San Diego City Beat (2007-10-09) Pat Sherman
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Blackwater keeps its eye on a tiny East County enclave.
By Pat Sherman 10/09/2007
Blackwater USA Vice President Brian Bonfiglio flashed a self-satisfied smile, gazing east across Round Potrero Road where, on Sunday, more than 200 Potrero residents and antiwar activists streamed onto an adjacent parcel of land. They had come-some from as far as Ventura-to protest the 824-acre paramilitary training facility the company hopes to open a mile down the snaky dirt road.
"I don't think the war profiteering signs are appropriate, quite frankly," Bonfiglio said. "At the end of the day, this will be determined as a land-use project by the [San Diego County] Board of Supervisors."
As the public face of the project-dubbed Blackwater West-it's Bonfiglio's job to sell the facility as a non-invasive windfall to the residents of Potrero, a rural hamlet 45 miles east of San Diego. Given his employer's image as a supplier of trigger-happy mercenary armies, unaccountable to neither the Iraqi nor American governments, wooing Potrero's 850 residents has been a dicey game. Five members of the Potrero Planning Board who voted in December to support the project are facing a recall election. Some 320 residents signed a petition opposing the project that was sent to the county Board of Supervisors and Congressman Bob Filner, the Democrat whose district includes Potrero.
Blackwater, whose private security guards are under fire for allegedly gunning down as many as 17 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad last month, has raked in more than $1 billion for its services in Iraq and Afghanistan since the start of the war.
Yet, the company maintains it's not a mercenary outfit. The Potrero facility, which will include 15 shooting ranges, an ammunition-storage armory, helicopter pad, 2.5-mile driving track and other military trappings, would be used only to train law enforcement and military personnel, Bonfiglio said.
"We will not train Blackwater independent contractors going to places like Iraq and Afghanistan," he said. "It's not in our proposal. We will not have facilities capable of training those people here in San Diego.... We have already discussed it and have made it known [to Filner], although we haven't submitted the letter yet."
Filner, who has introduced legislation requiring that mercenary training facilities be established only on military bases, told City Beat
he doesn't buy it.
"I don't trust whatever they say," Filner said. "I mean, they can be training cops who then become mercenaries.... They're not a good company. They've lied to the American people, they've lied to the state department, lied to the families of people who work for them. Unless it's ironclad, they'll change it the next day."
Communications consultant Terry Stephens, a Potrero resident of 22 years, is running for a seat on the planning board. Stephens said she is less concerned about Blackwater's alleged abuses than she is about the threat to her family's rural lifestyle.
"What we've come out here for is peace and quiet, the midnight skies and just less traffic and a place where you can raise your kids-and Blackwater doesn't fit any of that criteria," Stephens said.
"War from the beginning of time has always been about making money," she added. "Somebody's going to make money off of whatever war they're in. That's not my concern. My concern is my family and my community, and having a training camp, mercenary, pay-for-hire, whatever you want to call it, [in my backyard]."
Though Blackwater has been careful not to make concrete promises, it has intimated that the company would share its copious wealth with the community, as it has done for residents near its Moyock, N.C., training facility. Bonfiglio said Blackwater has provided "millions of dollars" in computers, recycling services, youth sports equipment, college scholarships and rental facilities there.
"We had a young child in Potrero whose mother works two or three jobs," Bonfiglio said. "This girl wrote a wonderful, wonderful essay, but her mother was afraid to take a donation from us, not because of Potrero residents, but outside groups potentially causing her unhappiness."
Planning board member Thell Fowler, who may be booted from the board for his support of the project, said he believes Blackwater will boost tax revenues and provide extra income for community groups.
"You know, when they shoot the automatic weapons-why, Blackwater don't even pick up the shells," Fowler said. "They let the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts come and pick it up and sell it back to them.... [The Boy Scouts] club house is beautiful."
Scouts aren't the only ones who might benefit from Blackwater's foray into East County. The company says the facility will create 60 new jobs for the residents of Potrero and surrounding communities.
Potrero resident Jan Hedlun, the only member of the planning board to cast a vote against Blackwater, is skeptical.
"We're not sure exactly what the jobs are," Hedlun said. "The majority of them will be in the low level-food services, those types of positions.... The upper echelon jobs, most of those we feel are going to go to hired Blackwater personnel."
So far, at least one local resident has secured a job with Blackwater. Alpine resident Don Zub stood with Bonfiglio and about 20 other Blackwater proponents Sunday, handing out free T-shirts and baseball caps bearing the company's grizzly-claw logo. A former Navy SEAL who trained with Blackwater President Gary Jackson, Zub has been hired as a consultant for Blackwater West. Zub said he expects to land a supervisory position overseeing the three-stage facility construction. Earlier this year, he hosted planning board members on Blackwater's ex-NOAA ship, the Mc Arthur
, which was docked in San Diego Bay. The board members were criticized for accepting the invitation to dine aboard the ship.
Planning Board Chairman Gordon Hammers and board member Jerry Johnson and his wife spent a week in Moyock this year, where they toured Blackwater's existing training facility. Both Hammers and Johnson say they paid for the entire trip out of their own pockets, except for a luncheon where they met with community members invited by Blackwater.
"We got to talk to a lot of the neighbors," Hammers said. "We indicated, ‘Well, gee, you know, what about the people that aren't here?' So they showed us the invitation list and we were able to contact some of those people that didn't make it to get their input. There was one name I had been told was an anti-Blackwater neighbor. I called that neighbor, talked to them about it, and the woman indicated that as a neighbor, [Blackwater] had not been as bad as she thought they were going to be, that they'd actually been fairly good neighbors. I asked if I could quote her on that. She said absolutely not. She identified herself as an anti-war liberal Democrat and she didn't want to say anything nice in public about Blackwater."
Jackson, Zub's old Navy pal, has contributed $9,000 to President Bush and other Republican candidates, including $1,000 to San Diego Congressman Duncan Hunter, former chair of the House Armed Services Committee. Hedlun and others believe Hunter met early on with county Supervisor Dianne Jacob to advocate for the project. A spokesperson for Hunter said the congressman supports the project, though he denied that Hunter greased the political wheels for Blackwater.
According to Fowler, jobs at the Potrero facility would start at $11.45 an hour, plus benefits. He said he likes the idea that the positions will go to U.S. citizens, unlike the former tenant, a cattle and chicken ranch, which employed workers from Tecate, Mexico, for minimum wage, sans benefits.
"You have to be an American citizen and pass their safety check to work there," Fowler maintained.
However, Bonfiglio said the company would not be averse to recruiting from south of the border.
"I'm talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual salaries coming to Potrero and potentially Campo or Tecate," Bonfiglio said. "We would like to have them local, but we're going to be a good neighbor. We would do the same for Campo as we would Tecate."
Ed Boryla, one of only two Blackwater supporters who plan to run for a potential seat on the planning board, said he likes that the facility could serve as a deterrent to illegal immigration.
Bonfiglio said his company had not been asked to lend its services to border security, though he also believes it would serve as a strong deterrent.
"Law enforcement and military vehicles are going to travel that [State Route] 94, I-8, Buckman Springs Road and Round Potrero Road," he said. "Do you not think that that kind of increased presence would not deter our international visitors from using that lane as means in which to enter the United States illegally? There's absolutely no doubt in my mind that that kind of increased presence, risk versus gain, they're going to find someplace else to go, and it's not going to be through this corridor anymore."
The project must ultimately be approved by the Board of Supervisors, pending the results of an environmental review, which could take up to a year-and-a-half.
In August, the planning board also requested that a live fire test be conducted to further gauge noise impacts. A date has not been set for the test due to liability issues with the property owner, Bonfiglio said.
"Once attorneys get involved, things slow down a little bit," he said.
Bonfiglio said the property is in escrow and close to closing, a deal Hedlun and others suspect began when Hunter approached the property owner last year.
"That property was not even for sale when Blackwater knocked on his door and said, ‘Do you want to sell this property,'" Hedlun said.
At the conclusion of the rally, Blackwater opponents marched along Round Potrero Road to the gates of the proposed Blackwater site, where Bonfiglio and a real-estate broker awaited, a chain blocking access to the property.
Raymond Lutz, of the watchdog group Citizens' Oversight Projects, requested that the procession be allowed to walk the full length of the road to view the property, which resulted in a heated exchange of words with Bonfiglio.
"I've asked him for access to the property for months and he's repeatedly said no," Lutz said. "It's just an uncooperative attitude by Blackwater and the property owner, and this is the sort of uncooperative attitude we can expect from Blackwater from here on out."
Should supervisors approve the facility, said Bonfiglio, who's currently based in Moyock, he sees his future in the Golden State.
"I volunteered for this," he said. "My wife and daughter want to be Californians."