For months, everything went wrong for Blackwater Worldwide (formerly Blackwater USA), the mercenary firm that wants to put a training camp in tiny Potrero, 45 miles east of San Diego and almost on the border. Just recently, Blackwater finally caught a break: the 2007 fires, which started in Potrero. The company provided food, gasoline, and tents for those displaced by the fire. The mercenary firm argued that if it gets its training camp, it will be able to supply firefighting gear and personnel.
But it's not clear that the benevolence stratagem will work. "Those who are against it are still against it, and those who are for it are still for it," says Gordon Hammers, chairman of the community planning group, who has championed the project, much to the chagrin of his neighbors, who are generally opposed to it. Last week, ballots were mailed to citizens who are voting on whether to remove community planning group members, including Hammers, who voted overwhelmingly for the training facility late last year. The ballots have to be in by December 11.
Blackwater had been meeting with county officials since May of 2006, but the little hamlet didn't hear about the plans -- now on a fast track -- until October. Citizens then erupted, and the conflagration has raged ever since in the town of fewer than 900. Voter registration has surged from 450 to 520, although Hammers says darkly, "The question is how many shouldn't be registered."
Prior to the fire, Blackwater had become a symbol of Pentagon buffoonery. The Iraqi government and the FBI are investigating a September shooting involving Blackwater that left 17 Iraqis dead. The FBI has determined that at least 14 of the deaths were unjustified. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has been investigating Blackwater's operations. A bill has been introduced in Congress to block the government from using private companies such as Blackwater to provide security for U.S. diplomats in Iraq. Representative Bob Filner, whose district includes Potrero, is in favor of the bill.
Meanwhile, Potrero is still politically afire. "The bad guys are sending out incredible things in hit pieces," says Duncan McFetridge of Descanso, whose group, Save Our Forests and Ranchlands, is battling Blackwater.
Raymond Lutz of El Cajon, who has joined the battle, is cited in the hit piece. He claims that the person who signed the mailing doesn't exist, at least in Potrero. The attack document says that "the folks in El Cajon do not care because they don't live here.... To them, Blackwater is a surrogate for the war in Iraq and President Bush." The letter calls McFetridge's group "an outside radical organization."
There has been skepticism about Blackwater's relief efforts. "The local sheriffs, who are in favor of Blackwater, let [Blackwater] come through but wouldn't let other groups do so," says Barbara Chamberlain, an opponent. "A lot of people thought [Blackwater's effort] was just publicity, strictly PR." For example, very few people used the tents, supposedly for that reason.
"The sentiment appears to be in favor of the recall," says Miriam Raftery, an East County journalist who has followed the Potrero ruckus closely. However, "Blackwater won some hearts and minds with their relief efforts," she says. She adds that a married couple, both on the ballot to be removed, lost their home in the fire, and that might sway sentiment.
Hammers seems to realize public opinion is not lining up in his direction. "The recall election will have no effect," he says. "The planning group is an advisory group. If the county wants it [the Blackwater facility], it will happen."
He understands how San Diego governments work.