A cable car floats by, beatboxers dance, the metro whizzes past, children run around outside playing games, a mother and daughter ride the bright orange escalators up the slopes of Comuna 13; this is the new Medellin. Just two decades ago, thanks to Pablo Escobar and his myriad number of opponents, Medellin was considered the most dangerous city in Latin America, if not the world. Explosions, violence, and death were as normal as the sun rising in the east. Today, government intervention, a push for public transportation as a means to equalize the population, social programs, and an overall mental change in the population has fostered the growth of a new Medellin, a place where kids can trade in guns for education and a family can ride a cable car up the slopes instead of hiking 45 minutes in the Colombian heat. Although the work is far from done, Medellin has become a vibrant, livable city looking to the future.
On my last day in Medellin, I decided to see this transformation close up, with a tour of Comuna 13, a barrio that crawls up the hills in the Northwest of the city. Due to its location near the main San Juan highway, Comuna 13 was ideal for crime and became the preferred place to transport guns, drugs, money, and people. Throughout its history, Comuna 13 was the epicenter for guerrilla, cartel, paramilitary, and gang activity, essentially being passed off from one group to another as they vied for power.
The tour began on the metro- a cleaner, more efficient, and more extensive system than many other cities worldwide. Arriving to the neighborhood, you are immediately struck by the friendliness of the locals, offering you goods they've made and sending smiles in your direction.
Thousands of brick homes, some painted some not, are stacked on top of and around each other up, up, up the hill. Here, we were given a brief history lesson:
late 80s - 90s: The neighborhood was controlled by those loyal to Pablo Escobar. After his death in 1993, crime & violence remained paramount as various groups vied for power.
October 2002: In an attempt to overthrow all guerrilla and rebel groups, the Colombian military aided by paramilitary forces carried out the controversial Orion Operation, bringing thousands of soldiers, policemen, and helicopters into the area, essentially firing at random anywhere and everywhere. Hundreds of locals were wounded, 9 were killed, and the siege persisted, preventing the injured from seeking medical aid. After days of bullets, a resident stuck a white flag out her window and began to wave it, signaling a need for the violence to end. The rest of the neighborhood joined in, waving white flags, until the fighting ceased. Today, this symbolic moment can be seen throughout the neighborhood, depicted in various graffiti and street art works.
Moving along up the road we arrived at the beginning of the escalators, striking orange structures zigzagging up the slope. A bit jarring to see at first, this urban development took a steep 35+ min hike up the hill, and converted it into a 6 minute, leisurely ride. The escalators connect Comuna 13 more readily to the rest of the city, allowing inhabitants to get to jobs and out of the barrio without much effort. Other infrastructure such as the Parque Biblioteca (Library Park) provides low-income children and adults access to computers, books, workshops, and green space. Various community programs help people find jobs, provide loans to small businesses, and help women become more independent throughout the area.
Graffiti and street art is littered throughout the neighborhood, and was a central part of the tour and clearly a central aspect of the neighborhood today. One of the more famous artists, Chota, lives (see his house two photos down) and works in the neighborhood and will often come out and speak with tour groups. The tour as a whole gave a good picture of the struggles as well as the hope and determination that is rampant throughout the area and the city. I left the tour and Colombia (the next day) inspired by the positive effects of urban planning and development on the community.
To get your own taste of the changes happening in Medellin, and specifically in Comuna 13, be sure to book a spot on the Comuna 13 Tour (tours go out daily). Prices are 70k Colombian pesos per person or roughly at $23 at current exchange rates.