Living in exile has been heartbreaking for Lucía Ixchíu. She longs to be around her community in the western highlands of Totonicapán, Guatemala, immersing herself in the sacred communal forest she’d been taught to love, respect, and protect since she was a young child.

The forest of Totonicapán is not only one of the most important water recharge sites of Mesoamerica; it’s also a symbol of the collective fight of K’iche communities against a colonial Guatemalan state that has repeatedly attempted to seize and destroy it.

“We, as K’iche people, recognize the trees as our ancestors,” Ixchíu says. The word K’iche literally translates to “a lot of trees.” “That’s what we are,” she says.

In the last roughly two decades, illegal logging—facilitated by criminal structures and the government—has increasingly threatened the forest’s survival and the livelihoods of the local communities that guard it.

Ixchíu is a community journalist, artist, architect and feminist advocate. She fled Guatemala in 2021, after nearly 10 years of ongoing harassment and death threats from criminal organizations, culminating in an assassination attempt in September 2020. On that day, she was documenting illegal logging in the forest of Totonicapán with her sisters, Andrea and Gabriela Ixchíu, and her partner, Carlos Ernesto Cano—all journalists and members of the collective Festivales Solidarios—as well as staff from Guatemala’s National Council of Protected Areas and other local forest defenders. They were ambushed and badly injured by assailants armed with machetes after they confronted a group of men who were illegally smuggling tree wood out of the forest. Guatemalan authorities did nothing after the attack.

This violence is happening across Indigenous territories in Guatemala. In El Estor, Izabal, Q’eqchi’ communities continue to resist a destructive nickel mine despite growing state militarization, killings, and arrests. And in the region of Quiché, Ixil Indigenous leaders are fighting against hydroelectric dams, illegal logging, and deforestation under the same threats.

“What forced me to leave are the multiple forms of violence that target us as Indigenous women, and that [Guatemala] has normalized in our daily lives,” Ixchíu says from a phone call in Spain, where she and Cano were granted political asylum last year. “Right before I fled Guatemala, I was forced to live in a safe house, and I understood that if I wanted to stay, it was going to have to be in silence and in hiding, when I didn’t do anything wrong. People are leaving because our lives are in danger.”

As Guatemala gears up for a presidential election this year, many had placed their hope on candidate Thelma Cabrera, a Maya Mam leader, human rights and environmental defender, of the political party the Movement for the Liberation of the Peoples (MLP). But both Cabrera and her running mate, the exiled former Guatemalan human rights ombudsman Jordán Rodas, were blocked from the ballot by Guatemala’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) in February. The Constitutional Court upheld that decision. The MLP filed a challenge with Guatemala’s Supreme Court of Justice in mid-March, with less than a week left before the registration period for June’s election is officially closed on March 25. Thousands of protesters have taken to the streets in support of Cabrera and Rodas, who also brought their fight internationally last month when they met with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington, D.C.

“Guatemala still lives in a dictatorship. Democracy is almost nonexistent,” Ixchíu says. “The root of the structural problems that exist in the country won’t be resolved with an election every four years. But they can be the beginning of those structural changes that we Indigenous people have been fighting for, for more than 530 years.”

In the 2019 presidential election, Cabrera ended up in fourth place among the dozen-plus candidates that ran that year. But MLP maintains that the results of that election were fraudulent, and that many polls and vote counts actually showed that Cabrera received enough support to make it to the runoff election where two final candidates face off. Right-wing President Alejandro Giammattei ultimately won the election that year.

“Our movement arose from within the communities that have been excluded in this country, some of the most impoverished,” says Neftalí López, who ran as Cabrera’s vice presidential candidate in 2019. He and Cabrera are also leading members of the Comité de Desarrollo Campesino (Committee for Peasant Development), or CODECA. “We organized the people and went from a peasant organization to becoming a sociopolitical movement.”

The 2023 Guatemalan election is taking place during a precarious time of heightened repression in the country, with nearly all political, public and judicial institutions gripped by corrupt figures. This includes Guatemala’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal which last August announced a collaboration with the military for the transfer of information, data, and documents surrounding the elections. A move that’s extremely concerning given the Guatemalan military’s history of political fraud, massacres, and coups.

It’s no surprise to López, Ixchíu and others that the TSE, without objection, approved the presidential candidacy of Zury Ríos, the daughter of Efraín Ríos Montt, the now-deceased US-backed dictator who seized power in a military coup in 1982, during Guatemala’s 36-year conflict, and who was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity in 2013. Zury Ríos was blocked from running in 2019 because the Constitution prohibits those who came to power by a coup, as well as their blood relatives, from running for president.

“They blocked our binomial because the powerful elite sectors of this country are afraid of us—the oligarchy and the corrupt political class that protects the status quo,” López says. “But this isn’t about one election or a candidacy. Our movement and our initiatives go far beyond the electoral process. If they don’t let us participate now, we will come back. We have an avalanche of support that’s impossible to stop.”

A priority for MLP is to create a plurinational state that recognizes Indigenous sovereignty, protects human rights and the environment, and that ends decades of corrupt agreements between political and business elites, and the multinational corporations that continue to loot and exploit Indigenous territories with mines, hydroelectric dams, and monocrops like African palm. Communities are displaced, the air, soil and water polluted, while those who interfere in defense of the people and the earth are persecuted and killed. Extractive capitalism has thrived under this system—historically with the backing of the United States.

“We know that equipment donated by the US Defense Department has been used to repress Guatemalan citizens…to commit human rights abuses,” says Giovanni Batz, an assistant professor at UC Santa Barbara, whose book La Cuarta Invasión (The Fourth Invasion), documents centuries of Maya Ixil resistance against colonialism and megaprojects.

“When the US tries to ‘combat’ migration, what that means is more militarization through aid that’s being misused, or they align themselves with very powerful families who have committed a lot of violence against the people,” Batz says. “This is a clear demonstration of where US interests are: arming the Guatemalan state to the teeth. They use the discourses of combating narco trafficking and gang violence. But at the end of the day, it’s people like Lucía, it’s other activists, environmentalists who are persecuted.”

Last year, Global Witness reported that at least 80 environmental defenders were killed in Guatemala between 2012 and 2021. Dozens of other dissident voices have fled, been detained, or are facing judicial persecution. (Just last week, Orlando Salvador López, the prosecutor who brought Ríos Montt to trial for genocide in 2013, was arrested.)

Ixchíu is part of a new generation of exiles—human rights defenders, Indigenous leaders, environmentalists, anti-corruption prosecutors, and journalists—who’ve been criminalized and forced out of Guatemala in recent years, particularly since the expulsion of the UN-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, or CICIG, in 2019.

Her first experience with displacement was in 2012, the year Guatemalan soldiers killed seven K’iche environmental defenders and wounded dozens of others who were part of a peaceful highway blockade protesting high electricity costs and attacks on local education. What became known as the massacre of La Cumbre de Alaska, was the first documented case of extrajudicial killings carried out by the military in a supposed post-conflict Guatemala. “This is the reason why I became a journalist and an activist,” she says. The threats and harassment against Ixchíu intensified after that. “The war never ended and we’re the ones documenting that.”

Ixchíu left for Guatemala City after the massacre. She enrolled at the public San Carlos University, where she became the first Indigenous woman to lead the student body in the architecture faculty, and got involved in the student movement. She and other young activists were at the forefront of mass protests in 2015 that led to the resignation and jailing of former president Otto Pérez Molina and vice president Roxana Baldetti over their involvement in a multimillion-dollar fraud and bribery scheme. CICIG’s extensive corruption investigations also led to the prosecution of dozens of other prominent government officials, including Congress members, and hundreds of other landmark cases.

After the government of former president Jimmy Morales ousted CICIG, the Guatemalan state unleashed a furious campaign of retaliation against activists involved in the 2015 mobilizations and their aftermath, Indigenous leaders, anti-corruption judges and prosecutors who worked with CICIG, as well as journalists. Ixchíu says many of the student activists she led marches with in 2015 are now living in exile.

The assaults only worsened under Giammattei’s presidency, whose first year in office also saw the arrival of a pandemic that government neglect and abuse made catastrophic for Guatemala
. Rather than fortifying the health care system, clinics and hospitals collapsed. The rollout of the Covid-19 vaccine was a mess. Femicides and violence against women and girls grew. Extreme poverty and malnourishment also skyrocketed, while Giammattei used the lockdown as a tool to further militarize the streets and borders.

“And this awoke great indignation among the people,” Ixchíu says. “The state wants us to feel hunger because they don’t want us to be able to think.”

On November 21, 2020, after Guatemala’s Congress approved a budget that proposed cuts to funding for health care and education, thousands of protesters flooded the streets. “People’s indignation was legitimate,” Ixchíu says. Riot police arrested dozens of people that day. At least two protesters lost an eye after being assaulted by police. A portion of Congress was sent on fire. Authorities quickly blamed protesters, but Ixchíu and others believe the blaze was actually instigated by government infiltrators to help build criminal cases against activists.

Just two months before the November protest, Ixchíu had survived the assassination attempt in Totonicapán. After the fire, the threats and police harassment only intensified, forcing her to go into hiding until she clandestinely left Guatemala in 2021. She says she wasn’t willing to bet her future on a racist and corrupt judicial system in a country like Guatemala “where prison is torture.”

Ixchíu is also critical of many social justice movements centered in Guatemala City, which she says have perpetuated racism and sexism, and have turned their backs on Indigenous women activists and journalists like her.

The memories of her family and the community that nurtured her give her strength. Through their work with Festivales Solidarios, Ixchíu, her sisters, Andrea—who’s also exiled—and Gabriela, and many others living in Guatemala and in exile, have centered storytelling, art, dance, the preservation of ancestral traditions and knowledge as part of their ongoing communal resistance.

But Ixchíu says joy and celebration are also part of this fight.

“I miss my family, I miss my territory, I miss the trees, I miss the food, I miss communal art, I miss my friends,” Ixchíu says. “Now, I’m a stranger in a new place, starting from zero. But I’ve also learned that being an exiled woman doesn’t mean that my life and happiness should end.”