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'I’ve become suspicious of everyone else': South Texas’ National Butterfly Center unsure when it may reopen after threats

The center was targeted by political operatives' lies alleging it to be a front for human trafficking.

MISSION, Texas — The National Butterfly Center, located in the City of Mission near the Texas-Mexico border, is closed indefinitely after a misinformation campaign about the center – “outright lies,” as Executive Director Marianna Treviño Wright called them – sparked threats.

“They’re accusing the butterfly center of being a cartel front,” Treviño Wright said. “(Of) being a place that is engaged in smuggling and human trafficking. Specifically, they've accused me of selling women and children into sex slavery.”

“We were warned to be armed at all times,” she added. “Or to consider closing because we were going to be targeted.”

In 20 years, this safe haven for butterflies, birds and lovers of nature had previously only closed for a hurricane, Treviño Wright told KENS 5.

“I miss seeing the schoolchildren and I miss seeing our members,” she said. “Beyond that, I've become suspicious of everyone else. That's what this experience has done to me.”

The National Butterfly Center has been a part of the border wall debate for several years, opposing a border wall or barrier while citing environmental and constitutional concerns, as well as taking issue with its efficacy. 

The attacks and untruths are nothing new.

“Back in 2019, when ‘We Build the Wall’ showed up and started promoting and publishing all of these lies about us on all of their media channels, we did initially laugh because we thought, ‘This is so preposterous,’” Treviño Wright said. “‘No one in their right mind would believe any of this.’ But then we quickly realized that millions of people believe it. And that was very frightening. So, there's really not much to laugh about anymore.”

The We Build the Wall organization raised funds for a private border wall. Steve Bannon, the former chief strategist to Donald Trump, was chairman of the board. In 2020, the U.S. Attorney’s Office from the Southern District of New York charged Bannon and several others for defrauding hundreds of thousands of donors in connection with this crowdfunding campaign.

Later, in 2021, then-President Trump pardoned Bannon in the fraud case.

Treviño Wright said that, this time around, the lies forced the North American Butterfly Association (NABA) Board of Directors to make the decision to close while figuring out what security measures would be needed to reopen.

“Based upon their lies that are intended to provoke violence, you have to take them seriously,” she said.

The Mission Police surveillance tower is watching over the property in the meantime.

“It’s really sad that the Butterfly Center has to request such a thing,” Treviño Wright said. “The Rio Grande Valley already suffers from a lack of green space for our community. We're so under-resourced and underserved that places like the National Butterfly Center are critical to environmental conservation, environmental education and quality of life—not only for children, but for their families, for our whole community. 

“So being closed, you know, is like taking our knees out from under us. And that ripples through the community. It's one less space on a meager landscape for children and families to enjoy and explore the outdoors, and the amazing creatures and features of South Texas.”

The center told KENS 5 it’s able to pay its employees during closure.

It’s also been getting support through donations and new memberships. Treviño Wright said that's eased the financial burden, but it’s still nowhere near what the organization may need given how prolonged the closure could end up being.

Staff at the center are now looking at hiring or accessing security consultants to help figure out next steps. It’s possible the nonprofit will have to hire people to do security or enhance security on premises. All that costs even more money.

The center was concerned about its finances since the visitors and the income associated with them is one of the bigger sources of revenue.

Officials with the Mission Police Department tell KENS 5 they’re working with the FBI to investigate any threats received by the center as well as providing extra patrols day and night.

When asked if it’s looking into what happened at the National Butterfly Center, the FBI told KENS 5 through an email that it was not able to confirm or deny the existence of any investigation. 

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