National Butterfly Center closes after repeated threats stemming from false sex-trafficking claims – The Washington Post

February 5, 2022

The National Butterfly Center in South Texas will be closed “for the immediate future” because of baseless attacks stemming from a clash over immigration enforcement at the nearby U.S.-Mexico border, the organization said Wednesday.
The nonprofit center in Mission has endured a firestorm in recent years amid an ongoing lawsuit against the former Trump administration, which sought to build part of a border wall on its property, and the fundraising organization We Build the Wall. Right-wing groups have falsely claimed the butterfly center illegally smuggles people into the United States and facilitates sex trafficking.
Leadership of the 100-acre butterfly preserve said they chose to shut their doors out of concern for the safety of visitors and their staff, whom they will continue to pay.
“We look forward to reopening, soon, when the authorities and professionals who are helping us navigate this situation give us the green light,” Jeffrey Glassberg, president of the North American Butterfly Association, which runs the center, said in a statement.
The indefinite closure comes shortly after the center shut down for three days last weekend, citing “credible threats” regarding a nearby border security rally. The We Stand America event in McAllen featured Michael Flynn, President Donald Trump’s first national security adviser, and other Trump administration officials.
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The butterfly center said it became aware of the rally on Jan. 21, when a congressional candidate from Virginia demanded to access the Rio Grande from the center’s property to “see the rafts with the illegal crossing.” The center alleged that the candidate and her friend knocked down its executive director, Marianna Trevino-Wright, and tried to run her son over with a car.
On Twitter, the butterfly center identified the candidate as Kimberly Lowe, who on Thursday denied knocking down Trevino-Wright and said they “safely drove around” her son while he was trying to prevent them from leaving. She said in a statement that she had gone to the butterfly center “to see what is happening at the border.”
The center alleged that a former Texas official, whom it did not identify, later advised Trevino-Wright to be armed or leave town during the rally because protesters would probably stop at the preserve during a caravan to the border. Later, the center said, someone tore down a state-erected sign marking the preserve’s location.
At least some participants in the We Stand America rally do appear to have stopped at the butterfly center. Ben Bergquam, of the Stephen K. Bannon-affiliated network Real America’s Voice, recorded himself in front of the preserve’s sign, holding a child’s shoe and a wristband he says belonged to a trafficking victim. Lynz Piper-Loomis, a South Carolina congressional candidate, shared a video of herself and a friend at the center allegingchildren had been trafficked there.
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Mission Police Chief Robert Dominguez said there was no evidence that the butterfly center was involved in any form of trafficking. The U.S. Border Patrol did not immediately respond to a message.
In an interview, Trevino-Wright said people affiliated with We Build the Wall had been harassing the butterfly center since 2019 in what she considers an attempt to raise funds. After the threats recently spiked, she said the preserve’s board of directors decided to shutter the facility to prevent potential violence.
Although Trevino-Wright said police had increased their presence at the center, she said she doubted that those harassing the preserve would stop.
“There’s no consequences for any of them,” she said, “so it’s just going to get worse.”
The preserve’s lawsuit against the Trump administration began in 2017, when it alleged that federal officials had decided to build a border wall on the center’s property without complying with existing law. The center later alleged that Customs and Border Protection agents were driving machinery on the property without permission or notice.
Another lawsuit filed by the butterfly center asserts that Brian Kolfage, We Build the Wall’s founder, defamed and disparaged the preserve in 2019 tweets accusing the organization of human trafficking. Kolfage and Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist, were later indicted over accusations that they defrauded donors by taking compensation from the We Build the Wall campaign.
Baseless theories have sometimes led to violence in recent years. In 2016, a North Carolina man charged into a pizza restaurant in Northwest D.C. with a military-style rifle to investigate a false Internet rumor that it was the site of a pedophile ring. A gunman later killed more than 20 people outside a Walmart store in El Paso, Tex., after allegedly penning a manifesto citing a false theory that a secret group of elites was trying to destroy the White race.
The National Butterfly Center expressed astonishment last week that it was the target of similar false theories. The preserve said it educates more than 35,000 visitors each year about conservation efforts and offers an annual Texas Butterfly Festival, where visitors can see some of the preserve’s more than 200 butterfly species and nearly 300 types of birds.
“We still cannot believe we are at the center of this maelstrom of malevolence rising in the United States,” the center said.
A previous version of this article incorrectly said that a Virginia political candidate allegedly tried to run over the butterfly center’s executive director with a car. The center said in a statement that the candidate tried to run over the executive director’s son.
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