Barbarians and Butterflies: Part 1

How a Texas butterfly sanctuary became the center of the resistance against Trump, Steve Bannon and the right-wing agenda at the border.

As a border journalist, I found it nearly impossible to make sense of the Trump era while it was happening. Laws were trampled and government spokespeople cowed into silence, and forget about public information or our right to it.

The writer Gore Vidal called America “the United States of Amnesia. We learn nothing because we remember nothing,” he wrote. 

It’s true. Our country is very good at forgetting. Especially when it comes to the transgressions of the rich and powerful.

Which is why it’s so important to document what happened during the Trump era. Along those lines, I’m embarking on an intermittent series called “Barbarians and Butterflies,” which documents the plight of a 100-acre butterfly sanctuary in the border town of Mission, Texas, and its director, Marianna Treviño Wright, as she battles the Trump administration to save her community from border wall construction and to counter a national propaganda campaign that portrays the border region as a dangerous place that needs to be occupied by police and military.

Throughout the odyssey, the 51-year-old mother of six is threatened by militia members and Trump followers as she and the National Butterfly Center wage a legal battle against Trump’s wall and a three-mile-long private wall funded by We Build the Wall, a consortium that includes Steve Bannon, white nationalist, Trump confidant, and “barbarian,” as he called himself after resuming control of the right-wing Breitbart News in August 2017.

There’s also Brian Kolfage, a triple-amputee veteran and slinger of right-wing misinformation; Andrew Badolato, a former FBI informant and friend of Bannon’s; and Timothy Shea, creator of a pro-Trump energy drink company called Winning Energy, “made from liberal tears.”

In August 2020, the four men were indicted for conspiracy to commit wire fraud and money laundering through We Build the Wall, which raised $25 million through crowdfunding, while Kolfage, who formed the nonprofit, promised never to take a dollar of for himself. According to the indictment, “Kolfage covertly took for his personal use more than $350,000 in funds … while Bannon, through a non-profit organization under his control, received over $1 million.”

And that is just the beginning of this saga. Stay tuned.

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July 20, 2017

It was a sweltering South Texas morning, and Marianna Treviño Wright crested the levee road in her dusty Honda sedan, only to discover a group of men on the south side of the levee chopping through huisache and mesquite trees with chainsaws and mowing over brush with heavy equipment. Treviño Wright, executive director of the nonprofit National Butterfly Center, couldn’t believe what she was seeing. Over the last 15 years, the center had carefully rehabilitated the former farmland into a habitat for hundreds of species of butterflies, including the endangered monarch. And now there were five men in hardhats and yellow vests destroying everything they’d worked so painstakingly to restore.

The Rio Grande Valley, in the southmost corner of Texas, was known internationally for its rare species of butterflies and birds. But the habitat that had once brought the ecotourists was rapidly being converted into shopping malls and car dealerships. State wildlife experts had estimated that less than 5 percent of the valley’s original habitat remained.

The daughter of a family physician, raised in the neighboring border city of McAllen, Texas, Treviño Wright had watched over the decades as citrus groves were plowed under for housing subdivisions, and it was good to know that she’d have a hand in preserving what little was left of the environment for her own children and future generations.

Since 2012, she had helped raise funds to restore the fallow 100-acre onion field into a diverse wildlife habitat that supported hundreds of butterfly species and other animals. The center, founded in 2002 by Jeffrey Glassberg, president of the North American Butterfly Association, had culminated many decades of planning and $7 million raised and invested. And by 2017, with its annual butterfly festival and year-round events and tours, the butterfly center along the Rio Grande drew not only thousands of schoolchildren for camps and field trips but also visitors from abroad, drawn by the promise of a rare sighting of the hummingbird-like emerald aguna and other tropical species.

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Treviño Wright could see that a wide ribbon of their land had already been flattened and cleared as she got out of her car and strode toward one of the men holding a chainsaw. “Who are you and what are you doing here?” she shouted over the metallic grating of the chainsaws.

The worker looked startled for a moment, then turned off his machine and motioned for the others to stop. The government had sent them, the man said, “to clear this land for the border wall.”

“You mean my land?” she asked, hoping they’d made a mistake.

“What do you mean your land?” he asked, according to Treviño Wright.

“This is the National Butterfly Center, and you have no authority to be here,” she said.

The worker, looking confused, said he’d better call his supervisor.

Treviño Wright had received no letters or phone calls from the Department of Homeland Security or Customs and Border Protection about building a wall through the center. Of course, she was aware that Trump, who had been in office for nearly seven months, had risen to prominence on a racist, nationalist agenda, calling Mexicans “rapists” and declaring that he would build a wall from “sea to shining sea” and that “Mexico would pay for it.”

She and Glassberg knew they would face the specter of a wall soon. But this wasn’t the first time the region had faced such a threat. And the government, bound by the Constitution, had to notify landowners and offer due process before condemning their private property for a wall.

“We expected that there would be some kind of official notice,” she said. “With the right of entry requested. But instead, we found surveyor marks all over our property. Well, ahead of any right of entry request, which means the surveyors—just like the crew clearing the land—had been there without authorization.”

A majority of the land along the Texas border is privately owned. After the Secure Fence Act was enacted in 2006, Border Patrol agents with clipboards had arrived at people’s homes, asking them to sign forms allowing them access to their properties to survey for the wall’s construction.

In Texas, where the Rio Grande was the international boundary, the United States and Mexico had forged treaties since the 19th century over the management of water rights and the river’s floodplain. The Mexicans called the river “Río Bravo” because it could demolish boundaries and change course on a whim. To keep the peace, a binational agency was formed in 1889, called the International Boundary and Water Commission, to manage the treaties and the river and to smooth any diplomatic tensions.

Both the United States and Mexico had agreed to refrain from building structures in the floodplain that would push floodwaters into either country, and the IBWC had engineers in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, and in El Paso, Texas, to oversee any structure proposed and make sure the treaties were not violated.

Because of this, contractors for Boeing, which had been given a multi-billion dollar contract to build the border wall in 2006, quickly learned that any structure would have to be built up to a mile from the river in Texas to avoid treaty violations. As the men stood holding their chainsaws on the butterfly center’s property in July 2017, at least 85 of the more than 300 Texas land condemnation cases previously filed by the U.S. government were still in litigation in federal court—nearly a decade after they’d been filed.

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Prior to 2017, about 50 miles had been built in starts and stops through the four southernmost counties of the Rio Grande Valley, which includes Hidalgo County, where the butterfly center was located. According to the Border Patrol in the RGV sector, an estimated 40,000 acres of land were already stranded between the border wall and the river. Some farmers had been given gates with passcodes to access their farmland near the river with mixed results. Often the gates got stuck or didn’t work. One family, the Loops, who since the 1920s had farmed 1,000 acres along the border near Brownsville, Texas, watched their home and the adjacent barn and farm animals burn alive because the fire engine and firefighters couldn’t get through the 18-foot border wall that had been built through the middle of their property in 2009.

The walls were cleaving through their backyards, their schools, and even their cemeteries. Treviño Wright, like many others in the Rio Grande Valley, did not want more of them. Since they’d been erected under Bush, then Obama, migrants had kept coming from Central America and other parts of the world. The walls didn’t solve any of the problems, including US government intervention, political corruption, violence and poverty, that were forcing people to leave their homes and embark on the long, arduous journey north. Since 2014, unaccompanied children and families regularly waited in groups along the river for Border Patrol agents to find them. Even in places where there was a wall. They weren’t running away from the border agents—they were seeking them out and asking for asylum.

Even so, Trump and others like him called the asylum seekers terrorists and painted the border as a dangerous war zone. The administration blocked asylum seekers from ports of entry, ignoring U.S. asylum law and treaties and expanded the detention centers. Governor Rick Perry had already flooded the border communities with state troopers and National Guard after an influx of unaccompanied children had arrived from Central America in 2014. Near the butterfly center, a 80-foot RAID tower, containing cameras and surveillance equipment, and built by the defense company Raytheon, had been erected, a leftover from the wars in the Middle East. As were the white aerostat surveillance balloons monitoring the border towns from above.

As Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric grew, the Border Patrol presence at the center became more aggressive. Treviño Wright and other employees at the center had always worked in tandem with the agency, which had the make and model of their vehicles on file, and access to their gate to patrol the area. But now they were being treated as if the land no longer belonged to them. A month before the work crew had showed up, the center’s director of operations, Max Muñoz, two employees, and his two young daughters, who were on summer break, had been surrounded by Border Patrol units, the agents shouting for them to get out of the truck and present their identification after they’d crossed over the levee to the south side of the butterfly center’s property. The group had gone to survey the more than 500 native milkweed and nectar plants they’d grown to create the southernmost monarch way station. And now they were being interrogated on their own land and being asked to prove they were U.S. citizens.

As she stood on the levee, surveying the damage that the work crew had done, Treviño Wright noticed someone had driven wooden stakes into the dirt with white tape making a giant X. It wasn’t just the 18-foot steel wall she objected to but also the 150-foot-wide “enforcement zone” that came with it. This meant an all-weather road lined with stadium lights and surveillance towers. In short, it meant the death of the butterfly center.

After about 30 minutes of waiting in the broiling heat on the levee, a man arrived in a pickup truck that said Tikigaq on the side of it. Treviño Wright would later discover that it was a native-owned corporation from Alaska that had been subcontracted by U.S. Customs and Border Protection to clear land for the wall.

Again, she explained to the supervisor that they were on private land and that they needed to leave. “He got on the phone with someone,” Treviño Wright said. “I don’t know who, but he was waving some papers in his hand, and yelling. And I went over to look at the papers. And he kind of waved them at me, like, Get away, you can’t see these,” she remembered. “But I could see he had pictures of our property and our gate. So they were very clearly sent to our property.”

After he finally got off the phone, she approached him again. “So, what’s going on?” she asked.

The man spoke to the workers, then got back in the truck and turned the ignition. “Someone from CBP will be in touch with you,” he said finally, then drove off.

The men packed up their chainsaws but left behind two pieces of heavy equipment, as if to let her know that the reprieve was only temporary. Treviño Wright quickly returned to her office, where she contacted the local Border Patrol liaison, hoping he might have some answers for her.

But what she got was even more confusing. “There’s no way that could have happened,” Treviño Wright remembered him answering. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. But I’ll try to find something out.”

Treviño Wright heard nothing until the next afternoon, when five Border Patrol agents arrived in the visitor center. “They told me that what I had said happened, had never happened,” she remembered. “And I said, Follow me, boys.”

She drove back over the levee with the Border Patrol agents following in their vehicles. The two pieces of heavy equipment the work crew had been using to destroy her property the day before were still parked where they had left them. “Then what is this?” she asked them, pointing at the equipment and swath of cleared land.

The agents shook their heads. “They were stunned,” she said, remembering the look on their faces. “Because they’d had no idea either.”

Stay tuned for The Border Chronicle’s next installment: Treviño Wright receives a surprise visit from a Border Patrol official, and the nonprofit is forced to file a lawsuit against the Trump administration.

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