NEW ORLEANS – 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 US occupation, L. Paul Bremer and the former US ambassador to Iraq, John
"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 2 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 US government
contracts and has provided security for many senior US diplomats,
foreign dignitaries and corporations. The company rose to
international prominence after 4 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 US retaliation against the civilian
population of Fallujah that resulted in scores of deaths and tens of
thousands of refugees.
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
Officially, Blackwater says it forces are in New Orleans to "join the
Hurricane Relief Effort." A statement on the company's website, dated
September 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 2 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. One of
them wore a gold Louisiana state law enforcement badge and said he had
been "deputized" by the governor. They told us they not only had
authority to make arrests but also to use lethal force.
We encountered the Blackwater forces as we walked through the streets
of the largely deserted French Quarter. We were talking with 2 New
York Police officers when an unmarked car without license plates sped
up next to us and stopped. Inside were 3 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
"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?,'"
said one of the Blackwater men. 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
"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 6 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.