With its pristine Spanish-style houses and
flowering gardens, this remote town seems an
unlikely place to be the most dangerous spot
in the United States. But for the past six
months it has been under siege by
First, a man took some hostages and holed up
inside No. 1 Mesquite St., threatening to
blow up the place. A SWAT team had to shoot
its way inside and take him out. Then came
the discovery of a pipe-bomb factory in a
neighbor's kitchen, and an explosion on a
bus in which eight were killed or wounded.
The attacks are simulations, part of a
national training program for emergency
personnel such as police, paramedics and
border patrol officers. For the roughly 20
families who live in this
government-contracted town and the several
dozen others who live on the outskirts,
however, the events are sometimes almost too
"It feels like I'm in war," said Trent
Johnson, 17, who was born and raised here.
Helicopters fly overhead in the middle of
the night. Sometimes while he is going to
school or running errands he and his parents
must make their way past a maze of
ambulances, fire engines and Humvees. "It's
kind of freaky to see people in uniform
walking down your street with M-4s."
Mercifully, evidence of the attacks does not
last long. After each crisis, a cleanup crew
arrives, quietly sweeping up shattered
glass, replacing smashed doors, patching
cracked walls. Their job is to rewind the
clock, returning the town to the way it was
before the attack, as if nothing had
Next come a few quiet days, sometimes a few
quiet weeks. Then the attacks begin all over
Life has been this way since December, when
the first trainees began arriving from
across the country. Nicknamed "terror town"
by locals, Playas is part of a
multibillion-dollar initiative by the
federal government to prepare for what some
think is inevitable: another attack on U.S.
While the government's efforts to prevent
terrorism -- extra security at airports and
at the borders, the roundup of suspect
combatants -- have been the most visible, it
also has dedicated significant resources to
trying to predict and respond to worst-case
scenarios. The cornerstone of that effort
"You'll never fight the scenario you train
against but the fact that you've been
exposed to similar conditions in a synthetic
environment -- one where there's no penalty
or harm for making a mistake -- is the best
opportunity you're going to have to learn,"
said Corey Gruber, director of policy for
the Office for Domestic Preparedness in the
Homeland Security Department.
The challenge for those who design the
simulations is to create something that is
more than a flashy Hollywood act. Some
critics have questioned the cost and
usefulness of simulations, saying that
trying to get a handle on the infinite
number of variables involved in any possible
attack is pointless and the government might
be better off putting its resources into
other projects. Another worry is the danger
that enemies of the United States may be
able to use data from the exercises as a
playbook for targets.
Some simulations, like the ones in Playas,
are narrowly focused on one problem and
involve only several dozen participants.
Others are elaborate multi-state,
multi-agency efforts with professional
actors, fake blood and props. Last month,
for example, hospital emergency rooms in New
Jersey were flooded with "patients" who were
infected with pneumonic plague while a car
bomb filled with toxic chemicals detonated
at a waterfront festival in Connecticut.
More than 23,000 trainees participated.
The most complex, involving thousands or
even millions of virtual deaths, can only be
conducted inside the brain of a computer. In
secured rooms at Los Alamos National
Laboratory, Naval Postgraduate School,
Virginia Tech and other research
institutions, the machines are modeling
disasters such as the contamination of the
water supply, a smallpox release, and a
hacker attack on our Internet
Gruber said each simulation is followed by
detailed assessments of what went right or
wrong. The results, he said, have been
helpful in pinpointing weaknesses in our
response system. Gruber said, for instance,
that after an exercise that involved a dirty
bomb the government discovered that there
were multiple agencies trying to predict the
spread of radiation, yet no formal way for
them to communicate. They have since fixed
Daniel Hamilton, a professor at the Johns
Hopkins School of Advanced International
Studies, cautioned that the results of
simulations should be seen as a tool to help
in decision-making, not as a solution. Johns
Hopkins recently co-hosted an exercise
involving a biological attack that began in
Europe and that featured Madeleine Albright
playing the president.
Simulations "simply draw out a range of
choices and provide some perspective,"
Built by the Phelps Dodge Corp. in the 1970s
to house workers at its copper smelter plant
nearby, Playas was once an idyllic piece of
rural America. Nestled at the base of a
small mountain range in the deserts of
southwestern New Mexico, it housed more than
1,000 people in a complex that included
about 260 pastel-painted houses, a bank,
medical clinic, bowling alley, and diner.
People who lived in Playas in its heyday
remember how no one's door was ever locked
and newcomers would be welcomed with
fresh-baked pies. But when the factory
closed in 1999, all but a handful of
Playas's inhabitants left.
It was not until last fall that Playas was
reborn. The New Mexico Institute of Mining
and Technology (better known as New Mexico
Tech) used a $5 million grant from the
Department of Homeland Security to purchase
the 640-acre township. It is now part of a
network of academic institutions that
specialize in training emergency workers to
respond to various threats. In Alabama, the
scenarios revolve mostly around chemical
incidents. In Louisiana, biological threats.
In Texas, a broad range incidents involving
weapons of mass destruction, including
derailed trains and people trapped in
tunnels. In Nevada, radiological attacks.
New Mexico specializes in explosives.
Letter bombs, pipe bombs, car bombs and the
improvised explosive devices placed on
roadways are among the easiest of weapons
for terrorist to create. That is why many
believe they have been so difficult to
control in Iraq and are the most likely to
make their way to the United States first.
"This is something that terrorists have been
using for a long time and we believe they'll
use here in the future," said Van Romero,
vice president for research and economic
development at New Mexico Tech.
Playas resident Benjamin Davis recalled what
it was like to play a bus passenger seated
next to a bomber in one scenario.
"It makes you realize how awful the world
can be . . . It makes you think," said
Davis, 23, a furniture store worker and
volunteer firefighter who was paid $10 an
hour for his role-playing.
When New Mexico Tech moved in, it closed the
town to newcomers. Existing families were
relocated to three streets on the eastern
side of town. They pay about $375 a month in
rent, depending on their home's size,
condition and location.
Bill Cavaliere, 47, is one of those who
decided to stay. He is the former sheriff of
Hidalgo County which includes Playas and
extends south to the Mexican border. He said
is proud of his town's role in helping stop
terrorism. When soldiers came to train
recently, he said, "we said 'God bless you'
and waved American flags."
David and Kathy Johnson, Trent's parents,
have mixed feelings about their decision to
remain in Playas. They did it mostly because
they did not want to uproot their son during
his senior year of high school. They say
that their new landlords have tried hard to
minimize disruptions to their lives--for
instance, building a special half-mile road
for David, 50, so his commute to his job at
the cattle ranch on the other side of town
would not take him through training
exercises in the center of town. And, as
landlord, New Mexico Tech continues to make
available a bank window, convenience store
and diner. It also threw the residents a
Christmas dinner and gave each family a
bottle of champagne for New Year's.
But despite the university's best efforts,
Kathy, 47, a bookkeeper for a nearby school
district who has lived in Playas for 17
years, said that lately she has been feeling
as if she is living in an occupied town.
One afternoon on her way back from work, she
was stopped by a soldier standing next to a
tank who asked to see her driver's license.
Then New Mexico Tech barricaded half of the
town, declaring it a restricted area and
making her family sign forms saying they
will not enter without an escort. Last
month, the town's operators instituted a new
visitor's policy, requiring outsiders to
check in at the police station before
John Jones, a New Mexico Tech official in
charge of running the town, said that on
days when homeland security exercises are
taking place the residents cannot admit
visitors--even family members or friends.
"I don't know how long we will keep living
here because of this," Kathy said. When
residents first heard New Mexico Tech was
buying the town, she said, "people assumed
it would be like the old days. But that's
not the way it is."