MISSION, Texas – For nearly two decades, the National Butterfly Center has provided a wonderland on the shores of the Rio Grande, attracting curious visitors and nature lovers from across the country to watch delicate creatures such as xami hair floating over flowers. and fall on logs.
However, among those who trade in unusual right-wing conspiracies online, the center is said to be something else: a cover for human smuggling, sexual trafficking and child exploitation. Lies have become so widespread in recent years that the center now accepts visitors without any interest in butterflies.
Last month, a Republican candidate in Congress from Virginia came to the center to look for a place for human smugglers and had a physical altercation with its director. Days later, a man from a new media organization linked to Steve Bannon recorded a video at the center’s gates, claiming “credible threats to cartels that traffic children through the butterfly center.” To express his opinion, he picked up a small shoe.
On Wednesday, as butterflies fluttered through the brown grass of winter, insane staff packed files, sent messages from sad supporters and hung a sign on the gate: “Closed until further notice.” Nearby, a newly installed police watchtower glowed red and blue.
In a country where many believe that Satan-worshiping pedophiles run the government and the resurrection of John F. Kennedy Jr. will restore Trump’s presidency, the Butterfly Center has become the latest unlikely victim of wild misinformation and outright lies spreading. fast online. It has become a frontier version of Comet Ping Pong, a pizzeria in Washington that has become at the center of Pizzagate’s baseless conspiracy theory, which claims Democrats run a group of child traffickers in a restaurant. This lie spread so far that it caused a North Carolina man to drive to the pizzeria and shoot inside with an assault rifle.
The focus of this type of attention has terrified and infuriated staff at the Butterfly Center, some of whom have taken steps to protect themselves online and in the workplace.
“The kind of activity, the kind of chatter – these are the things that happen before other horrific events where people end up dying,” said Dr. Jeffrey Glasberg, president of the North American Non-Profit Butterfly Association, which runs the center. for Butterflies in Mission.
He feared that someone who believed in lies could resort to violence, citing the mass murderer who targeted Spanish-speaking shoppers at Walmart in El Paso in 2019, amid such a heated debate over border security.
“We know this is a dangerous lie,” said Dr. Glasberg, 74, a lifelong butterfly lover who also developed the DNA fingerprint process. “People say you rape babies, and then loose people come out of the windows.
When people started showing up at the Butterfly Center, the nonprofit decided it needed to do more to ensure the safety of employees and visitors. It will remain closed, he said, until a plan is developed on how to do so.
Founded nearly two decades ago by Dr. Glasberg, the Mission Butterfly Center was built on the site of a former onion field. The recent problems began in 2017, when President Donald J. Trump insisted on building new sections of the border wall. The center did not support the construction of the wall through its 100-acre property.
The center and its staff have been attacked by conservative figures and Mr Bannon’s We Build the Wall campaign, which raised millions to build a border barrier on private land near the Butterfly Center. Mr Bannon and Brian Colfage, a veteran of the Iraq war who led the effort, were indicted by federal prosecutors in 2020 on charges of fraud. (Mr. Bannon was pardoned by Mr. Trump.)
During the wall funding campaign, Mr Kolfage repeatedly attacked the butterfly center on social media. “Instead of enabling women and children to be sexually trafficked like @NatButterflies, we are taking action!” This is a war for control of the most powerful country, “reads a post from his Twitter account in 2019.
“When I took up this job, I thought I would be able to spend a lot of time outdoors: butterflies, birds, children’s education, writing scholarships,” said Mariana Trevino Wright, the center’s executive director since 2012. “Now every day my children they are literally worried about whether I will survive one day at work. ”
Before closing on Wednesday, staff members grabbed files and discussed how to continue their work at home. An employee volunteered to take care of the red snake in the center, transporting it to a large glass tank along with two frozen rats for food.
Mrs. Wright was calling from reporters across the country and took care of the documents at the last minute, a pistol in a leather holster on her right thigh. Armor stickers and signs against the border wall stood in a pile on the meeting table next to a glass of red wine.
“The board will hate this side arm,” said Wright, 52, a native of South Texas whose father immigrated from Mexico as a young doctor. But, she added, the people attacking the center “should know that they are not the only ones carrying weapons.”
Ms. Wright said she started carrying a gun to work after an argument at a colorful reception in the center with Kimberly Lowe, the congressional candidate in Virginia.
Ms. Lowe and another woman arrived at the center last month, hoping to walk to Rio Grande. Ms. Wright, after reviewing Ms. Lowe’s Facebook posts, denied them access to the property and then hung up Ms. Lowe’s phone when she began filming. Then, Ms. Wright said, she was “thrown to the ground,” her own phone was taken from the other woman, and Ms. Lowe nearly ran over Ms. Wright’s son in her car.
Ms. Lowe denied any wrongdoing and accused Ms. Wright of being an aggressor. “Because of Mariana’s lies, I lost valuable time in the campaign and I have constant harassment and death threats,” she said in a statement. A spokesman for the mission’s police department said the quarrel was still under investigation.
Days later, a gathering of border security attracted conservative activists in nearby McAllen with speakers such as Michael T. Flynn, Mr. Trump’s former general and national security adviser, and musician Ted Nugent. On January 30, about a hundred attendees marched to a section of the border wall near the center, some armed with long rifles, others singing “Amazing Grace.”
The non-profit board then voted to close the butterfly center, while continuing to pay its employees.
The non-profit organization has been embroiled in a long-running lawsuit with the federal government over the activities of the border patrol and against Mr Bannon’s group, accusing the latter of defamation. As cases drag on, the construction of the border wall is approaching the center’s property, which includes wild spots and native plants cultivated to attract butterflies.
From inside the shelter, construction vehicles could be heard beeping as cranes and diggers worked on the dike near two sections of the wall, less than half a mile each.
Troops from the National Guard, sent to the border by Governor Greg Abbott last year, took up a position on the dike, more than a mile from the border, but just outside the back gate of the butterfly center. Troops stand by Camouflage in camouflage, with machine guns strapped to their chests, watching for anyone who may look like a migrant who has passed illegally.
Passing over the dike in the recent afternoon, Mrs. Wright warned the troops of a different kind of arrival from Mexico: she had seen fresh bear tracks zigzag on a muddy road. Mexican black bears have been spotted at the property before, she said, arriving there across the river.
The guard was a recent addition to an area already crowded with law enforcement. A short walk from the center of the butterflies is a border patrol facility. An observation tower with sensors and cameras rises nearby above the trees.
In January, two members of the National Guard collided with a truck at a steel gate of the Border Patrol on the territory of the Butterfly Center. Center staff said they found a box of Bud Light thrown into the grass nearby. A security spokesman said there were “zero indications” for alcohol.
The center has somehow taken on its unlikely role in the heated political debate on the border. “The proud left-wing thug with a ‘fake butterfly program’,” reads a cup on sale at the gift shop, quoting from Mr Colfage’s Twitter account.
But most visitors come for nature, not politics. In the hours before the center closed on Wednesday, a handful of people wandered around the sleeping official gardens.
“I moved here from Galveston because of the Butterfly Center,” said Christine Balboni, 63, a retired Coast Guard captain. “I’ve flown butterflies elsewhere, but here you go to pick up 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 multiple cameras.
“What set me on fire was the place,” said Ms. Graham, who divides her time between Ontario, Canada, and the Mission RV Park. Both women lamented the state of politics, which hastened the closure indefinitely.
“It’s just incredibly sad,” Ms. Balboni said.