Comuna 13 Medellín

Comuna 13: How Colombia’s Most Notorious Neighbourhood Reinvented Itself

 

Ever since we arrived in Colombia, and especially Medellín, Troy and I have been profoundly affected by the stories of the city’s past and the heartbreaking accounts of violence and strife, especially in Comuna 13. However, in the last few years, it has transformed into a place of optimism becoming a livable, vibrant, and growing city—and a place we have fallen in love with. It even received global recognition when it was named the most innovative city.  Despite this, we see the change very much about transformation more than innovation.

Comuna 13

Homes on the hill in Comuna 13 ward

One particular area of Medellín, an area called Comuna 13, also known as the San Javier, has the most tumultuous history of the city, once labeled the most dangerous community due to its astronomical homicide rates and forced displacement of thousands of residents.

Comuna 13 is an over-populated and low socio-economic zone that crawls up along the west hills of the city with thousands of brick and cement homes stacked close to one another. It was a pivotal center for paramilitary, guerrilla, and gang activity. Its location is ideal for crime, as it leads directly to the main highway (San Juan Highway), providing easy transportation of guns, drugs, and money.

 

 

Troy and I joined a walking tour of Comuna 13 to understand what caused the immense shift. After a trip on the metro to San Javier station, we met our tour guide accompanied by a local Comuna 13 resident, a hip-hop artist who helps kids how to express themselves through music. They both shared their stories as we walked through the city streets.

Comuna 13

That’s us, spending time on the walking tour.

 

A brief timeline of Comuna 13’s recent history

The 1980s-’90s:

The neighborhood was controlled by groups loyal to Pablo Escobar, the notorious drug lord who lived in Medellín. Illegal activities remained rampant after his death in 1993, as drug cartels sought control of the area.

2002:

One of the most pivotal events was on Oct. 16, 2002, when the Colombian military carried out the controversial Operation Orión, a strike to overthrow all rebel groups in Comuna 13. Over 1,000 policemen, soldiers, and aircrew in helicopters attacked the area (comprising of roughly 100,000 inhabitants). Nine people were killed (three children), and hundreds were wounded. The siege made it impossible to seek medical attention for the wounded, and the community took to the streets in solidarity flying white rags. With that action, the fighting stopped.

Post-2002:

Residents voiced their discontent and anger with the violence that occurred in 2002 through art and community events. Striking street art around the neighborhood depicts scenes with the white rags raised for peace and solidarity.

 

Comuna 13

Graffiti commemorating the white rags raised by residents during Operation Orión

 

Hip-hop music became a way to further express peaceful views. Dreadfully, this violence has continued and since 2009, 10 young hip-hop artists have been murdered.

Today:

We listened intently to our tour guides. Residents are no longer afraid to leave their homes and their quality of life has changed positively. As we walked through the narrow roadways, kids were playing soccer in the streets, vendors were selling fruit and empanadas, and we laughed with friendly shopkeepers who let us sample their signature green mango ice cream topped with lime and salt. We felt comfortable visiting the area. However, a full transformation of this neighborhood will be slow and gradual, spanning decades. The situation is still tenuous and there’s still work to be done.

 

 

Creativity:

Art saved the city as a vehicle for creative and political expression. The walls became a canvas to tell its history, beautifying the area and bringing optimism and peace of the residents, children, and visitors.

Here are selections from some of the most stunning graffiti art and photography in the area. 

Comuna 13

 

Comuna 13

The Héroes Photo Project 

This is a photo project below is from the NGO Project called Héroes (@masheroes) by Felipe Mesa. This project endorses positive role models in communities and as a tribute to those who are making a huge effort to make a better place out of their community. This man, Marlon Vargas, a DJ consistently works on social and cultural projects in Comuna 13. Unfortunately,  it was defaced my someone, thus the combination of photo and graffiti make it a very powerful image in the community.

Comuna 13

 

Hip-hop music continues to be an important method of expression, particularly as a way to educate and provide children with an alternative outlet instead of violence. Our resident guide shared his craft during our visit

Accessibility:

Forward-thinking mayors have initiated numerous city projects over the years with very successful results in improving quality and way of life. One such project was the metro cable car system, which opened in 1996 as an extension of the already important metro line. It helped Comuna 13 by providing inhabitants from all socio-economic backgrounds with easy access to the rest of the city, enhancing relationships with residents and the local government.

Medellin Cable Car

Cable car up to more remote areas in the hills

The most perplexing project (to a visitor) is the enormous 384m orange-roofed outdoor escalator, uniting Comuna 13 (located high on the hillside) to the rest of Medellín. A journey that once took residents a strenuous 35-minute hike up the hill has now been transformed into a six-minute trip. The escalator, completed in 2011, is divided into six sections allowing people living on different levels of the hillside to access at different points. It has improved life in Comuna 13 where people now feel more connected to the rest of the city. However, our guide noted that many residents question the $5 million price tag for something that only serves part of Comuna 13’s large population.

Comuna 13

One of the sections of the infamous escalator

Community:

With community support, the local government built important educational hubs accessible to the residents of San Javier. The Parque Biblioteca (Library Park) provides low-income children with access to computers and workshops to learn new skills. They are also able to play together in the library’s green space, equipped with recreational facilities such as soccer fields and basketball courts. Community centers and programs have been established like Cada Vida, which helps women become more financially and emotionally independent.

 

 

How to book your visit to Comuna 13: 

There are numerous tours to Comuna 13 in Medellín like this one from ViaColombia.

Things to do in Medellín and area: 

How the FARC guerillas impacted areas around Medellín and what is happening now. VIDEO.

Medellín futbol (football)! 

Hiking in Medellín

Colombian coffee farms around Medellín

Day trips to Guatapé and Santa Fé de Antioquia

Traveling around Colombia? Check out our detailed itineraries to help you plan your travel: 

Travel Planning and Itineraries in Colombia

For more posts and information about Colombia, you can find them here.

This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. The houses, art and graffiti are so colourful. Enjoy your time with Troy’s Dad & Mom at their vacation spot.
    “The Very Best To Both Of You from the McKays

  2. What an amazing place. Thanks for sharing through your eyes and perspective. Very interesting. Hope you enjoy your visit in Florida. Safe travels. Love Lourdes and Gerald.

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