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New Blackwater project draws fire

Opponents say firm used names of other entities to gain permits for proposed Otay Mesa training facility.

May 15, 2008|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — Blackwater Worldwide, the global security firm whose conduct in Iraq has drawn criticism, is again trying to open a training facility in the face of local opposition.

In March, the firm dropped plans to build a 220-acre training camp in rural Potrero, about 45 miles east of downtown San Diego. A coalition of rural property owners, environmentalists and antiwar activists opposed its effort to build a "combat town."

But the coalition did not know that Blackwater was simultaneously moving to open a smaller facility with a shooting range in Otay Mesa, within the city limits and near the Mexican border.

The other project became known to the public only after leaders of the coalition received a tip from someone with inside information.

Unlike the Potrero plan, which would have required approval from the county Board of Supervisors, the Otay Mesa project required only the sort of basic permits that can be issued over the counter.

What has annoyed Blackwater opponents is that the permits were not sought under the name Blackwater. Instead, papers were filed for Raven Development Group and Southwest Law Enforcement.

"They were using these phony names to evade scrutiny by activist groups like ours that are watching their every move," said Raymond Lutz, coordinator of Citizens Oversight Projects, which led the opposition to the Potrero proposal.

Blackwater spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell denied that there was any attempt at concealment. Raven, she said, has long been a Blackwater construction subsidiary.

"Raven is not an unknown entity by any means," Tyrrell said from Blackwater's North Carolina headquarters. "Raven was started to build things" for Blackwater.

The Otay Mesa project, Tyrrell said, would allow Blackwater to continue an existing contract to train Navy personnel. Blackwater has been using a shooting range in the Kearny Mesa area of San Diego, but its relationship with the shooting range owner is ending, she said.

Under the names Raven and Southwest Law Enforcement, Blackwater received permits to remodel a 61,600-square-foot warehouse in an industrial park west of the Otay Mesa border crossing.

The firm hopes to begin training this summer, although opponents hope to block those plans by arguing that Blackwater lacks the necessary firearm permits. Lutz and several dozen other opponents of Blackwater petitioned the City Council on Tuesday.

The issue of permits has become part of the increasingly bitter election campaign between Mayor Jerry Sanders and businessman Steve Francis.

Sanders has ordered an investigation into whether Blackwater used deception to get the permits. Francis said the episode shows "the corrosive effects of too much secrecy and not enough transparency" at City Hall.

Rep. Bob Filner (D-Chula Vista) has asked Sanders to block Blackwater's plans. "We cannot allow a company with their reputation to do business in our community. The cost is too high," Filner said.

Lutz and members of his group say Blackwater wants a facility near the border so it can try to supply the federal government with border guards.

Tyrrell disputed those charges. The Otay Mesa warehouse, she said, would be used to teach survival techniques, the kind of training that Blackwater, which was founded in 1997, specialized in before its name became linked to Iraq.

"This is our core competency," she said. "This is not anything new."

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tony.perry@latimes.com

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