Blackwater in hot water as citizens rally in Potrero
Alpine Sun (2007-10-18) Miriam Raftery, Leon Thompson
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By Miriam Raftery
and Leon Thompson
The Alpine Sun
POTRERO — “Mercenaries are dangerous to American democracy,” Congressman Bob Filner (D-San Diego) said at a rally held in Potrero on Sunday, Oct. 7. “There will not be a Blackwater camp in Potrero,” he pledged, eliciting applause and cheers from the crowd.
Filner announced plans to introduce a bill that would limit paramilitary training to U.S. military bases. If approved by congress, the measure would prevent the Blackwater USA security firm from establishing its proposed training camp on land adjacent to Cleveland National Forest and the Hauser national wilderness areas in the small community of Potrero.
Other members of congress have also introduced bills to make Blackwater accountable in U.S. courts and even ban the U.S. government from outsourcing military jobs to private contractors altogether.
Above, Campo resident Kerstin Lanham poses with California 51st district Congressman Bob Filner at the Stop Blackwater
rally held Oct. 6 and 7 in Potrero. Below, hundreds of protesters marched on Sunday to the gates of the proposed Potrero facility.
Several hundred people attended the weekend’s events in Potrero, which attracted national media attention. The two-day encampment and protest was capped by Sunday’s rally and a march to the gates of Round Potrero Valley, where Blackwater West seeks to build a private military training camp.
The vast majority of participants were opposed to Blackwater’s plans, including Potrero residents, as well as environmentalists, peace activists and other like-minded citizens from throughout Southern California and elsewhere.
A smaller number of pro-Blackwater counter-protesters also staged a peaceful camp-out at Potrero, but requests for interviews with these individuals were declined.
Blackwater, a private military and security contractor with global operations, has come under intense scrutiny in recent weeks for its activities in Iraq.
On Sept. 16, Blackwater security contractors allegedly opened fire on civilians in Baghdad, killing 17 people and wounding 22, according to the New York Times and other publications. Blackwater officials have claimed their guards responded to an attack, but an investigation by the Iraqi government has concluded that the attack was “unprovoked.” The company now faces possible judicial action by the Iraqi government.
The Times further reported that Blackwater has logged more shooting incidents than the other two leading private military contractors combined – and that Blackwater has the highest incidence of shooting first. The article cited a congressional report, which found that Blackwater engaged in 195 “escalation of force” incidents since 2005, including over 160 incidents in which Blackwater fired first.
The U.S. House Oversight Committee held hearings in recent weeks into these and other issues involving Blackwater, which has received more than $1 billion in federal contracts since 2001.
“We are paying too much and getting too little,” Chairman Henry Waxman stated, adding, “They (Blackwater) shoot people and others have to deal with the aftermath. It happens all over the place.”
Rep. John Duncan (R-Tenn.) called Blackwater’s fee to the U.S. government the “most lucrative contracts in the history of the world,” and added, “Fiscal conservatives should feel no obligation to defend this.” A congressional report listed $1,282 as the average per man, per day rate charged by Blackwater to U.S. taxpayers; Blackwater, however, disputes that figure.
Carol Jahnkow, director of the Peace Resource Center in San Diego, finds the statistics about Blackwater firing first in 84 percent of shooting incidents disturbing.
“How can we allow a company to come into our community that holds itself against the law?” she asked. “Where will the accountability to us be for their practices and the promises that they have made?”
Brian Bonfiglio, vice president of Blackwater West, defended the company’s practice of firing warning shots, noting in an e-mail sent to this newspaper that the U.S. military and department of state view warning shots as a, “viable part of force continuum in protecting its personnel in this war zone.”
Bonfiglio also stated that warning shots are “not the first step our men and women use to stop potential attacks,” adding that other cautionary measures include signs on vehicles warning people to “keep back 300 feet, and “our personnel use hand and arm signals to keep approaching vehicles way, verbal commands, water bottles tossed at approaching vehicles and much more, all before any warning shots are fired.”
The company also recently announced plans to halt expansion of facilities in Moyock, North Carolina. Asked if Blackwater has given any consideration to halting or postponing plans for its Blackwater West facility in Potrero, however, Bonfiglio responded, “Definitely not. Full steam ahead.”
Bonfiglio expressed confidence that the San Diego County Planning Commission would base its decision on the merits of the Environmental Impact Report, not a “political message.” If the planning commission approves Blackwater’s plans, the project’s fate may ultimately be determined by the county board of supervisors.
“We are going to fight this until the board says `No’ to Blackwater,’” vowed Jan Hedlun, the sole Potrero Planning Group member opposed to the training facility — and the only planner not facing a recall election in December (organized by Potrero citizens opposed to Blackwater’s proposal).