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How butterfly refuge at the border became the target of far-right lies

 

By J. David Goodman

© The New York Times Co.

MISSION, TEXAS »

For nearly two decades, the National Butterfly Center has provided a place of wonder along the banks of the Rio Grande, attracting curious visitors and nature enthusiasts from around the country to watch delicate creatures like the xami hairstreak float over flowers and alight on logs.

Among those who trade in outlandish right-wing conspiracies online, though, the center is said to be something else: a cover for human smuggling, sex trafficking and the exploitation of children. The lies have spread so widely in recent years that the center is now receiving visitors with no interest in butterflies at all.

Last month, a Republican congressional candidate from Virginia went to the center looking for a site of human smugglers and had a physical altercation with its director. Days later, a man from an upstart media organization associated with Steve Bannon recorded a video outside the center’s gates, claiming “credible threats of the cartels trafficking children through the butterfly center.” To make his point, he held up a tiny shoe.

On Wednesday, as butterflies fluttered across winter-browned grasses, frenzied staff members packed files, fielded messages from saddened supporters and hung a sign on the gate: “Closed until further notice.” Nearby, a newly installed police guard tower flashed red and blue.

In a country where many believe that Satan-worshipping pedophiles run the gov-ernment and the resurrection of John F. Kennedy Jr. will restore a Trump presidency, the center has become the latest victim of wild misinformation and outright lies spreading rapidly online. It has become a borderland version of Comet Ping Pong, the Washington pizzeria that became the center of the baseless Pizzagate theory, which claimed that Democrats were running a child sex trafficking ring in the restaurant.

That lie spread so far that it prompted a North Carolina man to drive to the pizzeria and fire an assault rifle inside.

Becoming the focus of this type of attention has terrified and infuriated the workers at the butterfly center, some of whom have taken steps to protect themselves online and at work.

“The kind of activity, the kind of chatter going on — these are the kinds of things that happen before other horrible events where people ended up dying,” said Dr. Jeffrey Glassberg, president of the nonprofit North American Butterfly Association, which runs the butterfly center in Mission.

He feared that someone who believed the lies could resort to violence, and cited the mass killer who targeted Latino shoppers at a Walmart in El Paso in 2019, amid a similarly heated debate over border security.

“We know it’s a dangerous lie,” said Glassberg, 74, a lifelong lover of butterflies who also developed the process of DNA fingerprinting. “People say you’re raping babies, then unhinged people come out of the woodwork.”

When people began showing up at the butterfly center, it decided it needed to do more to provide security for staff members and visitors. It would remain closed, he said, until a plan could be developed for how to do so.

Created nearly two decades ago by Glassberg, the butterfly center in Mission was built on the site of a former onion field. The recent trouble began in 2017 as then-President Donald Trump pushed to build new sections of border wall. The center did not support construction of the wall through its 100-acre property.

The center and its staff members have endured attacks by conservative figures and from Bannon’s “We Build the Wall,” a crowdfunding campaign that raised millions to construct a border barrier on private land near the butterfly center. Bannon and Brian Kolfage, an Iraq War veteran involved in leading the effort, were indicted by federal prosecutors in 2020 on fraud charges. (Bannon was pardoned by Trump.)

During the wall-funding campaign, Kolfage repeatedly attacked the butterfly center on social media. “Instead of enabling women and children to be sex trafficked like @NatButterflies, we are taking action! This is a war for control of the most powerful country,” read one post from his Twitter account in 2019.

“When I took this job, I thought I would be able to spend a good amount of time outdoors: butterflies, birds, educating children, writing grants,” said Marianna Trevino Wright, the center’s executive director since 2012. “Now every day my children literally worry whether I’m going to survive a day at work.”

Before the closure Wednesday, staffers grabbed files and discussed how to continue their work at home. A groundskeeper volunteered to care for the center’s red snake, carrying it out in a large glass tank along with two frozen rats for food.

Wright fielded calls from reporters around the country and took care of lastminute paperwork, a pistol in a leather holster on her right hip. Bumper stickers and signs opposing the border wall sat in a pile on a meeting table alongside a glass of red wine.

“The board is going to hate this sidearm,” said Wright, 52, a South Texas native whose father immigrated from Mexico as a young physician. But, she added, the people attacking the center “need to know they’re not the only ones who carry weapons.”

Wright said she began carrying a pistol at work after her altercation in the center’s colorful reception area with Kimberly Lowe, the candidate for Congress in Virginia.

Lowe and another woman arrived at the center last month, hoping to walk to the Rio Grande. Wright, after looking at Lowe’s Facebook posts, barred them from the property and swatted away Lowe’s phone when she started filming. After that, Wright said, she was “thrown to the ground,” her own phone was taken by the other woman, and Lowe nearly ran over Wright’s son with her car.

Lowe denied any wrongdoing and accused Wright of being the aggressor. “Because of Marianna’s lies, I’ve lost valuable time on the campaign trail and have constant harassment and death threats,” she said in a statement.

A spokesperson for the Mission Police Department said the altercation was under investigation.

Days later, a border security gathering attracted conservative activists to nearby McAllen with speakers such as Michael Flynn, the former general and national security adviser to Trump, and musician Ted Nugent. On Jan. 30, about 100 marched to a section of wall near the center, some armed with long guns, others singing “Amazing Grace.”

After that, the nonprofit board voted to close the butterfly center, while continuing to pay its workers.

The nonprofit has been engaged in a years-long legal battle with the federal government over Border Patrol activity and against Bannon’s group, accusing the latter of defamation. As the cases drag on, construction of the border wall has crept closer to the center’s property, which features wild patches and native plants cultivated to attract butterflies.

The beeping of construction vehicles could be heard from inside the refuge as cranes and earth movers worked on the levee near two sections of wall, each less than a half-mile away.

National Guard troops, deployed to the border by Gov. Greg Abbott last year, have taken up a position on a levee, more than 1 mile from the border but just outside a back gate of the center.

The troops stand by a camouflaged Humvee, assault rifles strapped across their chests, watching for anyone who might appear to be a migrant who crossed illegally.

Walking over the levee on a recent afternoon, Wright warned the troops of a different kind of arrival from Mexico: She had seen fresh bear tracks zigzagging on a muddy road. Mexican black bears have been spotted on the property before, she said, arriving there from across the river.

The Guard has been a recent addition to an area crowded with law enforcement. A short walk from the butterfly center is a Border Patrol facility. Nearby, a surveillance tower with sensors and cameras rises over the trees.

In January two members of the Guard crashed a truck into a steel Border Patrol gate on the butterfly center’s land. Staff members at the center said they found a can of Bud Light tossed into the grass nearby. A Guard spokesperson said there was “zero indication” alcohol was involved.

The center has in some ways embraced its unlikely role in the heated political debate over the border. “Proud left wing ‘thug’ with a ‘sham’ butterfly agenda,” reads a mug on sale at in the gift shop, drawing quotes from Kolfage’s Twitter account.

But most visitors come for nature, not politics. In the hours before the center closed Wednesday, a handful of people roamed through the formal gardens.

“I moved here from Galveston because of the butterfly center,” said Christine Balboni, 63, a retired Coast Guard captain. “I’ve butterflied in other places, but this is where you go to get some incredible tropical butterflies that you won’t see anywhere else.”

She and friend Lorna Graham walked slowly under a warm winter sun, carrying binoculars and cameras.

“What started me on butterflies is this place,” said Graham, who splits her time between Ontario, Canada, and an RV park in Mission. Both women lamented the state of politics that precipitated the indefinite closure.

“It’s just incredibly sad,” Balboni said.

 

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