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For years, Medellin was the most dangerous city in the world. Between Pablo Escobar and the drug cartels vying for control, and the military attempting to control them; to leftist revolutionary guerrillas and the privately funded right-wing paramilitary groups locked in conflict.
Car bombs, shootings, kidnappings and outright war were commonplace in the region. While the city itself stood amongst the most violent on earth, until as recently as 2010; one neighbourhood in particular ranked deadliest of all. The neighbourhood of San Javier, commonly referred to as Comuna 13, Medellin.
The History of Comuna 13
With thousands of villagers displaced due to violence in the countryside surrounding Medellin, the city saw a surge of new residents. Arriving with nothing, most of the new residents set up in small communities in the hills on the outskirts of town.
Illegal houses were built using whatever materials could be gathered. With no official infrastructure, houses were built on top of others while drainage and waste filtered through the streets.
Being unofficial and illegal, the government would regularly move in and tear the shambled buildings down. With no place else to go, the community would rebuild. This cycle went on for years, but with each rebuild, the community grew stronger until the government finally caved — only leading to new problems.
The community and buildings of Comuna 13 would be allowed to stay and minor utilities would be set up. However, as they did not pay taxes, the area was to be unrecognized by the police. Guerrilla groups from the countryside used this to their advantage. Acting as the unofficial law enforcement, these groups used the barrio as a front for arming a local militia.
The desperation of locals gave the guerrillas easy access to recruits.
Soon came extortion, more crime and a hotbed of criminal activity that could operate safely without official authority. In many ways, this continues through today.
The People of San Javier Had Enough
After decades of turmoil, calm began to spread throughout the country. A city once plagued with violence and terror began to see light. Following a horrific few days in 2002, when a military operation to remove the militias from the Comuna ended with mass civilian casualties, the residents had enough.
While the left-wing rebels had been evicted, the far-right paramilitary groups moved in. The worst had passed, but another decade would pass before anything could reach a relative normal.
The youth of the neighbourhood took action in their own ways. Rather than falling into the tempting world of gang life, many focused their energy in the form of art. Music and graffiti replaced the sounds of gunfire and cracked brick walls. Guns and violence were slowly replaced by spray cans and street performances.
While the youth rebelled, the gangs held their ground. The violence and killing continued.
A Revitalization of Comuna 13
The city itself poured money into Comuna 13 in hopes of revitalizing the former war zone. An additional metro-cable line was added from San Javier station to provide access to the northern hillsides surrounding the area. A few years later, modern, open-air escalators were built to help locals reach the city centre without climbing hundreds of stairs upon their return.
For the first time in history, residents of San Javier no longer felt alienated by the city they once couldn’t call home. Job opportunities within the city centre suddenly became a reality for thousands of residents, who until then, lived in poverty.
While these measures were by no means an overnight solution, the doors are now wide open.
Visiting Comuna 13 Today
Not only has the metro-cable and escalators provided access to the city from residents, but also a means of bringing visitors into the struggling community. Although the access existed, many locals still feared the journey.
As recently as 2010, the murder rate was over 160 in 100,000 people. To put that in perspective, the most dangerous city in the world in late 2021 is Tijuana, Mexico, with a rate of 138.
Things have vastly improved over the last decade. Though gangs still rule much of the area, a strong police presence holds things in relative calm. During our first visit on the famed graffiti tour of the Comuna, we felt completely safe, without a hint of worry.
Friendly locals and tourists alike walked the streets and enjoyed street food and cold beer while break-dancers performed. It quickly became one of our favourite spots to wander around the city.
San Javier is Safe, but not Perfect…
More recently, however, while a friend from home was visiting us during our 2018 visit, we took him to see this fantastic neighbourhood. The vibe was different nearly immediately upon leaving San Javier Metro station. Police presence was many times stronger than previous visits and local media was on site.
While enjoying some delicious artisan ice cream from Cremas Doña Alba as we climbed the escalators, the police were here en masse as well. Also, as a handful of tourists were out enjoying the stunning murals of street art, their numbers were a minuscule fraction of what we’d seen prior.
The breakdancers were practicing in a quiet corner rather than performing their lively act for the non-existent crowd.
This was all quite odd for a sunny Saturday afternoon in Medellín.
After several hours of enjoying the afternoon, we wound down over some cold beer from Cafe Aroma de Barrio. Overlooking the rooftops as the sun continued to set over the high hillsides, food carts packed up for the day. Sunny afternoons are great, but sticking around after dark isn’t a good idea in most parts of the city, let alone here.
Comuna 13: A Work in Progress
That evening while flipping through some local news, the signs of the day were quickly apparent. Just days earlier, a high-level gang leader and many of his followers were captured by the police. The resulting power vacuum sparked an increase in violence and murder in Comuna 13 over the past few days.
Although the atmosphere was noticeably different, our most recent visit caused no discomfort. The people still smiled from their open-for-business carts and cafes and nobody — even the police — mentioned anything to us. That being said, the recent activity led to the suspension of tours and city-wide warnings; for good reason.
During our 2020 visit, things in San Javier and Colombia as a whole are still in limbo. The ELN, the second-largest guerrilla group in the country held an armed strike for several days across Colombia, and some sources stated that Comuna 13 might be a target.
Thankfully, to the best of my knowledge, nothing serious happened during this strike. As for Comuna 13, the overall situation is still on edge. Murders increased in the early months of 2020, with four taking place in as many days in mid-February.
It’s worth noting that these attacks took place in the northern section of San Javier, far from the popular tourist area, so they shouldn’t dissuade you from visiting.
While the situation seems to have calmed, it’s a deep reminder that stability can change overnight, especially in a place such as this.
Take a Comuna 13 Tour
Comuna 13 continues to evolve. And the colourful hillside barrio is busier than ever. The once wide-open pedestrian walkway is now partitioned to help organize the increasing foot traffic. And many of the colourful walls are lined with open-air shops selling everything from art prints to clothing — some of which have nothing to do with Comuna 13.
Regardless of the changes, it’s still a great place to visit and the area remains one of our favourite activities in Medellin. And while you can visit on your own, to get the full story, we always suggest taking a tour. During our first visit several years ago, there was only one main tour, the Free Graffiti Tour of Comuna 13 by Zippy Tours.
These days, there are dozens of tour operators, though few are official. With the rising popularity of Comuna 13, it seems anyone and everyone is trying to capitalize. If you arrive at the San Javier metro station, you’ll find many people fighting for your attention. Some wearing “Tour Guide” shirts, others in plain clothes.
We heard one story of a recent tragedy where one of these “guides” stabbed another while fighting for the attention of a group of tourists.
It’s for this reason that we still only recommend using the official tour through Zippy. They’re the original and have been running the tour for years. We’ve taken this tour and highly recommend it.
Explore, Appreciate the History, and Show your Support
Don’t let the negativity steer you away from visiting. Comuna 13 remains one of our favourite spots in Medellin and we always look forward to visiting.
Please support the locals, enjoy their artwork, purchase their products, eat from their carts and drink from their cafes. Just be sure to research the current situation before heading in.