Thursday, May 22, 2008
Blackwater Worldwide says its planned Navy training facility in Otay Mesa is nothing like the training complex it pitched, then canceled for Potrero in East County. That may be. But the two projects have one thing in common -- they're both near the U.S.-Mexico border. And some believe Blackwater plans to sell its services there. KPBS Reporter Amita Sharma has more.
It's not unusual for people in Potrero to hear fireworks at celebrations in Tecate, Mexico. That's how close the two towns are. And drug traffickers and human smugglers often use the area to illegally cross into the U.S.
So when Blackwater said it wanted to build a military and police training camp in Potrero last year, some thought the company was planning to bid on border security contracts.
Blackwater dropped the Potrero project in March. But when it became public that Blackwater wanted to open a Navy training facility in an industrial area in Otay Mesa, less than a mile north of the U-S-Mexico border, speculation about the firm's motives intensified.
Bob Filner: They obviously want to have border business. They want to have an armed forces business and that's a recipe for disaster.
That's Congressman Bob Filner.
Filner: By the way they privatized the war in Iraq. They could privatize the border patrol on the border that is begin to maybe take contracts for dealing with immigration. That would be very, very bad for our area.
The congressman's concern, according to Blackwater's Brian Bonfiglio, is unjustified. Bonfiglio says Blackwater has no hidden agenda in Otay Mesa.
Bonfiglio: I think it's crystal clear why we're here. Why would we have a ship simulator out here. Why would we have Navy stuff all over the place? I think there's a need to grasp onto something to keep this project or projects like ours from opening and it has nothing to do with the actual use which is training the Navy so there's no merit in the border security aspect of why we're here.
Bonfiglio, however, did say law enforcement agencies including the Border Patrol are welcome to use the proposed facility's shooting range. But Blackwater author Jeremy Scahill says comments made by the company's president at a congressional hearing in 2005 suggest the contractor wants to expand its relationship with Border Patrol.
Scahill: The point of that hearing was to talk about ways to greater privatize U.S. border operations and Gary Jackson the head of Blackwater said quite clearly that they could do a better job, a more efficient job and a more cost effective job of actually training border patrol agents.
Last summer, Blackwater was one of four firms to share a $15-billion contract from the Pentagon to train and fight drug trafficking. Scahill says Blackwater is also heavily involved in homeland security technology.
Scahill: Blackwater is manufacturing a surveillance blimp a…that they're marketing to the department of homeland security for use in monitoring the U.S. Mexico border."
UC-Irvine Political Scientist Deborah Avant studies private contractors. She says Blackwater is adept at anticipating what the U.S. government might privatize next. Border security and anti-drug efforts are high on that list.
Avant: A lot of the work the U.S. is doing in the drug war in Colombia is being performed by private contractors so I would imagine that this would be a natural area for them to move into.
Bonfiglio says its pure coincidence that Blackwater's new facility in Otay Mesa is in an area where cross border tunnels used for smuggling have been found. He says he hopes the company's presence will deter future tunnels from being dug in the region.
Bonfiglio: Because if they popped up in our warehouse I think they'd be in a bad way with the United States Navy running around here. I think it would be bad so maybe our international visitors will find some place else to dig their tunnels. And avoid this area so maybe we're bringing value added that we don't even realize yet.
Amita Sharma, KPBS News.