Butterfly Center On Border Shuts Doors, Fearing It’s A Target Of Right-Wing Rally

TPM Illustration, Getty Images

The National Butterfly Center in Mission, Texas has been through hell in the four years since it became a surprising right-wing fixation. Now, things have gotten bad enough that they’re shutting down for the weekend due to safety concerns. 

The Butterfly Center occupies a wedge of land along the Rio Grande, and for years it’s fought bitter legal battles, first against Trump administration efforts to build a border wall on its property, and then against an effort from the private “We Build The Wall” campaign to build a wall nearby. (The leaders of the latter project were hit with federal fraud charges in 2020.) 

Those fights have made the idyllic wildlife center a target for conspiracy theorists, including We Build The Wall founder Brian Kolfage, who’ve accused the center of being a waypoint for human traffickers. Right-wing harassment and threats, including from QAnon adherents, Oath Keepers, Three Percenters, and a rogue police officer, have become a constant over the years.

But tensions reached a new crescendo in the first month of 2022 as a right-wing rally headlined by former national security advisor and Big Lie booster Michael Flynn drew close. The recent troubles started with an alleged assault that took place on the property last Friday — the result of a pre-rally visit from a right-wing congressional candidate from Virginia, Kimberly Lowe, and her associate. (After this article was published, Lowe contacted TPM to say she had been barred from a VIP event by rally organizers.)

Marianna Treviño-Wright, the Butterfly Center’s executive director, fears things could grow more perilous still as the “We Stand America” event begins in Mission this weekend. Alongside Flynn, the event will feature a coterie of fringe pro-Trump influencers.

“The concern is specifically the threat of violence from lunatics who believe things like Pizzagate,” Treviño-Wright said. “This job and this place are not worth our lives.” 

‘Caravan To The Border’

A promotional video for the event — the first in a nationwide “Take Action Tour” — features animated gunshots and tells viewers, “It’s time to take a stand.” 

The multi-day event includes a “caravan to the border” Sunday that begins in a parking lot in Mission not far from the Butterfly Center, and ends at “the unfinished border wall section where we will link arms and pray for our Nation.” 

In an email to supporters Thursday, the Butterfly Center said it had been advised by a former state official that the center could be targeted during the event. Event organizers didn’t return TPM’s request for comment. 

“I think a lot of the country has decided that since Trump is not president anymore, everything is okay, and it quite definitely is not,” Treviño-Wright said. 

On Friday, a visitor to the closed Butterfly Center shared pictures of a new, pre-rally development with TPM: A Mission Police Department watch tower looking over the Butterfly Center property. 

‘Like A Scene From A Cowboy Movie’

On the phone Thursday, Treviño-Wright was still rattled by the incident last Friday, which occurred when Virginia Republican congressional contender Kimberly Lowe and an associate stopped by the Butterfly Center.

Lowe had posted several videos on Facebook showing people crossing the Rio Grande, along with commentary that at times sounds almost giddy at the fulfillment of a pilgrimage to the scene of many a Republican talking point. 

“Tonight we followed a cartel drug smuggling path and have an even deeper insight into how drugs and people are being smuggled into the country!” one Facebook post on Jan. 23 reads. “I can say I’ve touched the river!” Separately, she posed in front of some unamused military personnel. 

The details of what occurred on Jan. 21 are disputed, and someone who answered the phone at the Mission Police Department said that the officer handling the incident was unavailable until Monday. 

But an audio recording from Treviño-Wright, and a since-deleted Facebook live video from Lowe, show parts of what happened: After learning of Lowe’s political background, Treviño-Wright asked her to leave the Butterfly Center. An argument ensued, and it turned into a brief physical struggle after Treviño-Wright noticed Lowe filming her.

“I panicked,” Treviño-Wright wrote in an account of the incident shared with TPM. “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.” 

On the phone Friday, Lowe accused Treviño-Wright of misrepresenting the encounter, claiming that the Butterfly Center director was the aggressor. Asked about audio from Treviño-Wright that captured what sounded like Lowe’s associate claiming to be a member of the Secret Service, Lowe said, “I don’t know what that’s about.”

After a brief scuffle, Lowe returned to her car and urged her associate to leave the Butterfly Center. When the pair were back in the car, they sped out. Treviño-Wright alleged that they nearly hit her son, who had tried to close the property’s gate.

“I sped up to beat him from closing the gate, so I didn’t get locked in,” Lowe said. “I was luckily able to get around him. I didn’t try to hit him.”

A visitor to the Butterfly Center, who asked not to be named, said he saw the argument spill outside the Butterfly Center building “like a scene from a cowboy movie.” He also said he saw Lowe speed off of the property after the altercation. 

“I think we’re just lucky nobody was in front of that car,” the visitor said, noting that he believed Treviño-Wright’s son jumped out of the way of the car as it sped off. 

“If I’d have been any closer, I’d have been hit,” he added. “They were flying out of there.” 

On Friday morning, Lowe anticipated a busy schedule in her remaining time at the border. When she spoke to TPM, she was excited to partake in one of the perks afforded to We Stand America’s top-tier ticket-holders, a $2,500 “private reception event,” which includes a tour of the border with none other than Flynn himself, as well as Trump’s former acting Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Thomas Homan. 

A few hours later, however, her plans changed: Lowe said event organizers had barred her from the tour, as a result of the press coverage of the incident at the National Butterfly Center.

This post has been updated.

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