends to reappoint Susu at the May meeting provided his registration is in order. Susu voted in favor of the Blackwater project, which was approved by the Potrero Planning Group 7-0 in December.
Jan Hedlun, the lone planner opposed to the project, does not believe Susu should be reappointed.
A rumor in town contends that Susu has told some area residents that the property owner is petitioning the government to have a federal petition put on the property. Susu could not be reached by phone for comment as his number is unlisted. However an e-mail sent by Susu to fellow planners stated “Like I was told yesterday…No one else is going to buy it as a ranch. It will make a great place for a developer to put 300 homes there” or “for the government to put a prison, and or a nuclear waist [sic] site.”
The property owner has refused requests for media interviews. “People are harassing him,” broker Carol Snyder at Team One Realty told The East County Californian.
Asked if the owner has contacted government officials about building a prison on the property, Snyder called the suggestion “ludicrous.” She also stated that the owner is prohibited by contract from withdrawing from the deal and could not accept a higher offer from any other potential buyer, such as a real estate developer or the Nature Conservancy, which has reportedly contemplated seeking to buy the property as a nature preserve.
Snyder confirmed that it was the property owner who canceled a live fire noise test over liability concerns, but has no firm information on when or if that test will be rescheduled. She disclosed that the State of California conducted a noise test at the property in the early ‘90s, when an off-road vehicle park was proposed and later rejected.
Snyder believes noise and traffic concerns are overblown. “When it was operating as a chicken ranch they had more traffic on the road – propane trucks and Border Patrol,” she said. Finding a buyer other than Blackwater could prove difficult, she added. “It would cost a fortune to remove those chicken coops—there are 28 of them.”
The property is in escrow, Snyder said, adding that she anticipates the property will close in about a year, provided the County approves Blackwater’s plans. “It they don’t get approval, it won’t close.”
That statement conflicts with an e-mail sent by Blackwater Vice President Brian Bonfiglio on April 16 to planning group members in response to a residents’ petition opposing the project. His e-mail said opponents have “purposefully distorted” facts.
“That being said, BW ‘is not’ waiting for project approval before closing on the property,” Bonfiglio’s e-mail said. “Once this land purchase is finalized it would be our intent to provide a much needed law enforcement training center. If for some reason this did not happen, it would be up to BW’s management and owner to decide what is the next best option. I can assure you that there has never been any discussion over any type of ranch operation.”
Media focus on the Blackwater Potrero project will no doubt increase in the near future. This weekend’s Democratic convention, which will feature the major Democratic presidential candidates, also brings 300 members of the media to town.
In addition, Jeremy Scahill, author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Largest Private Mercenary Army will be in town in early May. On Tuesday May 1st, Scahill will speak at 7pm at the Unitarian Church at 4190 Front St. in San Diego. On Wednesday May 2, Scahill will appear at the La Mesa Community Center, 4975 Memorial Drive, at 7 p.m. The public is invited to attend.
“With so much media attention and so much going on, I believe we have a chance,” said Jan Hedlun.
-- Miriam Raftery
- 08 May 2007