Far-right conspiracy theories have latched onto baseless claims that major Texas butterfly sanctuary is a hub for sex trafficking, leading to real-world threats against the sanctuary’s staff. On Thursday, the National Butterfly Center in Mission, Texas, sent out an email blast letting supporters know that the hub would be closed from Friday through Sunday “due to credible threats we have received from a former state official.”
You might be scratching your head about why a bunch of conspiracy theorists are losing their shit over the National Butterfly Center, a nature sanctuary whose claim to fame is housing more than 240 species of butterflies. But it’s not the butterflies at issue here (thank goodness), it’s where the sanctuary is located.
The center is located right on the U.S.-Mexico border. In fact, it’s the site of one of the biggest border wall fights during the Trump era. The former president wanted to build a wall along the refuge, sparking an outpouring of anger and a two-year campaign to stop construction because of the threat it would pose to the delicate ecosystems. (This was a common theme in the Trump era, and the sections of the wall that were built have already seen that play out.)
Naturally, those on the far-right responded the way they usually do: by lobbing baseless threats. One of the core figures responsible was Brian Kolfage, who was once the leader of a private fundraising effort to build Trump’s border wall. Kolfage regularly tweeted about the sanctuary, including the baseless assertion that it “openly supports illegal immigration and sex trafficking of women and children.” While Kolfage ended up being indicted for fraud for his fundraising scheme and having his Twitter account suspended for repeated violent threats, the rumors and accusations against the sanctuary have kept burbling in the fetid swamp of right-wing disinformation.
The sanctuary’s email describes that ahead of an upcoming pro-MAGA event happening in the nearby city of McAllen this weekend, an unnamed “congressional candidate from Virginia” came to visit the sanctuary alongside a friend who claimed to be a Secret Service agent.” (Sleuths later found it was fringe candidate Kimberly Lowe.) The duo said they were there to see a dock at the crossing, which Kolfage and others had claimed was used for “sex traffickers” looking to smuggle victims to and from the sanctuary.
In response to this bonkers request, the email goes on to note that the center’s director, Marianne Wright, asked the two to leave. Instead, Lowe allegedly knocked Wright to the ground, stole her phone, and attempted to bolt. When Wright’s son tried closing the sanctuary gates in order to prevent them from leaving with the stolen phone, the email alleges that Lowe literally tried to run him over with her car.
It’s worth noting that this is the second vehicular catastrophe to hit the center this month. Less than two weeks ago, a member of the National Guard slammed their truck into a gate leading to a border levee on the center’s property as part of Operation Lone Star, an anti-immigrant task force formed between the Texas Department of Public Safety and the state’s National Guard.
Police were called during the latest incident, though the center said that it’s “still waiting to see” whether local authorities will be going after the pair on the grounds that they, you know, tried to run over a bystander with a car.
This seems like a good time to reiterate that all of this went down at a butterfly sanctuary, a place meant to be a safe haven for some of the most beautiful creatures on Earth. They’re gorgeous and zen, not to mention a crucial part of the ecosystem. Butterflies are natural pollinators at a time when populations of fellow pollinators, like bees, are declining across the country, largely due to human development (like border walls!) wrecking natural habitats. When these bugs die, it can have disastrous ripple effects on the local ecosystems, not to mention the crops we need to survive.
Still, those that are holding the rally this weekend seem more focused on spreading baseless rumors than they are with any sort of conservation. And so, the center is closing for the weekend.
“We made the difficult decision to close the center when Marianna was advised by the former state official (whose daughter is the Hidalgo County GOP chairperson) that she should be armed at all times or out of town this weekend, because the We Stand America events include a ‘Trump Train’-style, ‘caravan to the border,’ the email reads. “He said the National Butterfly Center would likely be a stop on this ‘take action tour,’ and she and the center are targets.”
It’s unclear what QAnon conspiracy theorists will target next with baseless claims and threats, but if you run a cat rescue, prairie dog reserve, or other totally benign enterprise, consider yourself warned.