Just weeks after wildfires ravaged the tiny California border town of Potrero, they face yet another threat of annihilation, this time by Blackwater USA, who wants to open up a huge 824 acre training facility. The residents are so outraged by the local planning board initially approving Blackwater's plans that they organized a recall election for those board members that voted for Blackwater.
But it is a dispute that goes beyond the rights and wrongs of a large company intent on developing farmland. Opponents fear that it will be the first step towards Blackwater moving in on the potentially lucrative and politically sensitive job of patrolling the US-Mexico border. While Congress has authorised increased recruitment for the Border Patrol, the federal agency that polices the border, many have asked how it is going to be paid for and who is going to do the training. Enter Blackwater West.
"We're here by happenstance," said Brian Bonfiglio, Blackwater West's vice-president. Bonfiglio, who was previously in charge of security for Paul Bremer, the former head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, was dispatched a year ago from the company's base in North Carolina to oversee the expansion west. "We're a training company. This site was not chosen because of its proximity to the border. The Border Patrol has not approached us and we're not chasing Border Patrol contracts. If the government said here's a contract we want you to bid on, I can't say what the company would do."
Bonfiglio may not be able to say, but the company's president did. In his book Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army, journalist Jeremy Scahill recounts company president Gary Jackson's May 2005 appearance before the House homeland security committee. "Just as the private sector has responded in moving mail and packages around the world more efficiently," Jackson told the committee, "so too can Blackwater respond to the customs' and Border Patrol's emerging and compelling training needs."
The first salvo against Blackwater's plans comes on December 11, when a recall election - called as a result of a petition by residents - will be held to replace the majority of the Potrero planning group. The group has been criticised for unanimously approving Blackwater's application to build a training facility on a dilapidated chicken farm. Set in 824 acres, the valley that would be Blackwater West is surrounded by low brush and hills. The land includes part of the Cleveland national forest, although Blackwater says it will not use any of the forest land on its property.
Approval was given last December before all but a handful of residents were aware of the plans. Once details emerged, some locals decided to act. "A lot of my neighbours were of the opinion that you couldn't do anything about it," said Parks. "But as time went by I found out that we had some supporters. Now there are more people who aren't afraid to come out and speak."
Rather than being upset about the controversy surrounding Blackwater, most opponents are more concerned about the potential loss of their rural way of life. "When we first moved here in 1977 we didn't have any neighbours," said Cathey Ramsey. Sitting in the town's only shop, the 94 Cafe and general store, she listed her objections: "My concerns are water, wildlife, traffic, noise, all the firing ranges."
Her son, William Crawley, who is standing for election to the planning group, said: "I want to make a change. The group has been neglectful of its duties."