Tomas Ayuso has spent the last couple years traveling through Central America and Mexico, photographing people and telling their stories. In his latest project, titled “The Right to Grow Old,” Ayuso captured photos of Hondurans and their fight to live.

The project is based on the idea that in Honduras, Ayuso’s homeland, this right has become almost nonexistent, he said in a lecture at Miami University on Oct. 10. Many Hondurans have chosen to migrate as a way to survive and as an act of resistance.  

Ayuso stood beside a projector screen that stretched across the wall of Taylor Auditorium. On the screen flashed his photos, each one with a different story to be told.

There are three factors driving the migration, he said: political instability, crime and climate change leading to economic disposition.

Since the day Christopher Columbus happened upon the Americas in 1492 and through every Honduran president, the country has been in a state of political instability, Ayuso said.

Most of Ayuso’s photos in Honduras take place in and around San Pedro Sula, once known as the murder capital of the world and for good reason, he said.

The first photo showed a police blockade from early 2018. Men donning gas masks and shields blocked protesters in the streets. People responded with violence, storming the equivalent of the White House in Honduras.

Ayuso was in the middle of it all, camera in hand.

“We were met by live ammo fire into the crowd,” Ayuso said. “About 50 or so people were killed, and I, myself, had my ribs broken by a swinging baton.”

Ayuso said through all the violence and corruption, “people still persist.”

The majority of Hondurans live on the margins of society, he said. The allure of criminal life is apparent.

“Things are coming undone at the street by street level. Here you have a neighborhood self-defense member — another way of saying a gang member,” he said as a new photo came onto the screen.

Many people have taken justice into their own hands. “Vigilante justice, in a way,” he said.

Politicians, dentists, police officers and more will hire these vigilante killers to do their bidding. The man in Ayuso’s photo had killed over 300 people.  

“It’s not to say that Honduras is an entire hellscape of ‘Mad Max’ proportions, but there is an undercurrent of darkness that happens when institutionalism breaks down to the point that is one notch above complete chaos.”

Rival gangs fight to the death to control territory in San Pedro Sula, and police will beat anyone who’s a fighting-age male, Ayuso said.

“In the crackdown of this fighting, you need safety in numbers. The gang becomes the herd, the protection.”

Many of the gang members are only children. The OG’s (original gangsters) run their business primarily from prison, Ayuso said.

“I had the illustrious pleasure of staying two weeks in prison while doing a study of them. You would think, ‘Oh, this is awful. You’re in prison.’ But no,” he said. “I went there because they invited me to, and I told the warden, ‘I’m going into the gang wing. They invited me.’ And you could see the warden get physically scared. If the warden had said no to an invitation…he would be in trouble.”

Each gang controls a certain block of San Pedro Sula, and each area has its own vernacular.

Ayuso showed a photo of a coffin. In it was a young boy who, despite having no association with a gang, was brutally murdered due to a misunderstanding. He used slang from his block, unknowingly, while speaking to a gang member from another area.

“In that moment, they picked him up, beat him and lynched him in the San Pedro Sula downtown, in full sight of the cops,” Ayuso said. “But the cops were in the pocket of the gang, as well. They brutalized his body to the point I really don’t want to get into, unrecognizable. The mother left the coffin open because she wanted everyone to see what they did to her baby — very much like Emmett Till.”

The point of Ayuso’s project, though, is to show the trauma people have gone through and gain an understanding — not to show them as monsters, he said.

Ayuso tracked the process of migrating from Honduras all the way up through Mexico to the United States. Most migrants walk for hundreds of miles, some jumping on cargo trains from city to city.

“This brings us up to the border,” Ayuso said. “To make it all the way to Mexico on the northern border from Honduras, the odds are impossible.”

He showed a photo of a man peering over the wall of a human trafficking den in Mexico — the vision of Texas in the distance.

“To get there, I asked him, ‘What do you see?’ He said, ‘I see a dream.’ There is still a belief that [the United States] has a reputation that it helps migrants.”

The next photo is of a border militiaman, dressed in camo from head to toe with rifle in hand. The man stands on the Texas side of the border, gazing out across the Rio Grande.

“He is not in any way related to the government. He just thought, ‘Hey, I’ll go to the border with my nice getup and just shoot people.’”

So Ayuso asked him what he wanted — what happens if he sees someone swimming across the river.

“‘I’ll shoot him dead,’ he said. ‘Why?’ ‘Because they’re coming and they’re invading and they want to take our everything … They’re coming in. It’s a foreign invasion force.’”  

Ayuso paused.

“You see the people that are traveling. They’re starving, they have threats of death on their backs.”

Ayuso patrolled with the militiamen for a while and soon realized none of them had combat experience.

“I asked this guy, ‘How do you finance? You’re just hanging here in Southern Texas. How do you do this?’ He said, ‘Oh, my dad owns a pool company in Michigan.’ We traveled in their armored personnel carrier: A Honda Odyssey.”

Ayuso himself is of Palestinian origin.

“I’m Arab and Honduran. The enemy made flesh, right?” Ayuso joked. “You might be wondering how I got this close while keeping my physical integrity. They asked me, ‘Where are you from?’ ‘I am from Denmark.’ They said, ‘That’s crazy! I never seen a Denmark person before.’ And so it worked.”

But, Ayuso said, not everyone wants to make it to the United States. Some migrants are content staying in Mexico and creating a life for themselves there.

“If driven to the brink, we will do anything to survive,” Ayuso said. “We all have this inside of us. It is within you to go under extreme stress, regardless of threats, violence, misery, etcetera. You will do anything to make your own self and your loved ones survive. It’s not this ‘chasing a financial gain’ or ‘becoming millionaires.’ That’s not it. It’s, ‘I want the right to life,’ — that’s the guiding principle.”