Of all the harebrained conspiracy theories we’ve heard, we’re putting the one that queries “Are Mexican cartels behind California’s wildfires?” in our top five favorites. Before you get your knickers in a twist and start repeating the headline, let’s examine the facts.
When disaster strikes, most human beings see tragedy. Those not burdened with character flaws like empathy and integrity see opportunity.
“Disaster capitalism” is the name given to the phenomenon of land speculators flooding a hurricane-stricken area once floodwaters recede to snap up land on the cheap. This is opportunism and obedience to the whims of the free market at its ugliest. But at least you can say these mercenaries operate in a fact-based world.
Exploiters of catastrophe and suffering for political purposes escape even these modest strictures. And do so without much regard for basic fact-gathering practices. They pose questions like “are Mexican cartels behind California’s wildfires?”
Over the past few days, the far-right media has been spreading a rumor about the wildfires raging through Northern California. This is the same group that pushed white nationalism and extreme conservatism inside the gates of the White House.
The worst fires in the state’s history—which have to date killed 41 people and destroyed 6,700 homes and buildings—weren’t caused by faulty power lines as an investigative report and a lawsuit both contend.
No. Evil people with brown skin deliberately set them. In a convenient coincidence, the same bad hombres Donald Trump has been ranting about for years.
On Saturday, a right-wing website called GotNews published what it breathlessly advertised as an “exclusive” story.
GotNews’s big get is unsourced speculation asking “are Mexican cartels behind California’s wildfires?”
The article features unnamed federal law enforcement officials and marijuana industry figures. Both groups had (supposedly) begun to suspect that Mexican drug cartels were behind the fires.
“Law enforcement authorities—including senior Department of Homeland Security officials—and key people within the legal marijuana business quickly noticed that the areas hit hardest by the fires are the same places that California’s marijuana industry legally grows cannabis, and are now starting to suspect foul play,” GotNews reported.
They tellingly tagged the story “race.”
“The suspicious timing and sheer destruction of the fires has led them to believe the Mexican drug cartels—infamous for their ruthless tactics—had a hand in starting them,” the post continued. “These cartels, which run a large share of the world’s multi-billion dollar illegal drug trade, certainly have the means to pull of an attack like this.”
It’s true that the fires came at the absolute worst time—harvest time—for outdoor marijuana farmers. It’s also true that October is when California is at its driest.
Thus, it’s the time California is most susceptible to fires like this.
It’s also true that these fires will have a minuscule impact on California’s marijuana industry. Total cannabis production in the state exceeds 13 million pounds, according to a report prepared for the state in August.
As for “the cartels,” which are steadily exiting the marijuana game as cannabis legalization spreads?
They may not even have a hand in California cannabis production. In fact, no marijuana grows in California have been connected to a major drug-trafficking organization, a spokesman for the national drug czar’s office told the Los Angeles Times in 2013.
But are Mexican cartels behind California’s wildfires?
GotNews provided no sourcing for these allegations beyond the above.
Reached for comment by High Times on Wednesday, DHS spokesman David Lapan called the story “highly speculative,” adding “there is no indication anyone [at GotNews] spoke with ‘senior DHS officials’ about this supposition.”
Marijuana industry figures speaking to High Times reacted more authentically.
“It’s total bullshit and a complete distraction from what is important, getting relief to those impacted by the fires,” said Amanda Reiman, the vice-president of community relations at Mendocino County-based Flow Kana. “I have nothing else to say on the topic.”
Undaunted, GotNews followed this vapidity up with another “exclusive” report on Tuesday.
This one at least had sourcing. A Breitbart aggregation of a story published in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, which is the local paper of record in Sonoma County. It’s part of the “lying mainstream media” GotNews abhors.
This story recounted how the police arrested a 29-year-old homeless man at around 3 p.m. on October 8 for starting a fire in a local park. It was about seven hours before the wildfires started. The gentleman in question is a Mexican national. As it does in situations like these, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) issued a detainer hold.
First responders “fully extinguished” the fire, the newspaper reported. But by the time this tidbit reached GotNews, it became yet another “exclusive” that led the same unnamed, anonymous authorities to be “increasingly certain that the cartels are behind the fires.”
Here’s a fun fact for the lucky few who are blissfully unaware.
GotNews is the effort of Charles C. “Chuck” Johnson. He’s a 28-year-old archconservative who has achieved a measure of notoriety as a shameless Internet troll.
This is a quality he shares with President Donald Trump.
Since noxious lies on the Internet helped get Trump elected, Johnson, an associate of Stephen Bannon, also wields a measure of influence in today’s fact-adverse conservative political circles. All this despite a C.V. that would send most people into permanent hiding.
Once dubbed the web’s “worst journalist” by Gawker (whom he later sued), Johnson achieved his celebrity by flinging unsubstantiated nonsense around the darker, chthonic corners of the web. The same seedy space occupied by Breitbart, InfoWars and the like.
What’s his record like?
Here are some of his choice “scoops.” He accused Barack Obama of being gay. He also doxxed the wrong person supposedly at the center of Rolling Stone’s notorious UVA rape story. And, finally, Twitter permanently banned him in 2015 for harassment.
Johnson’s fire story is steadily tumbling into that same category. That might not matter if he wasn’t wasting serious peoples’ time by forcing them to address this reactionary coprolite. But it is.
Actual Fake News
This is the age of fake news.
Johnson’s invective was shared enough on social media to compel Snopes.com to publish a story, emphasizing that the allegations are completely unproven.
During a press briefing on Tuesday, Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano attempted to quash the rumor, the first “really crazy” speculation about the wildfires authorities have had to deal with.
“There’s no indication he’s related to these fires at all,” he said, according to the Sacramento Bee. “I wanted to kill that speculation right now, so we didn’t have things running too far out of control.”
When reached for comment, Johnson dismissed the police story and clutched onto the shreds of his shamelessly racist theory even as it disintegrated.
“Your assumptions are wrong. I’m very confident it’s true,” Johnson told High Times. “It’s not the power lines.”
He declined to elaborate further.
Final Hit: Are Mexican Cartels Behind California’s Wildfires?
A real-life federal law enforcement official, speaking to High Times on background, offered that it’s “possible” that Johnson heard from some “reactionary deputy, agent or police chief who felt like talking out their ass.”
At the same time, Johnson has another major problem with his “sourcing.”
Homeland Security isn’t investigating the fires. That’s the job of state officials, meaning that if the GotNews “exclusive” is a total fabrication—as it appears—it’s not even a good one.
“The only people benefiting from Johnson’s theory are his white nationalist readers,” our source said. And the fact-checking industry, which barely had to get out of bed to disregard this latest half-assed racist agitprop as total bunk.
So are Mexican cartels behind California’s wildfires? It’s about as likely as the existance of Donald Trump’s consciense.