Right-wing media are citing the claims of a high-level Mexican drug cartel figure, who faces life in prison for narcotrafficking, to advance its latest conspiracy theory about a failed federal law enforcement operation to stop the flow of guns into Mexico.
According to Vicente Zambada-Niebla, a high-level Sinaloa Cartel figure known as "El Vicentillo" who will soon face trial in Chicago, the purpose of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' (ATF) Operation Fast and Furious was to arm the Sinaloa Cartel so that it would have the firepower to destroy rival drug cartels. Zambada-Niebla's testimony is not credible for a number of reasons, the most glaring being that he was arrested in March 2009, more than six months before the ATF even conceived of Fast and Furious.
Despite this red flag, Zambada-Niebla's claims have been repeatedly promoted on the National Rifle Association's radio and television shows, by Fox News contributor Katie Pavlich, and throughout the fringe conservative blogosphere.
For years right-wing media have attempted to make Fast and Furious a major Obama administration scandal. Beginning in October 2009 through its termination in January 2011, ATF agents involved in Operation Fast and Furious allowed guns to cross the United States-Mexico border with the hopes of building arms trafficking cases against high-level drug cartel figures.
Although the operation did lead to charges against 34 defendants, it also lost track of nearly 2,000 weapons, most of which likely fell into the hands of Mexican drug cartels. While conservative media and the NRA have promoted the conspiracy theory that Fast and Furious was designed to create mayhem in Mexico to give cover for President Obama to push for gun restrictions in the U.S., an independent report released in 2012 rejected those claims. The Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General concluded the design of Fast and Furious was "significantly flawed," but that there is "no evidence that the agents responsible for the cases had improper motives or were trying to accomplish anything other than dismantling a dangerous firearms trafficking organization." The report also dismissed conservative media theories that high-level Obama administration figures were involved in the design or execution of Fast and Furious.
Now conservative media are attempting to breathe new life into Fast and Furious on the basis of Zambada-Niebla's claims, which recently appeared in a report by Mexican newspaper El Universal. Beyond being jailed before Fast and Furious began, there are other reasons Zambada-Niebla's claims are discredited. As The Washington Post notes, Zambada-Niebla's overarching claim -- that the United States granted him and other Sinaloa figures immunity and promised not to interfere with Sinaloa operations between 2000 and 2012 in exchange for information about other cartels in Mexico -- "just happen[s] to serve the argument that he shouldn't go to jail for allegedly trafficking more than $1 billion dollars worth of cocaine and heroin."
The Post also questions how Zambada-Niebla, who is the son of Sinaloa Cartel boss Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada, could have possessed information about the supposed deal between the government and Sinaloa between 2009 and 2012 when Zambada-Niebla was already in jail.
Zambada-Niebla's claims about Fast and Furious were the focus of at least four segments on NRA News' televised show on The Sportsman Channel and SiriusXM radio program. During these segments, host Cam Edwards told listeners to take Zambada-Niebla's claims with "a grain of salt," and noted that the claims "have not been corroborated yet" but also called the Fast and Furious claim a "damning allegation" that explained the true purpose of the operation, complaining that the story was not getting enough media coverage.
During the January 13 edition of Cam & Company, Edwards repeated Zambada-Niebla's claim that "Operation Fast and Furious was in fact part of an agreement to finance and arm the cartel in exchange for information used to take down its rivals" and said that the allegation may explain for the first time the real purpose of "how this Operation Fast and Furious was supposed to work." In fact, the DOJ Inspector General's report already explained the operation's design and execution in great detail. Edwards also complained that the El Universal story that includes Zambada-Neibla's claim "will get approximately one-one-thousandth the coverage that Bridgegate has received in the mainstream media," a reference to a scandal facing New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie that is actually supported by corroborated evidence.
On his January 14 radio show, Edwards again cited Zambada-Niebla's claim, calling the allegations "troubling" and complained that MSNBC had not covered this story but had devoted a special to "Bridgegate." Later on the show, Edwards hosted Fox News contributor Katie Pavlich, who authored a falsehood-filled book about Fast and Furious, to react to Zambada-Niebla's allegation. Pavlich falsely suggested that the allegation had been corroborated by the Drug Enforcement Administration, stating, "Now the DEA agents and these cartel members are saying that the United States government, through the State Department in particular, were helping to get the Sinaloa Cartel guns to kind of take out those other cartels." During Edwards' show on The Sportsman Channel that evening, also called Cam & Company, Edwards again aired out Zambada-Niebla's claim and suggested it explained the true purpose of Fast and Furious.
Zambada-Niebla's claim about Fast and Furious was also widely promoted in the conservative blogosphere and appeared on Glenn Beck's The Blaze, PJ Media, American Thinker, John Birch Society publication The New American, and RT.