EL PASO, Texas – When I reach Marianna Treviño Wright by phone this week, she is both furious and impatient. “Do your homework,” she snaps when I ask why the National Butterfly Center, the South Texas nature preserve she’s been running for nearly a decade, is shutting its doors temporarily due to safety concerns.
To be fair, Treviño Wright had been fielding calls from journalists for days, all of them asking the same questions. To be honest, she’s been fielding these calls for years ever since a series of false tweets convinced a legion of crazies that she and the National Butterfly Center were involved in human trafficking.
Now news headlines are piling up as national and local media pounce on the latest iteration of the story, again comparing the National Butterfly Center to another baffling conspiracy theory target: Comet Ping Pong, the Washington, D.C., pizzeria that 4chan trolls falsely accused of running a child trafficking ring — accusations that led to a gunman with an assault rifle showing up and firing off a few shots.
But unlike Comet Ping Pong, the National Butterfly Center, which sits on the U.S.-Mexico border, isn’t just a random victim of a looney lie that took on a life of its own. Ever since Treviño Wright first discovered work crews on the 100-acre nature preserve that abuts the Rio Grande in 2017, the sanctuary’s been at the center of a battle over a border wall that threatens its very existence. It’s a fight that is pitting this one-time stay at home mom against former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon and We Build the Wall founder Brian Kolfage, who falsely accused the center of being the site of a “rampant sex trade.”
It’s Treviño Wright’s willingness to poke the bear — the center, for example, responded to Kolfage’s tweets with “#LiarLiarPantsOnFire” — that brings a fresh wave of attacks on the regular.
“We have been targeted,” she tells me, “because we told the truth.”
In less than five years Treviño Wright has morphed from an apolitical, nature-loving nonprofit executive to a political resistance fighter battling Donald Trump’s border wall and his legion of supporters, death threats and conspiracy theorists hellbent on turning the Butterfly Center into today’s Pizzagate.
“None of this is organic,” she says, launching into a tirade about conservative activist groups. She is frustrated at the media and at Republicans, but she doesn’t spare anyone. “Democrats,” she says, “are asleep at the wheel.”
‘We humiliated the government’
Treviño Wright, who grew up in South Texas with a love of horned lizards and snakes, never considered herself political. She never worked on a political campaign, never volunteered to register voters. Treviño Wright, who says she is 52 in “human years,” never even put candidate signs in her yard. When I ask her about her political affiliation, whether she’s a Democrat or Republican, she texts, “I vote against incumbents.”
But in July 2017 she stumbled on a work crew near the levee on the Butterfly Center’s property. Her reaction was shock. “What would you do if you arrived at your house and found someone with a wrecking ball knocking on your windows?” she says. So she started sleuthing, calling a community liaison at the U.S. Border Patrol to find out what was going on. What she discovered infuriated her.
The federal government, she found, was planning to construct a border wall that would have destroyed the National Butterfly Center, replacing the nature preserve — where butterflies, birds and endangered animals like ocelots freely roam — with a wall surrounded by klieg lights and a barren, no-man’s landscape.
Treviño Wright immediately called Jeffrey Glassberg, who had founded the North American Butterfly Association and later created the National Butterfly Center, even though he had told her not to disturb him unless it was an emergency because he was caring for his dying wife. Clearly, this was an emergency. The next day Glassberg’s wife died. A few months later the center sued the Trump administration.
“We had to defend ourselves,” says Glassberg, who devoted his attention to lepidoptera after he sold a genetics company that pioneered DNA fingerprinting technology. “We thought what was happening was wrong, not just morally and ethically but legally.” Still, he said that he didn’t expect the butterfly center he so lovingly founded would become a direct target of physical threats of violence.
“I don’t think we were thinking about putting us in direct fire,” he says.
The Butterfly Center, with its gentle conservationist and crowd pleasing mission, quickly became a symbol of resistance to not just the wall, but the Trump administration’s entire immigration agenda. After all, who wants to destroy a lovely butterfly sanctuary? The center even received a temporary reprieve in 2019 when the site was exempted from wall construction in a Department of Homeland Security spending bill. President Joe Biden promised to halt the border wall, but construction continues in the area.
But Treviño Wright stayed vigilant, fighting against the possibility of any border wall activity on or near the center’s grounds, putting her in the direct line of fire of wall supporters — and thrusting her into the media spotlight. She trolled Trump on Twitter, highlighting flaws in the wall construction. She testified in front of Congress and appeared on “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee.”
“I did become the face of” the border wall resistance, Treviño Wright says. “It’s because of two things — my physical presence here on the property where all of this is taking place, but then also as the executive director of the center.”
Glassberg says he fully supports Treviño Wright, especially because “everyone has their head in the sand” when it comes to border wall construction. “Do I support every single sentence that Marianna has ever said?” he says. “I don’t know. I would have to see them to comment.”
“Because,” he says, “there has been an awful lot.”
Treviño Wright’s outspokenness and defense of the center has also created some powerful enemies. “We humiliated the government,” she says. She calls Trump, “a bloated meat puppet.”
In 2019, after she spoke out against We Build the Wall, an effort to crowdfund a private border wall, founder Kolfage resorted to Twitter to spread lies. He falsely accused the center of human trafficking, of helping drug cartels, of being run by “left wing thugs with a sham butterfly agenda,” accordingto the Texas Observer. “When we saw Kolfage’s first tweets, they were so outrageous and so preposterous as to be ridiculous,” said Treviño Wright. “You’re like, really, who in their right mind would believe any of this?”
But soon after the online provocations morphed into real world threats – people started harassing Treviño Wright and her family over the phone and online, doxing her. The National Butterfly Center sued We Build the Wall for defamation. Things would die down for a while and then flare up again. In late January Virginia Republican Congressional candidate Kimberly Lowe showed up at the Butterfly Center demanding to see “illegals crossing on rafts” and ended up allegedly pushing Treviño Wright to the ground and allegedly trying to run over her son with a car, according toBuzzfeed News.
Treviño Wright is filing a complaint against Lowe with the city of Mission, according to a recording she provided to POLITICO of a conversation with the local police chief and the city manager. (Lowe did not respond immediately to a POLITICO request for comment, but denied any wrongdoing in an interview with the Roanoke Times.)
Still, it wasn’t totally inevitable that the Butterfly Center would become a real world victim of online conspiracy theorists, said Joseph Uscinski, a political science professor at the University of Miami who studies why people believe conspiracy theories. There are other groups opposing the border wall. There are other targets of online conspiracy theorists. So maybe, Uscinksi says, there’s actually a little bit of randomness to who ends up in the crosshairs.
Once things escalate, he said, it’s easy to draw a line from where things started. “It would seem to give you an answer.” But there is no way to tell which lies will stick. “There are a lots of things that get mentioned all the time in different conspiracy circles, but they won’t always latch on to it,” Uscinksi said.
A Political Metamorphosis
By the time I reach Treviño Wright on Friday morning she sounds calmer. She has spotted bear tracks, which are rare, on the property and is excited. “It’s awesome,” she says. Winter and snakes were on her mind, along with writing Congressional testimony. She is constantly on guard, keeping an eye out for any new border wall developments. These daysthe National Butterfly Center’s Twitter account provides more of a front row seat into border wall activities than it does into butterflies. Lately she’s been highlightingthe Biden administration’s border wall construction.
“Even if they don’t put up a wall,” she said, “they could still seize our land for the system which would mean clearing the enforcement zone, which we call the dead zone because they eliminate all vegetation and they maintain it devoid of life by applying herbicide routinely.”
Treviño Wright said she and her husband talk about her quitting several times a day, but she loves the Butterfly Center, which she calls “a sweet gig.” She spent years helping the North American Butterfly Association acquire an extra 350 acres nearby that will soon be developed as a refuge for the rare Manfreda Giant-Skipper. She is worried that with the 2022 midterm elections coming up that the threats will only grow, but also worries that even if she leaves they will continue anyway. The threats keep coming, with people showing up at the center continuing to spread the lies.
She is still in disbelief at how the past few years have unfolded. Before the Trump administration she was solely focused on running the nature center. In the past, Treviño Wright penned blog posts explaining why the bobcat was her “nemesis creature,” because the animal taunts her with its elusiveness. Now her nemesis creatures are conspiracy theory trolls – though they seem to be far less elusive than bobcats these days. I asked her if she thinks of herself as political now.
“I feel like a political prisoner is what I feel like,” she says.