Butterfly Sanctuary Says Border Patrol’s Dogging Her, Has Audio to Prove It
Marianna Treviño-Wright says she’s paying the price for speaking out against a crowdfunded border wall.
The head of a Texas butterfly sanctuary says she and her family are being harassed by the U.S. Border Patrol for flipping off a boat full of agents.
And she has a tape recording she says proves it.
Marianna Treviño-Wright told The Daily Beast that she and her son have been pulled over by the Border Patrol with increasing frequency. She says her husband has been stopped unnecessarily while boating, and claims that both she, her son, and her husband have been “nearly run off the road” recently by speeding Border Patrol agents. Agents often use their official cars to block access to her property and lock and unlock her gates at inappropriate times, she says.
Once, a Border Patrol helicopter hovered low above the butterfly center for 2.5 hours straight, “to harass [us] and flatten [our] vegetation,” says Treviño-Wright, who points out that $100,000 worth of solar panels on the center’s roof were potentially put at risk by the chopper. And when she and her husband are out taking wildlife photos on a small pontoon boat they bought in July, Treviño-Wright says, Border Patrol boats “zip back and forth, creating wake, to mess with us and make it harder to get good pictures.”
Treviño-Wright says she is sure this is retribution because a Border Patrol officer told her she’s on their shit list.
In a May 2020 phone call that she recorded and provided to The Daily Beast, a high-ranking Border Patrol official that Treviño-Wright has known for eight years conceded that Michael Banks, the senior Border Patrol official in the area, was upset with her over “flipp[ing] off our boat guys” months earlier.
“I’ll tell you one thing, Marianna, just so you know…[he’s] a little, how would you say—a little taken aback,” the official said. “Like, we all had that meeting and everything, you talked about, both of y’all I guess, talked about, you know, trying to make amends and forge a different path forward and so forth, and then I think it was a few days later, if I’m not mistaken, I think you were out on the river with Father Roy on the boat there and thought you were flipping off somebody else but you were flipping off our boat guys. And Mr. Banks didn’t appreciate that, so…”
Treviño-Wright responded that she wasn’t directing her ire towards the agents, but rather toward a right-wing news crew, wearing blue FBI-style raid jackets with “MEDIA” printed in large yellow letters across the back, who were also on the boat.
“Yeah, but you know, the agents don’t know that, the liaison replied. “They just saw a woman in a boat flipping them off, and so… it was caught on video and Mr. Banks saw that and was like, ‘Oh, my God.’”
“So what you’re telling me is that the agents and Banks both got butthurt because they expect respect?” responded Treviño-Wright.
“I don’t know about the agents, but Mr. Banks, after having had that conversation with you, was taken aback by that... You know, you had just had a conversation about wanting to make amends and change things [and] whatever, you know... to him, if you flip off the agents you’re flipping him off, so he was taken aback by that.”
To this, Treviño-Wright suggested to her Border Patrol liaison that “your grown-ass men on the boat should grow a pair.”
While the official did not say that Treviño-Wright was being punished, she has no doubt that’s the case. She told The Daily Beast that she was making the recording public to “help expose this sort of conduct and abuse of authority basically, or what I would even call dereliction of duty.”
Speaking out has already gotten Treviño-Wright banned from the Border Patrol’s regular community meetings with landowners in the area. When she last tried to show up, she claims, she was threatened with arrest for trespassing.
“I mean, supposedly we're living in a state of emergency and America is being invaded by rapists and terrorists,” said Treviño-Wright, referencing common right-wing scare rhetoric. “And these guys have nothing better to do than fuck around with me and my staff.”
Reached by telephone, Banks declined to comment, referring The Daily Beast to the sector public affairs officer, who deferred to Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Border Patrol’s parent agency. CBP provided a written statement saying that the National Butterfly Center is located in “one of the busiest zones in the nation for both illegal alien crossings and narcotic smuggling,” which is “lacking much needed border infrastructure to prevent and deter incursions.” “The views of the property manager have no bearing on the decision to place law enforcement resources in the area,” said the CBP statement.
(Treviño-Wright pushed back, saying the butterfly center is “sandwiched between tactical infrastructure—an 80-ft tall raid tower with audio and video surveillance, both manned and unmanned, on the east side of the property. On the west side of the property are Border Patrol stables; the mounted patrol deploys from right next to us. So the statement that the infrastructure here is lacking is complete bullshit.”)
The bad blood dates to late 2019, when Treviño-Wright spoke out against a privately funded section of President Donald Trump’s long-promised border wall. The project’s financial backers—four of whom, including former White House strategist Steve Bannon, have now been indicted for fraud—launched a public smear campaign against the activist. She was a supposed “cartel operative” using the butterfly preserve to traffic women into sex slavery, according to We Build The Wall founder Brian Kolfage, who spread the unfounded accusation on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and in interviews with right-wing media.
The National Butterfly Center is home to more than 200 species of butterflies, and hopes to “cultivate meaningful understanding of the processes that create sustainable ecosystems” through its programs. Yet, experts say the private border wall construction happening a short distance upriver from the center threatens to erode the riverbank, causing permanent and irreparable damage to the property.
Kolfage, a 37-year-old U.S. Air Force veteran and triple amputee, founded We Build the Wall Inc. in 2019. A Florida nonprofit “social welfare group” that is permitted by law to engage in political activities, the organization reportedly raised more than $25 million rom half a million donors. Bannon, who was the chairman of We Build The Wall’s advisory board, illegally siphoned at least $1 million from the nonprofit into his and Kolfage’s pockets, according to federal prosecutors. Kolfage allegedly used his cut to finance a “lavish lifestyle,” including “home renovations, payments towards a boat, a luxury SUV, a golf cart, jewelry, cosmetic surgery, personal tax payments, and credit card debt.”
Bannon claims he is the victim of a “political hit job.” Kolfage, whose attorneys did not respond to a request for comment, has called the accusations “blatantly false.”
Treviño-Wright said the death threats and visits from out-of-state militia groups from as far away as Wyoming after Kolfage falsely painted her as a criminal were disturbing. But what she didn’t see coming was the Border Patrol’s reaction.
During the early days of Treviño-Wright’s battle against We Build The Wall’s wall, she went out on the Rio Grande to observe wall-building progress with a local priest, Father Roy Snipes. She fully admits that when they passed the vessel that carried border agents and reporters she believed were affiliated with Steve Bannon, she flipped them the bird.
“That was when everything went south,” Treviño-Wright said.
The butterfly center has long accommodated the Border Patrol, and until We Build the Wall came along, had a good relationship with local agents, according to Treviño-Wright. They are welcome to come on the property and use the restroom, and she says the staff often provides refreshments. Beginning around 2014, the center has organized and hosted community potlucks for Border Patrol agents and National Guard deployed to the area who were working on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Still, Treviño-Wright says one agent told her that the rank-and-file consider her to be “the most hated woman” in the area, and that “they had my photo up in the break room so they could throw darts at it.”
Treviño-Wright’s situation is all too familiar to Jenn Budd, a former senior Border Patrol agent who now works as a pro-immigration advocate.
“Border Patrol is nothing but a locker room,” Budd told The Daily Beast, “and the station is nothing but a locker room. So once one agent maybe sees her get into it with another agent, or she’s not as pliable as to what they want, then they start talking. And now all of a sudden they’re pulling her over and saying, ‘Well, we got a report of a suspicious vehicle.’ And those are all just lies.”
Property owners that caused problems for agents trying to enter their land, or seeking to install Border Patrol cameras, sensors, or other surveillance equipment, were always looked at sideways by members of the force, said Budd. “It quickly became, ‘If they don’t like us, then they must be involved in something.’”
Today, the three-mile structure erected by We Build The Wall, which is not contiguous with the government’s wall—something Treviño-Wright points to as proof of its overall folly—is already in danger of collapsing.