Blackwater's new California battleground
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Ron Spinneit dragged the toe of his shoe in a straight line through the chalky dust, summing up the current state of affairs in this arid desert valley.
"It's divided right here between left and right," he said.
Nearby, the peeling sheet metal siding of a dilapidated barn flapped in the wind. In the distance, the brown valley floor gave way to 600-foot cliffs blackened by October's raging wildfires.
It is here, on this derelict 824-acre chicken and cattle ranch 45 miles east of San Diego, that Blackwater Worldwide wants to establish a West Coast beachhead - a proposal that has stirred up one of Blackwater's biggest battles yet.
The Moyock, N.C.-based private military company was already a lightning rod in a bitter national debate over the Iraq war and its unprecedented use of private soldiers. Now that battle is being fought in Potrero, and it is ripping the rural hamlet apart.
Just ask Spinneit. He's a Blackwater supporter, and he fully expects to get a world of flak from his neighbors.
The 68-year-old retired pipe fitter from San Diego has lived in Potrero for six years. He says he has backed Blackwater from the get-go in its attempt to open a California training center, but his admiration for the company got a boost when he saw how it responded to the devastating wildfires, which destroyed 10 homes in Potrero and hundreds more in surrounding communities.
Spinneit lost his house, two trailers and a brand-new Mustang. The only thing that didn't burn on his 10-acre spread was a steel-clad cargo shipping container that he used as a workshop. After the fires, he put a cot in it and moved in. His daughter Janine pitched a tent on the charred ground nearby.
The two have been getting showers, doing their laundry and eating free meals at the "tent city" outfitted for fire victims by Blackwater at Barrett Junction, another hamlet a few miles down the road.
Now Blackwater and the owner of the ranch it wants to buy have offered to let the Spinneits stay in a refurbished caretaker's cottage on the property.
"I'm very impressed by what they've done," Spinneit said. "They've opened their doors to all, whether you're for them or against them."
Dawn Johnson wasn't so impressed.
A 30-year resident of Potrero, Johnson lived in a shallow canyon just over the ridge from Blackwater's expansion site. Her mobile home, that of her son next door, and a machine shop she and her husband ran nearby were destroyed in the fires.
Johnson is staying with her mother-in-law as she and her husband try to decide whether to rebuild. She has not taken any of Blackwater's help.
"I think they did it for the PR value," she said.
When 300 sign-wielding protesters paraded through Potrero to the gate of the Blackwater site in October demanding that the company be driven out of the county, Johnson was in the front row of the march.
"I just don't want to hear the sound of gunfire all day long," she said. "I grew up here. I appreciate this way of life. I don't want to be in a war zone."
Spinneit and Johnson are on opposite sides of a white-hot culture clash. Locals who support the square-jawed warriors of Blackwater tend to be conservative and Republican-leaning; those in the opposing camp are more likely to be liberal and Democratic. There seems to be no middle ground.
Blackwater's push for a West Coast outpost has been almost two years in the making, and it is unlikely to be resolved for another year or two. Meanwhile, the stakes for the company keep rising.
As multiple investigations examine the Sept. 16 shootings involving Blackwater contractors in Baghdad that left 17 Iraqi civilians dead, the company faces the very real prospect of losing its lucrative diplomatic security work, worth hundreds of millions of dollars in federal contracts. That increases the pressure on Blackwater to develop other lines of business - including the military and law enforcement training it wants to do in Potrero.
Blackwater has an option to buy the 824-acre site and proposes to build a 5,000-square-foot headquarters building, a 10,000-square-foot armory, a driving track, a helicopter pad, a bunkhouse for 300 students, a mess hall, a 50-foot fire training tower, four ship simulators, 11 firing ranges, a live-fire "shoot house" and an urban-simulation training area.
The company's Moyock, N.C., compound is similarly outfitted, although it is much larger in terms of its total land area - 7,000 acres - and headquarters building - 65,000 square feet. It also has an aviation component with a 6,000-foot runway.
The next big test for the company comes Tuesday, when a mail-in recall vote is to be completed in Potrero. The election, initiated by a petition signed by more than half of Potrero's 525 registered voters, seeks to toss out five of the nine members of the local planning board who approved the Blackwater West project last December. The ballot includes pro-and anti-Blackwater slates of candidates running to replace the board members if they are recalled.
The planning board is an advisory body - the ultimate decision rests with the county Board of Supervisors - so a successful recall would not halt the project. It would, however, be an enormous boost for the opposition.
It has been a nasty campaign, marked by bursts of name-calling in which longtime neighbors and schoolmates have lined up against one another. And it has forced Blackwater to practice a brand of retail politics far removed from the streets of Baghdad and the corridors of power in Washington.
The two-lane road from San Diego to Potrero winds through sandy brown valleys and around hairpin curves, ascending rounded hills studded with well-weathered rocks. Many of the hillsides are scorched by fire now, the creek beds bone dry and covered with ash. Scattered here and there are the desolate hulks of burned mobile homes.
Over lunch at the Potrero General Store & Cafe - "established 1883" - Gordon Hammers said he feels like a man with a target on his back.
"I'll drive down the road and people I've known for 20 years will flip me the bird," he said between bites of apple pie.
Semi-retired at 69, Hammers has lived in Potrero for 37 years. As chairman of the planning board, he has been the local point man for the Blackwater project and is a stout defender of the company. He is one of the five targeted for recall in Tuesday's vote.
"I think it's going to be close," he said. "If I win, I'll be glad to win by one vote."
He conceded that the other side has been busy.
"They've been feverishly trying to register every derelict person in the community," he said. "We have a significant drug under culture. We've had pot crops pulled up every spring, meth labs busted. And these people are against a higher level of law enforcement in the community."
The Blackwater project should be accepted or rejected on the basis of local land-use issues, Hammers said, not the company's role on the international stage.
"The issue has been whipped up by radicals from out of town," he said. "They can't do anything about the war in Iraq, so this is a convenient target for them. Long after this is over, they will have moved on, and we in this community will still have to live together.
"People talk about what Blackwater did in Iraq. Well, they train their people well, and they're better shots than the Iraqis. So they got trigger-happy and shot 17 Iraqis. How do I punish them for that? That's not my purview. That's the State Department's purview."
Writing in the Potrero Hotline, a local newspaper, Anita Meneses, another pro-Blackwater candidate in Tuesday's election, echoed Hammers' view that the anti-Blackwater fervor is being stirred up by outsiders - one in particular, whom she called a "pimp who is whoring out our community for his own personal political agenda."
They might not call him by name, but the outsider they are talking about is Raymond Lutz. An electronics engineer and business owner, Lutz lives near the San Diego suburb of El Cajon and is president of the East County Democratic Club.
Lutz is also the organizer of Citizens' Oversight Projects, a watchdog group that has taken a major role in the anti-Blackwater coalition.
Like Hammers, he knows he has made himself a target. Lutz has the distinction of being singled out by name on a hand-painted cardboard "Keep out" sign on the gate to the Blackwater West site.
But his detractors misinterpret his role, Lutz says: He has merely helped the citizens of Potrero exercise their will over an arrogant, unresponsive planning board.
"The recall vote is the most effective thing we can do to stop this project," he said. "I think it's going to be a landslide. I think 70 percent of the community is against the project."
Lutz likens the tiny community to the lone man who stood up to a column of Chinese tanks in the famous photograph of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.
"I think Blackwater was counting on going in quietly," he said. "They thought they were going to be able to roll over everybody, but the public has a lot of power if they would just use it."
Until the mid-19th century, the isolated hills around Potrero were occupied only by the Kumeyaay Indians, an ancient tribe of hunter-gatherers. The first European settler was Charlie Mc Almond
, a ship captain from San Diego who established a cattle ranch there in 1868.
To this day, the residents embody the Western archetype of the rugged individualist - private, self-sufficient, beholden to no one.
The community consists of the general store, an elementary school, a library, the post office, a trailer park, a couple of churches and a few dozen homes tucked away on hilltops and in hollows, most reachable only by long, rutted driveways. Some aren't even on the public power grid.
"It takes a special type of person to live out here," said Jack Reider, a retired Navy man who lives on a hill about a mile from the Blackwater West site.
If the project meets the county's environmental standards, he said, he has no objection to it: "I think a person who has a piece of property should be able to sell it to a willing buyer without being harassed."
As for noise from firing ranges, Reider isn't worried.
"I was an ordnance disposal technician in the Navy," he said. "You'd just hear 'pop-pop-pop-pop-pop.' It's not a big noise problem."
The project's opponents take little comfort in such assurances.
"People live here for a reason, and it's not to be hearing 'Pop-pop-pop' all day long," Carl Meyer said. "It's a crime against the way we live."
Meyer's farm is down the hill on state Route 94, about four miles from the Blackwater site.
An anti-Blackwater candidate for the planning board, he has a large homemade "Stop Blackwater" sign adorning the front edge of his pumpkin patch, topped by three American flags and illuminated at night by a solar-powered spotlight.
There is some truth to the argument that Blackwater has become a surrogate for the perceived ills of the Bush administration's foreign policy, Meyer said.
"People are getting sick of the Iraq war and the corruption and the privatization," he said. "It's not just a land-use issue."
One particularly incendiary issue keeps popping up: illegal immigration. Despite repeated denials from Blackwater, many of its opponents suspect that the company hopes to use the Potrero site - eight miles from the Mexican border - as a base of operations for border patrol work.
"If they get a border patrol contract, they're not going to turn it down," Meyer said. "They're going to be running around the mountains dressed in black, shooting anything that moves."
Meyer faces opposition in Tuesday's vote from Brenda Wise, a pro-Blackwater candidate. In one of her campaign mailers, she described Meyer as "almost bipolar."
"I will beat Carl Meyer. He has done nothing to help this community," Wise said, rising from her desk in a back room of the Potrero volunteer fire station.
As the coordinator of the Community Emergency Response Team, she directs relief efforts for local fire victims.
A Navy veteran and North Carolina native who grew up in Newport News, Wise has lived in Potrero for 13 years. She says she'll support the Blackwater project if it clears all the environmental hurdles because it will expand the local tax base without adding any appreciable burden to the school system.
"Plus, they've already shown they'll help the community," she said. "I can't praise them enough. They were the first ones here after the fires. They were here before the Red Cross."
Blackwater's public face in Potrero is Brian Bonfiglio, a vice president who works full time out of an office in San Diego shepherding the project through the regulatory process and interacting with the community. For more than a year he has been meeting with Potrero residents, reassuring them about the company's intentions.
It was Bonfiglio who showed up with relief supplies in the days after the October fires. Later he arranged the placement of the tent city in a dusty rodeo rink. Operated by a volunteer staff from the Florida-based Churches of Christ, it includes three air-conditioned and heated tents with sleeping accommodations for 88, a mobile kitchen and dining hall, and three trailers with showers and laundry facilities emblazoned with the Blackwater bear-claw logo.
Mark Cremeans, the church volunteer who runs the facility, said as many as 200 people a day use the dining, shower and laundry services, although fewer than 10 are staying overnight.
"If we don't have anybody, that's good news," he said. "But we're here if they need us."
He had only good words for Blackwater.
"They've been truly awesome," he said. "They can really make things happen."
Bonfiglio dismisses the notion that Blackwater's relief efforts are intended to curry favor with the locals.
"I'm not going to change their minds because I delivered food," he said.
"We did it because it was needed. We tell folks we'll be the neighbor with a shovel when it snows. There's no more to it than that."
An ex-Marine, Bonfiglio supervised security details for four U.S. ambassadors before joining Blackwater in 2003 to manage its first big security contract in Iraq guarding Paul Bremer, the provisional head of state after the U.S. invasion.
After early discussions with San Diego County officials facilitated by U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif. - who has received campaign contributions from Blackwater executives - Bonfiglio formally presented the Blackwater West proposal to the Potrero planning board in October 2006.
As she listened to the affable New Englander, Potrero resident Jan Hedlun was impressed, but skeptical.
"He was smooth," Hedlun said. "Everybody was thinking, 'This doesn't sound so bad.' He was like one of those snake-oil salesmen. Then I started doing some research and realized we had a problem."
Hedlun was elected to the planning board in November 2006 and is now the only member opposing Blackwater West. She is not up for recall in Tuesday's vote.
Opponents cite a variety of concerns about the project, among them noise, traffic, water use, pollution and fire hazards. The site abuts a national forest and wilderness area and is a foraging habitat for golden eagles. Three prehistoric archeological sites and two historic adobe structures have been identified on the property.
A common theme running through the criticism is the sheer scope of the project, which opponents say is out of scale with a small, rural community.
After a tumultuous public meeting in April that drew dozens of protesters, the county planning department invited written public comments on the Blackwater West project. Hundreds have poured in, all but a handful of them opposing the project, many in vehement terms.
A sampling: "Renegade mercenary private army." "Shadow military cabal." "Hired thugs." "21st century Hessians."
And those were before the Sept. 16 shootings.
None of it matters, Bonfiglio said: "The war issue is irrelevant to this project."
The fate of Blackwater West will be decided on the basis of environmental and land-use issues, he said. An environmental impact review is due next year. Bonfiglio said he's seen a draft version, and he's not worried: "We don't have any environmental problems."
Bonfiglio also expressed nonchalance about Tuesday's recall vote: "I really don't care what happens with the planning board. It doesn't affect the project one bit."
Whatever happens Tuesday, he said, Blackwater has "spent over a million dollars so far on a piece of paper" and isn't going away now.
As if to underscore his point, during halftime of last Saturday's San Diego State University football game at Qualcomm Stadium, a Blackwater skydiving team parachuted boldly onto the field, the bear-claw logo fluttering in the breeze.
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