Neighborhood children are often times the younger brothers, cousins, and neighbors of full-fledged gang members. They admire their elders and are often courted into the fold at an early age through tiny assignments to lure them in bit by bit. Photo © Tomas Ayuso

Documenting Honduran Youth Looking to Reclaim Their Lives

Visual storyteller Tomás Ayuso, a native to Honduras, has used his lens to draw attention to a narrative that has eluded mainstream media.

Blink’s Kyla Woods spoke with photographer Tomás Ayuso, winner of Festival Errante’s Portfolio Review Prize and the recipient of an award sponsored by National Geographic, about the importance of photographing youth in Honduras, the challenges that he faced and solutions that could help to deter susceptible youth from joining gangs.

KW: How long have you been documenting youth in Honduras?

TA: Since 2009, I have witnessed the violence escalate. Around 2014, when the violence in the cities was at its worst, the foreign coverage given as to why Honduras had plunged into such butchery was, in my opinion, superficial at best. At worst, it didn’t appear that people seemed to care that this was happening.

Why was this happening in Honduras? Why was it mostly the youth dying? I embedded myself in the gangs to answer these questions. What I discovered was that most of the people being killed were minors caught in the crossfire or fighting between themselves. And many who weren’t killed, were fleeing the country to save their lives –– most headed towards the United States.

I then realized that the right to grow old in Honduras had eroded into nothing, and that the younger generations were going to do whatever it took to survive these simultaneous crises ravaging the country.

Commuting to another neighborhood is a massive risk. Even if a person isn’t affiliated with a gang, the reputation of an area as being under control of a gang is hard to wash out. This was the case with Leo, a 16-year-old, who unbeknownst to him, walked through a neighborhood held by rivals of his home barrio. For his mistake, he was lynched. Leo’s mother opted for an open casket funeral so they could see what they did to her baby. Photo © Tomás Ayuso

KW: What drew you to this particular subject?

TA: The Right To Grow Old is a chaptered project that looks at the different ways Honduran youth are ensuring that they live. One takes place following migrants through southern Mexico, another with Hondurans living in the undocumented shadows of the United States. I wanted to show why young folk are leaving Honduras. To start, I chose to show how the putrid mix of violence, corruption and dispossession has transformed one neighborhood into a killing field.

Goyo admits he belongs to another era, one where farming and manual labor were respected. He fears for his son Moises’. “I tell him ‘baby don’t dress like a thug’. But he doesn’t listen! The police don’t care if you’re in a gang or not; they’ll kill you either way. I raised my boy well, but he’s surrounded by evil and that’ll be the end of him,” mourns Goyo, Moises’ father. “If I tell you the truth I think Honduras left old shits like me behind and started eating its young. I only ask my god to have clemency on my Moises.” Photo © Tomás Ayuso

KW: May you talk a bit about the title — A Right to Grow Old? What is the average life span of a gang member?

TA: Gang members aren’t long for this world. The saying goes that if a gang member is over 25, they’re already OGs. There are only two ways out: joining a church and devoting their life to God. Or, death. There are no other ways.

The title, however, A Right To Grow Old, refers to Honduran youth as a whole. I believe that in a country besotted by violence, corruption and dispossession, and that the youth have been disproportionately hit. This has forced many to find different ways to survive the chaos wrought upon the country.

For some, its migration. For others, joining a gang. But, for the majority, it is in suffering and resisting the madness. Whatever the case may be, Honduran youth are in a fight to reclaim their right to life; a universal human right that has been decimated over the past ten years.

The project itself looks at how different subsections of Honduras that are doing just that.

The recruitment age for gang members is much younger now due to the years of unstoppable violence. The appeal to enlist remains constant, however. Japo, left, joined at 14 and receives the privileges that come with being a member: Access to an arsenal, cell phones, and money. The admiration like the one Tito, right, has for Japo also comes with serving the gang its dues. Once he joins, death is the only way out. Photo © Tomás Ayuso

KW: Can you speak about some of the challenges you faced while documenting these youth?

TA: There were some risks in telling the story. However, through the help of a local community leader, I was able to navigate the mine fields.

For instance, he helped me contact the boys. From there I entered the paranoid, suspicious, and pressurized world they live in. I had to persuade the gang leadership and, really, the whole of the community that I meant them no ill will. It took some time to earn their trust, but eventually we were able to connect and build a bond.

The threat of violence is always pervasive, and I look for the boys’ cues to make sure we were in the clear to chat and work. This was the only way to go behind the harsh exterior and understand the boys’ and community’s particularities.

Tomas asked Lucio about the crescent scar that curves from temple to jaw bone. As a child, a police officer accused him of being and informer and pistol-whipped him. Dario became another child brutalized in the name of pacification. Wave after wave of crackdowns and rival gang incursion left the young Dario traumatized & vindictive. Fed up, he chose to enlist. Photo © Tomás Ayuso

KW: Can you speak about the difference in relationship between family members and the companionship of gang members?

TA: Gang members themselves foster a camaraderie as “brothers in arms”. They go through training so to speak, cross milestones and undergo rites of passage, until they’re reborn into their gang persona. They also adopt a new name and mostly sever ties to their previous life.

Whereas, the biological family remains family –– if they have family. Many of the boys are product of broken homes, destroyed by violence or migration. They might not have much in the way of biological family. For some joining a gang fills the void left by their absence.

They don’t often say why they choose to join gangs, but one time a boy let his guard down and gave me some insight: His mother was a sex worker who worked out of their single room shack. One day, the boy happened to be asleep in the home while the mother was visited by a client. When he woke he thought she was in danger and went to his mother’s succor. The mother, upset at her son’s interruption, grabbed him and shoved him to the street, warning him if he ever showed again she’d “get rid” of him.

He drifted until he met a gang strongman who promised him they would be his family.

Coexistence between gang members and civilians is normal in this neighborhood. Simon, acts as a lookout while life goes on at one of the local stores. Neighbors rather have gang members be the sons of the community. The alternative would be outsiders sparing no mercy. There are no sides in this era of generalized violence but their own neighborhoods. Photo © Tomás Ayuso

KW: Can you speak about Moises — why is he particularly susceptible to becoming a gang member?

TA: Moises is at a difficult juncture of his life. He has dropped out of school, and he is his father’s apprentice as a bricklayer.

His neighborhood is cross-stitched by the many front lines of the many concurrent gang wars in the city. Even as a non-member, he is persecuted by the police and often at times beaten to force a confession or squeeze intelligence about his neighborhood. Outsider gangs who conduct raids on his neighborhood looking for their rivals have seen Moises caught in the crossfire.

Though many of his childhood friends have been caught up in gang violence, he has resisted––but has considered it. He could protect his neighborhood, he says, even though he knows gangs do more than that. The reason he hasn’t joined is due to his father’s strong opposition. Going so far as to tell him that if he chooses the gang as his new family, he’ll lose his real family.

But his father has another idea: leave this country that’s become a nightmare and try to start a new life somewhere far away from the brutality of the streets.

Tomas noticed the tattoo on Lucio’s hand read “Noemi.” Was it his girlfriend, he asked. No, Lucio said, his mother’s name. She disappeared with men in masks when he was a child. “Who raised you?” Tomas asked. “Nobody. My grandmother spared food whenever she could.” The gang was the only family he ever had. This enforcer was an orphan, left to fend for himself in a society that never cared. He ended up in a gang and thrived in neighborhoods turned killing fields. Photo © Tomás Ayuso

KW: Are you planning to continue documenting the life of Moises?

TA: I speak with Moises quite often. He’s kept me up to date on his plans, as have most of the other boys.

They have all told me about the highs and the far too many terrible lows. I hope to follow their stories wherever they may take them. It pains me to say that its impossible to know where that may be, and it frightens me to admit where I think it could end. I do believe that the fate of these boys, and especially Moises’, are a bellwether of Honduras itself.

The fight for Moises’ life is made more difficult when his girlfriend, drops a bombshell on the same bed Moises shares with his brother: Maria’s pregnant. Moises sees his future clearly if he stays in what he calls a war zone: join the gang for safety and income, remain trapped as a civilian in a besieged neighborhood or leave, seek asylum abroad to save his life from the fighting around him that both targets and recruits him. He knows his right to grow old is in peril. Photo © Tomás Ayuso

KW: What are some ways to counter this issue of Honduran youth being involved in gangs?

TA: I believe indifference, corruption and violence is sabotaging Honduras’ path to peace. As long as corruption runs rampant and investment in communities is absconded by pilfering public servants, gangs will remain powerful and appealing for at-risk youth.

These gangs thrive where hope is all but died out ––which is the case for the communities at the edges of the cities. So, in the same vein, as long as society does little for the already dehumanized people living at the margins of society, then, again the gangs and similar criminal groups will remain. And if the response towards these communities that are under gang influence is to bring them to heel through sheer force, well, recent Honduran history has shown that this is when gang ranks swell the most.

It should be noted that there are people working within communities to break the cycle. They are brave and often stand alone. With compassion and empathy, they work case by case. Like the pastor who negotiates truces between quarreling gangs, or the missionary who preaches mercy and disarmament, and the bishop who finds safe passage away from imminent death for boys looking to quit––with selfless leaders like these setting the pace, and investment in mending the atomized communities coming in, I think that neighborhoods like Moises’ can come back from the brink so that one day he can raise his baby girl in a peace he never knew as a child.

When Moises is tormented by the violence that casts a specter all around his barrio in San Pedro Sula, he runs up the hill. His closest friend, Jaime, runs up with him. Moises is being forced to choose between living in, dying for or fleeing from the barrio. But with Maria’s pregnancy fast approaching term, Moises is no longer just deciding the fate of his own life. Moises has said before that he swears to provide for and protect his own child’s life from whatever San Pedro Sula may churn up. The question that torments Moises: is how will he survive? Photo © Tomas Ayuso

This interview has been edited and condensed from the original transcript.

Connect with Tomás Ayuso on Blink or follow him on Instagram at @Tomas_Ayuso