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University uses dying town for anti terrorism training { May 7 2007 }

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Once-dying New Mexico town now thrives as training ground for anti-terrorism forces

By Tim Korte

11:08 a.m. May 7, 2007

PLAYAS, N.M. – Inside an adobe house in New Mexico's remote southwestern corner, a terrorist cell has set up shop. Outside, a 12-member SWAT takes up positions, slaps an explosive on the door, blows it in, storms the place, and opens fire, the pop-pop-pop echoing through the desert.

Within moments, the terrorists are dead. The town is saved, at least for the day.

Because tomorrow, the same SWAT team will have its hands full again, this time confronting a suicide bomber.

Playa was once a real community, a place where people raised families, went to work and sent their kids off to school. But now, practically the entire town of more than 250 houses and other buildings is one big, realistic-looking training ground for U.S. law enforcement officers being schooled in anti-terrorism techniques.

In the burst of anti-terrorism spending that followed Sept. 11, the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology bought the once-dying town four years ago, using a $5 million Homeland Security Department grant.

The university now owns and operates the place, offering instruction to the Pentagon, Homeland Security, the FBI, National Guard units and state and local police departments from around the country.

Hardly anyone actually lives in Playa. It is like a movie set, with authentically furnished homes that exist solely for training purposes.

Nineteen-year-old Trent Johnson, who grew up in Playas and whose family owns a nearby ranch, has grown accustomed to helicopters overhead.

“You see soldiers walking down streets. You see tanks and Humvees,” he said. “You sometimes feel like you live on an Army base.”

Playas, about 300 miles southwest of Albuquerque, was built in the mid-1970s by a mining company to house workers and had about 1,500 residents at its peak during the '80s. But a nearby copper smelter closed in 1999, and many people moved away.

By the time New Mexico Tech came in and bought the 259 company-owned homes and other structures – including apartment houses, a community center, grocery store, medical clinic, airstrip, bank and six-lane bowling alley – Playas was down to 60 or so people.

All were given the option to stay, and about 50 are still here. But they were relocated to a few streets on the town's south side. Most of them are now on the university payroll as police officers, security guards, landscapers, custodians and other maintenance workers.

Johnson complained it has been two years since he has seen the home where he grew up; it is now in one of the town's heavily restricted areas.

Brenda Manos, the training center's business manager, also grew up in Playas and recalls Fourth of July parties and active troops of Boy Scouts and Girls Scouts. When the smelting plant closed, weeds overtook yards and homes fell into disrepair.

“It was very depressing,” she said. “People you knew your whole life were gone. There were rumors the town would be bulldozed. Since New Mexico Tech came in, it's been very positive. They really have taken care of the residents.”

Still, Manos finds it frustrating she cannot move freely around town anymore. The change was very, very hard for a lot of people,” she said.

Such restrictions are necessary, administrators said, because of the danger and the sensitivity of the training exercises.

The New Mexico town is part of a federal consortium that includes emergency-response training centers in Alabama, Nevada, Texas and Louisiana. New Mexico Tech, whose main campus is in Socorro, about 70 miles south of Albuquerque, opened the Playas training center nearly three years ago.

It is a mostly fenced-off expanse, a mile square. Visitors must check in at a main gate. From there, only the residential area, a conference center and the business park are accessible to outsiders, and only under escort.

Rows of suburban-style homes make up other parts of town, which are designated for scenarios involving explosives, chemical or biological training. Red lights flash atop locked gates and a siren wails just before training sessions start.

One section of town has video cameras mounted on street poles and inside every room in every house. The footage is fed to a control center, where participants can analyze the action on giant screens, like a football team breaking down a game film.

Most of the homes are made to appear inhabited – a box of crackers on a refrigerator, wall hangings, playing cards on a table, toys in the yard. And there are lots of places for terrorists to hide: closets, showers and bedrooms.

One home has been gutted and overhauled. From the outside it looks like any other neighborhood house, but step inside and it's a maze.

“You think the bad guy is in front of you,” said James Morgan, the center's associate director. “If you're not careful, you might turn around and find that he slipped behind you.”

Another house features simulated bomb-making materials – liquid-filled gasoline canisters on a table and, on a countertop, pipe bombs in various stages of assembly.

“Taking on this type of effort has been a challenge. There's so much coordination with state and federal agencies and the research side of our mission,” said Van Romero, New Mexico Tech vice president for research.

“We do it because we're convinced it really is a very good thing for the security of our nation. That's what drives us.”

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