- The Washington Times - Friday, November 26, 2004

PLAYAS, N.M. — This former company town on the edge of New Mexico’s economically depressed Hidalgo County is about to become the first U.S. community wholly devoted to the war on terror.

In late September, without much fanfare, the Department of Homeland Security helped a subcontractor, the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, buy Playas in its entirety for $5 million in order to convert it to a fully integrated counterterrorism training center.

Because the whole town is now in the hands of homeland-security experts, they will be able to use it to stage mock bombings, hostage takings, water-supply poisonings and anthrax and chemical-weapons attacks, officials said. They can even explode a fake “dirty bomb” to see how “radiation” could spread over still impeccable lawns, adobe-colored houses and the outlying rattlesnake-inhabited plain.

The first exercise featuring simulated suicide bombings is scheduled for Dec. 2 and will involve all of the largely abandoned town, which boasts more than 250 homes, a community center, a clinic, an independent water-supply system and the local pride and joy — the Playas bowling alley.

“Nobody expected this turn of events,” laughs Tommy Townsend, the jovial former city manager and one of the local old-timers. “But everybody is happy we are getting the jobs back.”

The freshly minted Terror Town USA, about 40 miles north of the Mexico border, is wedged between a dry salt lake and the mesquite- and yucca-studded Big Hatchet Mountains that offer locals bountiful hunting grounds. An arrow-straight highway that connects tiny local communities is known for tempting drivers to test their racing skills.

Built by Phelps Dodge Mining Co. in the 1970s to accommodate workers of its nearby copper smelter, Playas once had a population of about 1,000. But the smelter operation closed in 1999, forcing residents to leave in droves in search for other jobs and turning the community into a virtual ghost town with slightly more than 50 permanent residents.

Nobody knows whether a buyer would have been found if the September 11 terrorist attacks had not brought homeland security to the forefront of the national agenda and made training of first responders a priority.

That’s when Sen. Pete V. Domenici, New Mexico Republican, put in a good word for Playas to federal homeland-security officials, who in turn gave New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology — known as New Mexico Tech — a $5 million grant to buy the town. In addition, Mr. Domenici slipped $3 million into the fiscal 2005 defense appropriations bill to purchase equipment for counterterrorism training in Playas.

Now “suicide bombers” are preparing to make a grand entrance.

The first exercise will unfold under four scenarios, featuring bombers on a bus, in a house, with a suicide belt on a street and in a Gaza Strip-style bomb-making factory, officials say.

With homeland-security dignitaries watching, Black Hawk helicopters will swoop down, delivering SWAT teams. Medical crews will spring into action, while local residents will play the terrified public.

Plans for subsequent exercises have not been fleshed out, but officials indicated that scenarios might involve simulated weapons of mass destruction.

“Some training sessions will be classified,” warns Dennis Hunter, one of the facility’s new managers.

Townspeople, meanwhile, are counting the days to the moment they are “bombed” and “poisoned,” because all of that means federal dollars for the cash-starved community. And that translates into jobs.

“We’ve been waiting for these jobs for so long,” smiles Tricia Townsend, wife of the former city manager. “It’s time for them to finally start hiring.”

Asked whether Playas’ new line of business was generating concern among neighbors, one mustached man laughed: “You’re kidding me. Bring it on.”

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