HARLINGEN, Texas (Border Report) — Reaction to the arrests of We Build the Wall’s leaders was swift and stinging Thursday in South Texas, where many oppose a 3-mile border wall that the organization raised money to build on private property this year along the Rio Grande south of Mission, Texas.

On Thursday, President Donald Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, and three associates of We Build The Wall were indicted on criminal charges that they crowdsourced online to raise over $25 million to build private border wall structures, but actually spent very little of the funds on the wall. The indictment, which was unsealed in New York, alleges that Bannon took $1 million of the donated funds and gave it to co-defendant Brian Kolfage, founder of We Build the Wall, for his personal use. According to the indictment, the defendants used fake invoices and sham vendor arrangements to try to hide their efforts. Under the arrangement, Bannon and his co-defendants allegedly paid Kolfage $100,000 up front and an additional $20,000 monthly. 

Marianna Treviño Wright, executive director of the National Butterfly Center, is seen on Nov. 14, 2019, on the Rio Grande south of Mission near the center’s headquarters, which neighbors a private border wall. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report file photo)

“I’m having a glorious morning. It’s everything we’ve been saying for the last nine months,” said Marianna Treviño Wright, the executive director of the National Butterfly Center in Mission who has filed a civil defamation lawsuit against We Build the Wall that is pending in federal court in McAllen, Texas.

The privately-funded border wall is located near the Butterfly Center’s riverfront headquarters. Treviño Wright and the butterfly center, which also is a co-plaintiff in the lawsuit, contend that they have been at the center of a smear campaign by We Build the Wall organizers who have labeled them as involved in “human trafficking” and “drug smuggling” through various social media posts.

In a phone call with Border Report on Thursday morning, after the indictments were announced, Treviño Wright said she was considering adding Bannon to her defamation lawsuit. Another hearing in the case is scheduled for Sept. 10 in McAllen, before U.S. District Judge Randy Crane of the Southern District of Texas.

Kolfage, who lives in Florida, was also arrested on Thursday and was going before a federal magistrate in the Northern District of Florida. Bannon went before a federal magistrate in the Southern District of New York on Thursday. The Associated Press reported that Bannon pleaded not guilty, hours after he was pulled from a yacht off the coast of Connecticut and arrested.

“The defendants defrauded hundreds of thousands of donors, capitalizing on their interest in funding a border wall to raise millions of dollars, under the false pretense that all of that money would be spent on construction. While repeatedly assuring donors that Brian Kolfage, the founder and public face of We Build the Wall, would not be paid a cent, the defendants secretly schemed to pass hundreds of thousands of dollars to Kolfage, which he used to fund his lavish lifestyle. We thank the USPIS for their partnership in investigating this case, and we remain dedicated to rooting out and prosecuting fraud wherever we find it,” Audrey Strauss, acting U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, said in a statement.

“They misrepresented the true use of donated funds. As alleged, not only did they lie to donors, they schemed to hide their misappropriation of funds by creating sham invoices and accounts to launder donations and cover up their crimes, showing no regard for the law or the truth,” said Philip Bartlett, inspector-in-charge of the New York Field Office of the United States Postal Inspection Service.

Alfredo “Fred” Cavazos is seen in January 2020 watching as a section of private border wall was being built on private property next to his 70 acres on the Rio Grande south of Mission, Texas. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report file photo)

Jose Alfredo “Fred” Cavazos, a 71-year-old who owns 70 acres of riverfront property next door to the private border wall south of Mission was surprised when he learned about the indictments and arrests on Thursday.

“So the money, it wasn’t used for that? It was for them and for other things, huh?” he said.

Cavazos is in a wheelchair yet made a point to visit his property regularly to watch as the private border wall started going up early this year.

“They know that there’s a lot of hatred in here in the United States and people hate to admit it and there’s a lot of bigots in this world and that’s mostly what this wall is for: To keep out people — not only Mexicans — but anyone else,” Cavazos said. “They don’t realize this is a danger to anyone who cross they get tired and can’t go back. They could drown.”

There’s a lot of bigots in this world and that’s mostly what this wall is for: To keep out people.”

Alfredo ‘Fred’ Cavazos, private-border wall neighbor

“That has been part of our pleading since early December,” Javier Peña, Treviño Wright’s lawyer, told Border Report on Thursday. “We knew they were engaged in fraud and using hateful divisive language to get people pumped up and empty their wallets and then use this money elsewhere. We hope that people start to see them for what they are.”

“They were using those defamatory comments to raise money and defraud people and live the lifestyle they wanted to live,” Peña said.

Tommy Fisher, CEO of Fisher Sand & Gravel Company, is seen on Jan. 15, 2020, in front of his private border wall being built south of Mission, Texas. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Tommy Fisher, the CEO of Fisher Sand & Gravel, which built the 3-mile private border wall in South Texas, told Border Report on Thursday evening that although We Build the Wall had solicited millions of dollars in donations for the project, Fisher’s company had only received $1.5 million of the $8 million it was promised and so “severed ties” with the group. We Build The Wall had boasted on social media that it had raised $25 million for the project.

Fisher is not named in Thursday’s indictment. But he is a co-defendant in the lawsuit filed by Treviño Wright and the National Butterfly Center, as well as a lawsuit by the International Boundary and Water Commission, the federal agency that oversees the Rio Grande, which alleges that the structure violates a U.S. treaty with Mexico. A hearing in the IBWC lawsuit also is scheduled for Sept. 10 in McAllen.

On Aug. 10, after Border Report ran a story and video showing repairs to the ground under the private border wall following last month’s Hurricane Hanna, Kolfage tweeted that the wall held despite the Category 1 storm.

The website for We Build The Wall on Thursday continued to solicit online donations for private border projects. The organization, which filed as a 501c4 for the Mission, Texas, project, also helped to fund a small section of private border wall west of El Paso in Sunland Park, New Mexico, which was highly controversial.

“The Trump administration’s obsession with a border wall – central to an erroneous national security and immigration narrative – has only served to provide red meat for his base, and we’ve now learned, as an opportunity for his supporters to profit off racism,” said U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, who represents El Paso. “Border walls have never been a solution. They are a waste of taxpayer money, an environmental disaster, and a symbol of division and hate. As more information comes to light about the ‘We Build the Wall’ fraudulent scheme, I hope the American people realize the harm this administration has caused border communities like El Paso by eroding the values our country was founded on.”

In July 2019, Bannon and Kolfage returned to the Sunland Park structure where they participated in an event dubbed “Symposium at the Wall: Cartels, Trafficking, and Asylum.”

Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com