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Ex-para from Hawkinge recounts world travels meeting violent El Salvador gangs and a 'vigilante' gun-toting mayor

The closest most of us have come to fearing for our lives is a forceful bit of turbulence on a return flight from Spain, or a near-miss on the M2 with a Dover-bound lorry.

But for some, brushing with death is just part of life, a necessary facet of exposing the stories of people living in the world's most treacherous countries.

Neil founded the media company Six Point Horizon. Photo: Neil Aitken
Neil founded the media company Six Point Horizon. Photo: Neil Aitken

That is how Neil Aitken, from Hawkinge , feels about his hair-raising day job.

With eight years service in the Army's parachute regiment behind him, diving into the most dangerous places in the world such as Afghanistan, Neil now devotes his life to working as a film maker and photographer, travelling to places in heavy conflict and meeting those most affected.

The 31-year-old said: "I really wanted to be able to give communities around the world a voice and let them tell their own stories.

"In an era of fake news I think this is a really important way to get the real truth out there."

Neil founded Six Point Horizon in 2018 to turn his passion into a reality.

Neil's passion is travelling across the world and discovering these different cultures. Pic: Neil Aitken
Neil's passion is travelling across the world and discovering these different cultures. Pic: Neil Aitken

Last October, Neil and his team travelled to El Salvador to find the people caught up in the country's vast web of organised crime.

El Salvador has one of the highest murder rates in the world.

The barbaric gang culture of the country is thought to have contributed to the mass migration of its citizens to other countries on the continent.

Regardless of Covid-19 restrictions, the UK's Foreign Office advises against all but essential travel to the densely-populated Central-American country.

When the filming crew arrived, around 45,000 people were in custody across El Salvador, more than twice the official capacity of the prison system.

Gangs control much of El Salvador. Pic: Neil Aitken
Gangs control much of El Salvador. Pic: Neil Aitken

The ex-para said: "El Salvador is a pretty violent place, and we were looking primarily at gang pressures affecting a lot of the communities there.

"Most areas are controlled by gangs in some form or another, either overtly or through paybacks and protection money."

The crew met with ex-gang members enrolled in a project attempting to turn their lives around, but the all-encompassing criminal underworld is out to make it as difficult as possible.

Neil said: "Once you're in a gang it's almost impossible to leave - they encourage you to get face tattoos and they locate you in gang areas so you could never get a normal job.

"It's a good way of keeping people in the gangs, but this project actually had a removal service so they could remove tattoos from the ex gang-member's faces.

Gangs would force members to get face tattoos to make it difficult to leave. Pic: Neil Aitken
Gangs would force members to get face tattoos to make it difficult to leave. Pic: Neil Aitken

"There was one guy who used to be a hit-man who was now making soap."

One of the strangest experiences the film maker had was meeting Mauricio Vilanova, the eccentric mayor of San Jose Guayabal, who took matters into his own hands by personally patrolling the streets with an automatic weapon.

Neil said: "This mayor was the most larger-than-life-character - when we turned up he was showing off his gun collection and offered to give us a tour around the area, fetched himself a gun to take as we wandered around.

"Then we were on the back of pickup trucks with armed police going through these areas, but something that made me laugh afterwards was they said 'someone threw a hand grenade at us down this road two weeks ago'."

During the tour Neil and his team had a brush with the brutal gang initiations that formed part of life in the criminal domain of El Salvador.

The film crew joined military patrols without any armour on. Pic: Neil Aitken
The film crew joined military patrols without any armour on. Pic: Neil Aitken

He said: "To join a gang you'd have to kill someone they captured, and we were just stood in a building where they would do that.

"We also went with the police unit into a gang-controlled areas - it was interesting doing that without body armour or a weapon - that was what I was used to doing in the military.

"This time I was holding a camera with a baseball cap on."

Many of the gang members occupying the areas were teenagers, revealing how early the criminals of El Salvador ensnare the vulnerable.

Neil said: "They were kids at the end of the day - I've been to quite a few different countries now and its a similar theme that they just happen to be brought up in a certain area.

El Salvador has one of the highest murder rates in the world. Pic: Neil Aitken
El Salvador has one of the highest murder rates in the world. Pic: Neil Aitken

"When you talk to them, they were trying to act cool and pose with the guns just like kids would do with their latest iPhone or a new bike.

"They just happened to have chrome-plated guns."

On the same trip, the crew visited a women's prison, following a team trying to get sentences cut short for people who had been unfairly locked up.

Neil said: "One on the laws in El Salvador is that if you are in the same room when a crime happens, you go down for the same sentence that anyone in the room did.

"There was a girl who was 16 at the time and she happened to be going out with a gang member when they executed someone. She got sent down for life too because she was in the room.

Neil went on patrols with the military into dangerous gangland areas. Pic: Neil Aitken
Neil went on patrols with the military into dangerous gangland areas. Pic: Neil Aitken

"It was quite weird talking to this girl who was 21 at the time of us interviewing her, but she still had the rest of her life in prison."

The team were spotlighting a US-backed project which hoped to rehabilitate many of the women given harsh prison sentences, by lobbying back to the government and reducing terms by convincing them that the women will be employable and won't go back to fraternising with criminals.

His trips across the world have given Neil a different perspective on topics which usually appear black and white to those who haven't been face to face with these cultures.

A trip to Myanmar in South East Asia last year took him to a UN-backed sweatshop,

Neil said: "If you spoke to anyone in the UK and you mentioned a sweatshop you've got all those negative connotations, but actually working conditions were pretty good and the UN were actively managing it."

A trip to Honduras revealed the dramatic gap in wealth between the poor and rich. Pic: Neil Aitken
A trip to Honduras revealed the dramatic gap in wealth between the poor and rich. Pic: Neil Aitken

Even though the wages were poor, comparatively it was the highest-paid employment in the area, with people travelling miles to work there so they could support their families.

He said: "If that sweatshop would have closed it would have been completely devastating for the local area, and I wouldn't have known that unless I'd been there actually talking to the people who worked there."

The team at Six Point Horizon believe their approach to film making can help contribute to authentically showing people what is happening across the world.

Neil said: "Especially at the moment with anti-immigration policies of certain countries and fake news media that we're constantly being bombarded with, people do still trust video.

"Anyone can access social media and post messages and pictures without having to verify, whereas it's reasonably hard to fake video.

"If that sweatshop would have closed it would have been completely devastating for the local area.."

"We always try and get the voices of the communities themselves to push their messages rather than us provide narration. That 'white saviour, white tourist' mentally of filming is something we want to avoid."

Much to the dismay of his partner, even when it comes to a bit of respite Neil has his sights set on the more inhospitable corners of the planet.

He said: "I like travelling and going to interesting places, I'm always dragging my wife to bizarre locations.

"I announced that we were going on holiday about a year ago then took her to Belarus.

"She was really unhappy when we landed and it was -14C."

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