Thursday, May 29, 2008

Military contractor Blackwater files suit to push through new California facility

Military contractor Blackwater files suit to push through new California facility

By Kevin Martinez

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Blackwater Worldwide, a private contractor for the US military, filed suit last week to ask a federal judge to order San Diego, California officials to issue final permission for the construction of a new training facility along the US-Mexico border.

Local officials have delayed granting final permits for the new center in Otay Mesa. Blackwater insists that it has received permits from all relevant authorities, and that its Navy contract requires that the center open on June 2.

The indoor facility, which is two doors down from the Border Patrol office of Otay Mesa, will operate out of a 61,600 square foot building which will include an indoor-shooting range, a mock Navy ship, as well as multiple classrooms.

So far the appeals process in San Diego has not been favorable to Blackwater. On May 16, San Diego City Attorney Mike Aguirre found faults with the permits, prompting Mayor Jerry Sanders to issue a stop-work order. Sanders said the company would have to wait until the public review process was completed.

The company had abandoned its previous attempts to establish a west-coast foothold 45 miles east of San Diego in Potrero, also along the border with Mexico. Those plans were withdrawn after a coalition of community residents and anti-war activists organized a special recall election to oust 4 of the 5 planning commissioners who approved so-called "Blackwater West."

Blackwater is best known for the crucial assistance it has provided in the brutal US-led occupation of Iraq. Private contracts such as Blackwater have operated with virtually no constraints in repressing opposition to the occupation.

On Tuesday, Iraqi witnesses appeared before a grand jury in Washington investigating an incident last September in which Blackwater contractors killed 17 civilians when they fired into a crowded Baghdad intersection.

Blackwater has indicated that it wants to increase its role in domestic operations within the US to complement its close ties with the military. While the company officially denies it, there are indications that Blackwater is hoping to win future government contracts to help police the US-Mexico border.

When anti-Blackwater activists held a demonstration outside of the site planned for the Potrero training facility in October of last year, the company had already filed for permits to build a new complex in Otay Mesa. Apparently, the company executives had a "plan B" in case "Blackwater West" never materialized due to public outcry. The Otay Mesa facility is, however, much smaller than what was planned for Potrero.

The permits for Otay Mesa were obtained under different names. According to San Diego city officials, the building permits were obtained by Raven Development Group and Southwest Law Enforcement, both subsidiaries of a shell company named E & J Holdings, a real estate firm based in Puerto Rico. E & J stands for Erick and Joanne Prince. Erick Prince is the founder of Blackwater Worldwide.

"They were using these phony names to evade scrutiny by activist groups like ours that are watching their every move," Raymond Lutz told the Los Angeles Times. Lutz is one of the founders of the Stop Blackwater group and lives in Portrero.

The new facility will be located in an industrial warehouse park owned by the Home Tex Packaging Corporation, a textile manufacturer with several factories in Pakistan. The CEO of Home Tex is Shoaib Kothawala, who was selected in 2002 to serve on the California Business Commission, a Republican-backed initiative set up to help the party win in the elections of that year.

Blackwater has insisted to city officials that the Otay Mesa facility is a "vocational trade school" designed to train Navy crew in "counter-terrorism" tactics. Ever since the 2000 terror attack on the USS Cole, Blackwater has been providing training assistance to the US Navy, in conjunction with a privatizing trend in the military that has gone on for decades.

Given the close proximity to the border, however, it would not at all be surprising to learn that Blackwater intends to use this building to train paramilitaries to police the border.

At a public meeting in Potrero on September 17, 2007, Brian Bonfiglio, the Vice President of Blackwater, was asked by Raymond Lutz if Blackwater would use their planned training camp in Potrero as a base of operations to patrol and monitor the border.

Bonfiglio responded, "If we were asked by our government to help out in whatever security was needed on our border, I don't think there's one person in this room who wouldn't want our borders tightened up. And what's wrong with that?" Lutz questioned Bonfiglio further, asking if Blackwater would receive any government contract to assist the Border Patrol. He replied, "We would entertain any approach from our government to help secure either border, absolutely."

In the summer of 2007, Blackwater was one of several defense contractors that were awarded a $15 billion contract for the next five years. The contract was awarded by the Pentagon's "Counter-Narcoterrorism Technology Program Office."

The mission of the office is to "develop and deploy technology that aids disrupting, deterring and denying the flow of drugs, people, information, money and weapons related to illegal drug trafficking and narcoterrorism," according to a 2003 memo from the Pentagon expanding the charter.

Especially significant is the fact that the new facility will be located in an area where many cross-border tunnels used for smuggling have been found.

Jeremy Scahill, an author who has written a book about Blackwater, recently noted to local television station KPBS, "Blackwater is manufacturing a surveillance blimp ...that they're marketing to the department of homeland security for use in monitoring the US Mexico border."

The militarization of the border has been a boondoggle for the Defense industry, as they have been ordered by the White House and Congress to turn the area into a future warzone.

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