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The offices of Resource Center Matamoros. The nonprofit works with asylum-seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Verónica Gabriela Cárdenas for NPR


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Verónica Gabriela Cárdenas for NPR

The offices of Resource Center Matamoros. The nonprofit works with asylum-seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Verónica Gabriela Cárdenas for NPR

April 15 started off as a typical day for Gabriela Zavala. She was juggling the demands of her busy family life in Texas, with running Resource Center Matamoros, a small NGO that helps asylum seekers in Mexico, on the other side of the border from Brownsville.

By the evening, her world would be flipped upside down, as her inbox was inundated with threats.

Zavala soon realized she and her NGO, RCM, had been featured prominently in a social media thread showing flyers purportedly found in Matamoros, Mexico, that were urging migrants to illegally vote for Joe Biden in the upcoming election. The thread was posted by an arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation called the Oversight Project. It showed an image of a Spanish-language flyer with RCM’s logo and that of President Biden’s campaign.

A video in the thread showed the flyers hanging in portable toilets at a migrant encampment in Matamoros, with a message reminding migrants to vote for Biden to keep him in office. The flyers are signed with Zavala’s name.

The issue? Zavala says she had nothing to do with the flyers.

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Clumsy translations, defunct phone numbers

Mike Howell, the executive director of the Oversight Project, says the thread did not accuse Zavala of authoring the flyer. He also told The New York Times he condemns death threats. He told NPR the flyer is “very real.”

The flyers were composed in error-riddled Spanish. The text includes an outdated description of RCM from its website that hasn’t been updated in years. That part appears to have been run through Google Translate. The flyer also lists a very old phone number – which also appears on the outdated website.

“Reminder to vote for President Biden when you are in the United States. We need another four years of his term to stay open,” the flyer reads.

Zavala says she doesn’t support the flyer’s message, “I would never sit there and tell somebody that can’t vote, that I know can’t vote, ‘Hey. Go vote.'”

Zavala doesn’t know who wrote or who posted the flyers that were found in the portable toilets.

Andrea Rudnik, with the migrant aid group Team Brownsville says she didn’t see the flyers at the encampment, or hear from any volunteers or migrants who did.

“Those port-o-potties are pretty filthy, If we wanted people to know something, it would be put in a different place,” Rudnik said.

A social media backlash

By the time Zavala realized why she had been receiving so many hateful messages, the viral storm had already exploded.

The thread about the flyers spread quickly and racked up more than 9 million views on the social media platform X.

The social media thread posted by the Oversight Project credited Muckraker, a right-wing website, with discovering the flyers. Muckraker is headed by Anthony Rubin, who often uses undercover tactics in his videos.

Rubin spoke with NPR, and said that the video of the flyers was shot by an anonymous source with a “close connection” to his team.

On April 15th, in the hours before the thread about the flyers appeared online, Rubin and his brother rang the bell at Resource Center Matamoros saying they wanted to volunteer. Rubin confirmed that in an interview with NPR.

RCM’s staff called Zavala so she could speak to Rubin about volunteering. And later on, a clip from that phone call wound up as part of the thread about the flyers, with a caption saying Zavala had implied that she, “wants to help as many illegals as possible before President Trump is reelected.”

NPR’s Jude Joffe-Block delves into the full story on today’s episode. Tap the play button at the top of the screen to listen.

This episode was produced by Audrey Nguyen and Brianna Scott. Additional reporting from Mexico was contributed by Texas Public Radio’s Gaige Davila and independent journalist Verónica Gabriela Cárdenas. It was edited by Brett Neely and Courtney Dorning. Our executive producer is Sami Yenigun.