How the National Butterfly Center became the center of online lies

MISSION, Texas — For nearly two decades, the National Butterfly Center has provided a place of wonder along the banks of the Rio Grande, drawing curious visitors and nature lovers from across the country to watch delicate creatures like the xami hairstreak hover above the flowers and land. on the logs.

Among those who traffic in outlandish right-wing conspiracies online, the center is said to be something else: a cover for human trafficking, sex trafficking and child exploitation. The lies have become so widespread in recent years that the center now receives visitors with no interest in butterflies.

Last month, a Republican congressional candidate from Virginia came to the center looking for a smuggling site and got into a physical altercation with his manager. A few days later, a man from an upstart media organization associated with Steve Bannon recorded a video outside the center’s gates, claiming “credible threats from cartels trafficking children through the butterfly center.” To make his point, he held up a small shoe.

As butterflies fluttered over the winter-brown grasses on Wednesday, frantic staffers filled in folders, sent messages from saddened supporters and hung a sign on the door: “Closed until further notice.” Nearby, a newly installed police guard tower flashed red and blue.

In a country where many believe Satan-worshipping pedophiles run the government and the resurrection of John F. Kennedy Jr. will restore a Trump presidency, the butterfly center has become the latest unlikely victim of savage misinformation and outright lies spreading quickly online. It became a borderline version of Comet Ping Pong, the Washington pizzeria that became the center of the baseless Pizzagate conspiracy theory, which claimed Democrats ran a child sex trafficking ring in the restaurant. This lie spread so far that it prompted a man from North Carolina to walk into the pizzeria and shoot an assault rifle inside.

Becoming the center of this kind of attention terrified and infuriated butterfly center staff, some of whom took steps to protect themselves online and at work.

“The kind of activity, the kind of chatter – that’s the kind of stuff that happens before other horrific events where people end up dying,” said Dr. Jeffrey Glassberg, president of the North American Butterfly Association. , which operates the Butterfly Center in Mission.

He worried that someone who believed in lies could resort to violence and cited the mass killer who targeted Hispanic shoppers at a Walmart in El Paso in 2019, amid an equally heated debate over the safety of borders.

“We know that’s a dangerous lie,” said Dr Glassberg, 74, a butterfly lover who also developed the DNA fingerprinting process. “People say you rape babies, then unhinged people come out of the woodwork.”

When people started showing up at the butterfly center, the nonprofit decided it needed to do more to keep staff members and visitors safe. It would remain closed, he said, until a plan could be worked out on how to do so.

Created nearly two decades ago by Dr. Glassberg, the Mission Butterfly Center was built on the site of a former onion field. Recent unrest began in 2017 when President Donald J. Trump pushed to build new sections of border wall. The center did not support the construction of the wall across its 100-acre property.

The center and its staff have come under attack from conservative figures and Mr Bannon’s ‘We Build the Wall’, a crowdfunding campaign that has raised millions to build a border barrier on private land near the center of butterflies. Mr. Bannon and Brian Kolfage, an Iraq War veteran involved in leading the effort, were indicted by federal prosecutors in 2020 on charges of fraud. (Mr. Bannon was pardoned by Mr. Trump.)

During the Wall’s fundraising campaign, Mr. Kolfage repeatedly attacked the butterfly center on social media. “Instead of allowing women and children to be sex trafficked like @NatButterflies, we are taking action! This is a war for control of the most powerful country,” her Twitter account read in 2019.

“When I took on this job, I thought I could spend a lot of time outdoors: butterflies, birds, raising kids, writing grants,” said Marianna Trevino Wright, the center’s executive director since 2012. every day my kids literally worry about whether I’m going to survive a day’s work.

Before Wednesday’s closing, staff members entered files and discussed how to continue their work at home. A gardener volunteered to take care of the central red snake, carrying it in a large glass tank with two frozen rats for food.

Ms. Wright fielded calls from reporters across the country and took care of last-minute paperwork, a gun in a leather holster on her right hip. Bumper stickers and signs opposing the border wall were stacked on a meeting table next to a glass of red wine.

“The council is going to hate this handgun,” said Ms. Wright, 52, from South Texas, whose father immigrated from Mexico as a young doctor. But, she added, those attacking the center “need to know that they are not the only ones carrying arms”.

Ms Wright said she started carrying a gun at work after her altercation in the center’s colorful reception area with Virginia congresswoman Kimberly Lowe.

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

Ms Lowe denied any wrongdoing and accused Ms Wright of being the attacker. “Because of Marianna’s lies, I have wasted precious time on the campaign trail and I am constantly harassed and threatened with death,” she said in a statement. A spokesperson for the Mission Police Department said the altercation is still under investigation.

A few days later, a border security rally drew conservative activists to nearby McAllen, with speakers including Michael T. Flynn, Mr. Trump’s former general and national security adviser, and the musician Ted Nugent. On January 30, about 100 participants marched toward a section of the border wall near the center, some armed with long guns, others chanting “Amazing Grace.”

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

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

The beep of construction vehicles could be heard from inside the shelter as cranes and earth-moving machinery worked on the seawall near two sections of wall, each less than half a mile away.

National Guard troops, deployed to the border by Governor Greg Abbott last year, took up position on a seawall, more than a mile from the border but just outside a back gate in the center butterflies. Troops stand beside a camouflaged Humvee, assault rifles strapped to their chests, watching for anyone who might appear to be a migrant who crossed illegally.

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

The Guard was a recent addition to an area already 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 above the trees.

In January, two National Guard members crashed a truck into a Border Patrol steel gate on the grounds of the Butterfly Center. Staff members at the center said they found a can of Bud Light discarded in the grass nearby. A Guard spokesman said there was ‘no indication’ that alcohol was involved.

The center has, in some ways, assumed its unlikely role in the heated political debate over the border. “Proud ‘thug’ leftist with a ‘mock’ butterfly diary,” reads a mug for sale in the gift shop, drawing quotes from Mr Kolfage’s Twitter account.

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

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

She and her friend Lorna Graham walked slowly in the warm winter sun, carrying binoculars and several cameras.

“What got me on the butterflies was this place,” said Ms. Graham, who splits her time between Ontario, Canada, and an RV park in Mission. Both women lamented the state of the policy that precipitated the indefinite shutdown.

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

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