Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Overkill in New Orleans

Overkill in New Orleans

By Jeremy Scahill and Daniela Crespo, AlterNet
Posted on September 12, 2005, Printed on September 12, 2005

Heavily armed paramilitary mercenaries from the Blackwater private
security firm, infamous for their work in Iraq, are openly patrolling
the streets of New Orleans.

Some of the mercenaries say they have been
"deputized" by the Louisiana governor; indeed some are wearing gold
Louisiana state law enforcement badges on their chests and Blackwater
photo identification cards on their arms. They say they are on contract
with the Department of Homeland Security and have been given the
authority to use lethal force.

Several mercenaries we spoke with said
they had served in Iraq on the personal security details of the former
head of the U.S. occupation, L. Paul Bremer and the former U.S.
ambassador to Iraq, John Negroponte.

"This is a totally new thing to have guys like us working CONUS
(Continental United States)," a heavily armed Blackwater mercenary told
us as we stood on Bourbon Street in the French Quarter. "We're much
better equipped to deal with the situation in Iraq."

Blackwater mercenaries are some of the most feared professional killers
in the world and they are accustomed to operating without worry of legal
consequences. Their presence on the streets of New Orleans should be a
cause for serious concern for the remaining residents of the city and
raises alarming questions about why the government would allow men
trained to kill with impunity in places like Iraq and Afghanistan to
operate here. Some of the men now patrolling the streets of New Orleans
returned from Iraq as recently as two weeks ago.

What is most disturbing is the claim of several Blackwater mercenaries
we spoke with that they are here under contract from the federal and
Louisiana state governments. Blackwater is one of the leading private
security firms servicing the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. It has
several U.S. government contracts and has provided security for many
senior U.S. diplomats, foreign dignitaries and corporations. The company
rose to international prominence after four of its men were killed in
Fallujah and two of their charred bodies were hung from a bridge in
March 2004. Those killings sparked the massive U.S. retaliation against
the civilian population of Fallujah that resulted in scores of deaths
and tens of thousands of refugees.

Who Sent In the Mercs?

As the threat of forced evictions now looms in New Orleans and the city
confiscates even legally registered weapons from civilians, the private
mercenaries of Blackwater patrol the streets openly wielding M-16s and
other assault weapons. This despite Police Commissioner Eddie Compass'
claim that, "Only law enforcement are allowed to have weapons."

Officially, Blackwater says its forces are in New Orleans to "join the
Hurricane relief effort." A statement on the company's website, dated
Sept. 1, advertises airlift services, security services and crowd
control. The company, according to news reports, has since begun taking
private contracts to guard hotels, businesses and other properties. But
what has not been publicly acknowledged is the claim, made to us by two
Blackwater mercenaries, that they are actually engaged in general law
enforcement activities including "securing neighborhoods" and
"confronting criminals."

That raises a key question: under what authority are Blackwater's men
operating? A spokesperson for the Homeland Security Department, Russ
Knocke, told the Washington Post he knows of no federal plans to hire
Blackwater or other private security. "We believe we've got the right
mix of personnel in law enforcement for the federal government to meet
the demands of public safety," he said.

But in an hour-long conversation with several Blackwater mercenaries, we
heard a different story. The men we spoke with said they are indeed on
contract with the Department of Homeland Security and the Louisiana
governor's office and that some of them are sleeping in camps organized
by Homeland Security in New Orleans and Baton Rouge. They told us they
not only had authority to make arrests but also to use lethal force.

Where the Real Action Is

We encountered the Blackwater forces as we walked through the streets of
the largely deserted French Quarter. We were talking with two New York
City police officers when an unmarked car without license plates sped up
next to us and stopped. Inside were three men, dressed in khaki
uniforms, flak jackets and wielding automatic weapons. "Y'all know where
the Blackwater guys are?" they asked. One of the police officers
responded, "There are a bunch of them around here," and pointed down the

"Blackwater?" we asked. "The guys who are in Iraq?"

"Yeah," said the officer. "They're all over the place."

A short while later, as we continued down Bourbon Street, we ran into
the men from the car. They wore Blackwater ID badges on their arms.
"When they told me New Orleans, I said, What country is that in?" one of
the Blackwater men said. He was wearing his company ID around his neck
in a carrying case with the phrase "Operation Iraqi Freedom" printed on
it. After bragging about how he drives around Iraq in a "State
Department issued level 5, explosion proof BMW," he said he was "just
trying to get back to Kirkuk (in the north of Iraq) where the real
action is."

Later we overheard him on his cell phone complaining that Blackwater was
only paying $350 a day plus per diem. That is much less than the men
make serving in more dangerous conditions in Iraq.

Two men we spoke with said they plan on returning to Iraq in October.
But, as one mercenary said, they've been told they could be in New
Orleans for up to six months. "This is a trend," he told us. "You're
going to see a lot more guys like us in these situations."

If Blackwater's reputation and record in Iraq are any indication of the
kind of services the company offers, the people of New Orleans have much
to fear.

Jeremy Scahill, a correspondent for the national radio and TV program
Democracy Now!, and Daniela Crespo are in New Orleans.

(c) 2005 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
View this story online at: http://www.alternet.org/story/25320/


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