The National Butterfly Center – a private nature preserve in the Rio Grande Valley near the US-Mexico border – has been a frequent target of far-right conspiracy theorists circulating baseless allegations that the centre supports a border-crossing sex trafficking ring, accusations trading in the same false claims that propelled the QAnon movement.
A “We Stand America” rally in nearby McAllen, Texas is scheduled to feature remarks from Donald Trump-affiliated conspiracy theorists, including former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and Patrick Byrne, the former Overstock.com CEO and prominent election fraud and Covid-19 vaccine conspiracy theorist.
In an urgent email to members and donors on Thursday, the centre announced it was closing for three days “due to credible threats we have received from a former state official.”
The email said the centre’s director Marianna Trevino Wright was advised to “be armed at all times or out of town this weekend” during the We Stand America event, which includes a “caravan to the border” with a likely stop at the centre.
The former state official reportedly told her that “she and the center are targets.”
“As if we needed further confirmation of the violent sentiment being stirred up against us, this morning, as we drove to work, we found someone had ripped down the National Butterfly Center sign, erected by the Texas Department of Transportation,” the email announced.
“We still cannot believe we are at the center of this maelstrom of malevolence rising in the United States.”
The sanctuary came under far-right scrutiny after Ms Wright criticised Trump administration plans to build a border wall through the property, which is roughly two miles north of the border.
In 2019, the centre filed a restraining order to block the project, while a Steve Bannon-supported “We Build the Wall” campaign – which raised more than $25m on spurious claims that it would finish construction of Trump’s wall – brought the centre into its sights.
“The only butterflies we saw were swarming a decomposing body surrounded by tons of rotting trash left behind by illegals,” campaign leader Brian Kolfage said on Twitter that year.
Mr Kolfage also smeared the centre’s employees as “butterfly freaks” running a “sham” sanctuary, which was flooded with harassing messages on its social media pages.
He also lashed out at a local Catholic priest he baselessly accused of “promoting human trafficking and abuse of women and children.”
In December 2019, a Texas judge ordered that the project halt construction, which would cause “imminent and irreparable harm” to the 100-acre preserve.
In August 2020, Mr Kolfage and his associates were charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and money laundering. In May 2021, he was separately indicted on charges of defrauding the IRS and filing false tax returns. He pleaded not guilty.
QAnon, like its “pizzagate” predecessor, has aided the spread of conspiracy theories tied to violence from obscure corners of the internet into mainstream channels across social media – and increasingly within mainstream politics – by latching on to existing conspiracy communities and conservative agendas to launder its beliefs.
Right-wing anti-immigrant campaigns have collided with sex trafficking conspiracy theories that have been central to the movement.
Conspiracy theories involving the sanctuary have repeatedly materialised into in-person intimidation from far-right militia group members and threatening emails and phone calls, including messages from a man who was later revealed to be a Texas police officer.
On 21 January, a GOP congressional candidate from Virginia – identified by The Daily Beast as Kimberly Lowe – appeared outside the centre with another person who claimed to be a US Secret Service agent, demanding access to the river to “see the rafts with the illegal crossing” at the property, according the centre’s email on Thursday.
After the women were told to leave, Ms Lowe “tried to run over Marianna’s son … who was trying to close the front gate to prevent the candidate and her friend from leaving with Marianna’s phone, which they had taken from her after knocking her to the ground outside the pavilion,” according to the email.
In videos posted to Ms Lowe’s Facebook page, most of which have since been deleted, Ms Lowe at one point describes herself as armed with a 9mm “just sitting right here” in her car as she drove to the centre.
In an affidavit provided to The Independent, Ms Wright said she approached Ms Lowe and informed them that they were trespassing on private property.
“You are here to promote your agenda, and your agenda is not welcome here,” Ms Wright says in an eight-minute recording shared with The Independent.
“So you’re not for helping all these poor people in the humanitarian crisis?” Ms Lowe responds. “You’re OK with children being sex trafficked and raped and murdered.”
The other woman, identified as “Michelle”, then claims that US Customs and Border Protection officers told them they had permission to enter the property.
“I’m federal – I work for Secret Service, so nothing is off-limit for me,” she says in a recording provided to The Independent.
In the affidavit, Ms Wright said she “panicked” and swatted Ms Lowe’s phone from her face as she was being filmed “given Bannon, Kolfage … and their various outlets have published and broadcast images of me, along with threats to the center, me and my children … I moved to stop her from doing this, by knocking or taking away her phone and retreating inside the building to wait for the police.”
“Then I was thrown to the ground,” Ms Wright said, according to an affidavit.
One woman can be heard saying “get the f*** down, b***” during a struggle over a phone, according to the recording.
In Ms Lowe’s now-deleted Facebook video reviewed by The Independent, the woman can be seen shoving Ms Wright, as Ms Lowe calls for her to return to the car. She then speeds towards the exit and tells someone to “get the f*** out of my way.”
“This is what you have down here at the border with crazy freaking people who are OK with children being trafficked and raped,” Ms Lowe says in the front-facing video from the driver’s seat.
In a statement to The Daily Beast, Ms Lowe claimed that she was the one who was attacked, and that Ms Wright “verbally and physically assaulted us … stole my phone, kidnapped us, and tried to keep us from leaving, and filed a false police report.”
The centre says it is waiting to hear whether the Mission Police Department “will be pursuing prosecution of the candidate and her friend, who has also been reported to the Secret Service for impersonating a federal law enforcement officer.”
The Independent has requested comment from Ms Lowe.
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