A Little History
With thousands of villagers displaced due to violence in the countryside surrounding Medellin, the city saw a surge of new residents. Coming 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, homes were built above homes, 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, they 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, 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, it was more of a front for arming a local militia, and easy access to new recruits.
Soon came extortion, more crime, and a hot bed of criminal activity that could operate safely without official authority. In many ways, this continues through today.
The People Had Enough…
After decades of turmoil, calm began to spread throughout the country. A city once plagued with violence and terror began to see the light. Following a horrific few days in 2002, where 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 right-wing paramilitary groups moved in. The worst had passed, but years 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 gunfire and cracked brick walls. Guns and violence were slowly replaced by spray cans and street performance.
While the youth rebelled, the gangs held their ground. The violence and killings continued.
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 solutions are by no means an overnight solution, the doors are now wide open.
Visiting Comuna 13 and Medellin 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 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 at the time of writing – Caracas, Venezuela – has a rate of 111.
Things have vastly improved over the passed eight years. Although gangs still rule much of the area, a strong and ever-present police presence holds things in relative calm. During our first visit on the famed graffiti tour of the Comuna, we felt completely safe, not 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.
Safe, but not Perfect…
More recently however, while a friend from home was visiting us, 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 media was on site.
Enjoying some delicious artisan ice cream from Cremas Doña Alba as we climbed the escalators, the police where 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. Quite odd for a sunny Saturday afternoon.
After several hours 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.
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 passed 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 lead to suspension of tours and city-wide warnings; for good reason.
While the situation seems to have calmed, it’s a deep reminder that stability can change overnight, especially in a place such as this.
Don’t let the negativity steer you away from visiting. Comuna 13 remains one of our favourite spots in Medellin and we look forward to returning in the future. Please support the locals, enjoy their artwork, purchase their products, eat from their carts, drink from their cafes. Just be sure to research the current situation prior to heading in.