Texas butterfly center targeted by far-right conspiracy theorists to reopen

Texas butterfly center targeted by far-right conspiracy theorists to reopen

There’s a legend in south Texas involving the Monarch butterfly, the magnificent insect with the tiger markings. The Monarch typically arrives in the Rio Grande alley on its annual migratory trek in early November. That’s when people on both sides of the border celebrate Day of the Dead, a sacrosanct holiday in which residents honor dead relatives by visiting their gravesites and building elaborate altars in their memory.

Legend has it that the butterflies carry the souls of the dead relatives as they make their way to the warmer climes of Mexico.

 

Can Texas become purple? That may depend on Hispanic voters Carlos Sanchez

In the past few years, that legend has been competing with disturbing and unfounded far-right conspiracy theories that the National Butterfly Center, a 100-acre sanctuary for the Monarchs and other species on the banks of the Rio Grande, is the site of child sexual abuse trafficking and illegal immigration. As the misinformation crescendo grew, driven by the hot-button issue of immigration, the center closed its doors in February. Far-right conspiracists and QAnon followers targeted the center and threatened violence because it opposed the construction of Trump’s border wall based on its impact on the surrounding habitat.

Today, the center will reopen to the public in honor of Earth Day, which was celebrated on Friday.

The saga of the Monarch sanctuary is yet another example from this golden age of disinformation – from the Senate committee members who painted US supreme court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson as soft on child pornographers to the Michigan congresswoman crediting President Trump with having caught Osama bin Laden to Russia claiming that growing evidence of military atrocities in Ukraine are staged.

But the type of disinformation that is plaguing the National Butterfly Center resonates in border communities because violence is not merely a threat here, but a reality –measurable in the deaths of 23 people and 23 others who were wounded. It happened more than two years ago in an El Paso Walmart. Patrick Wood Crusius drove all night from his home in Allen, Texas, more than 600 miles away, to target Hispanics in a mass shooting. In a manifesto, Crusius spoke of the “Hispanic invasion of Texas”.

These concerns over border violence are now bolstered by a recent report by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) that radical right extremism in the past year has “coalesced into a political movement that is now one of the most powerful forces shaping politics in the United States”.

The report goes on to say: “In the year since the (January 6) insurrection, this hard-right movement – made up of hate and extremist groups, Trump loyalists, right-wing thinktanks, media organizations and committed activists with institutional power – has worked feverishly to undermine democracy, with real-world consequences for the people and groups they target.”

Ironically, this political force shows momentum at a time when the number of organized hate groups in the US is declining, dropping to 733 in 2021 from a high of 1,020 in 2018, according to the report. But the decline of organized hate groups should not be comforting because, as the SPLC noted, it marks a movement in which extreme ideology – and the threat of violence – is becoming more mainstream. It could potentially spawn the lone actors who might be willing to drive all night to commit violent acts.

Before the butterfly sanctuary was closed, executive director Marianna Treviño-Wright reported being assaulted when Virginia congressional candidate Kimberly Lowe entered the grounds of the center in search of “illegals” and was asked to leave. The confrontation was captured on audio.

The irony is that the only documented violence on the property would be domestic, not from immigrants. In fact, the butterfly center is the essence of tranquility. Once an onion field, this site was chosen as a sanctuary because it was at a migratory crossroad. The center planted or cultivated more than 200 species of nectar- and host-based plants, including milkweed and sage bushes, that attract the butterflies, which are free-roaming and not captured. Annual census counts of butterflies have documented more than 240 species and recorded more than 200,000 butterflies representing 100 species in a single day.

The center became a target of extremists when a national group led by former Trump aide Steve Bannon and the organization “We Build a Wall” set up a toehold on land adjacent to the sanctuary. As organizers tried to raise money for a private border wall on social media, the story was born of children being smuggled through the center for sex trafficking. The posts were always accompanied by a plea to send money. The head of “We Build the Wall”, Brian Kolfage, and Bannon were indicted on fraud charges last year. stemming from the estimated $25m raised by the organization. On Thursday, Kolfage and co-defendant Andrew Badolato pleaded guilty in federal court to defrauding donors of hundreds of thousands of dollars and filing a false tax return.

Concerned that the wall was not structurally sound so close to the river, the butterfly center sued to dismantle it, saying that a major flood event could send the wall tumbling into the water and have a catastrophic effect on neighboring lands. They also included defamation charges related to the sex ring allegations.

The legal cases are creeping through federal court, allowing the social media attacks to fester. A gathering of ultra-conservatives in south Texas precipitated the confrontation with Lowe, who was ultimately banned from attending the gathering because of the negative attention she brought.

Treviño-Wright said the re-opening of the butterfly center comes with some trepidation, even after implementing security recommendations from a consulting firm. “We decided to open with the understanding that nobody can ever feel safe again,” she said. “Not those people in El Paso who just wanted to go shopping at their Walmart or those police officers and staff members who just wanted to go to their jobs at the Capitol on January 6.”

  • Carlos Sanchez is director of public affairs for Hidalgo county, Texas. He was a journalist for 37 years and has worked at the Washington Post and Texas Monthly magazine, as well as eight other newsrooms. He can be reached at borderscribe@gmail.com

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