Violence and lawlessness was rife in what was one of the most dangerous barrios (districts) of the most dangerous city in the world. Citizens were short on money and opportunity and were often left with nowhere to turn.
Life was tough in Comuna 13.
This was the most dangerous barrio in Medellín. It was impossible to reach the centre of town; we were stuck here. All our elder brothers were on drugs or dealing drugs. I just lived in the house, and the bullets came flying in, during dinner…
What a difference fifteen years can make though. As it stands today, it’s almost impossible, as an outsider, to imagine Comuna 13 (a part of the San Javier district) as it once was – a haven for guerrillas, local gangs, drug cartels and paramilitary groups.
In place of the danger that used to envelop the region, there’s now a surprising sense of peace; a living, adapting community that is a testament to the human spirit.
If Medellín is to be considered one of the most innovative cities in the world, Comuna 13 would have to be one of the most transformed.
What did the community come from though?
An All-Too-Recent History Lesson
Controlled by groups with loyalties to Colombia’s notorious drug lord, Pablo Escobar, life in the district was beyond anything I can imagine. With danger around every corner and unbelievable crime statistics, Escobar’s death in 1993 did little to calm this troublesome part of Medellín.
Instead, crime continued to escalate as drug cartels fought for control of the hillside city, it’s location of key importance due to its geographical link to the San Juan Highway.
Those that had control of this highway controlled all illegal goods flowing in and out of Medellín, and, in turn, much of Colombia.
In their minds, it was worth fighting for at practically any cost.
2002 – A Time of Unexpected Change
Now infamous within Colombia, October 16th, 2002 saw Operation Orion carried out. The national military (along with controversial assistance from unofficial paramilitary personnel) sprung a surprise attack on Comuna 13 in a bid to drive out the occupying rebel groups.
After one failed attempt to rid the region of the rebels (due to corruption within the police force), the second was strong and unrelenting. Over 1,000 troops and police attacked the area whilst its 100,000 inhabitants did their best to shelter from the siege – all too often, unsuccessfully.
Bombs, mortars, machine guns and helicopters rained down on locals and criminals alike, unable to differentiate between targets and bystanders.
Life After 2002
In all, hundreds lost their lives whilst many, many more were seriously injured before the week was through.
Understandably, locals were heartbroken by the events that occurred in October of 2002. Many of the local children had been drafted into the guerrilla forces (with no genuine alternative) only to find themselves the target of such extreme violence.
Hundreds of people from the community were taken, both innocent and guilty, never to be seen again; it wasn’t until recently that the location of their bodies was revealed as being at the rubbish dump on a neighbouring hill.
The alternative of continuing on as they were before Operation Orion was far from ideal but nor was the eventual action.
And all of this for what? The guerrillas’ presence was replaced soon after by a paramilitary group led by an heir of Pablo Escobar, Don Berna, along with others vying for control. It seemed like in Comuna 13 would not see the peace it so badly deserved without a fight.
Incredibly, a reformist alliance eventually emerged and with key players extradited and others promised jobs in exchange for peace, the community could finally start rebuilding.
Through hardship, Comuna 13 has risen.
Residents began expressing their concern and anger through community events, music and artworks, crafting the community that we know now – a world away from what it once was.
Comuna 13 Today
Today, Comuna 13 is full of life and is almost the antithesis of its former self.
In a bid to create more opportunities for the local residents and to reduce crime in the area, a modern cable car was installed (connecting to a rail and bus network) and six covered escalators were installed to make it easier for people to climb the steep city streets.
The sound of gunfire was eventually replaced by the sounds of children playing again. Hip hop music sings out across walkways, giving local breakdances an ever-present beat to move to. Colourful street art now attracts visitors from all over the world, both to observe and to create.
Comuna 13 has emerged with a new sense of pride that’s visibly clear throughout the area.
More than anything though, the lessons to be learnt in this community shine through. That a group of people could come through such challenging times and emerge out the other side is mindblowing. That tourists can now walk through this area with cameras dangling freely from their necks, chatting to locals without reservation, is more than I could have imagined before visiting for myself.
Without doubt, the community still has it’s fair share of challenges though.
Yes, there’s been a transformation. And of course we agree with the changes. But they need to keep attacking the causes, not the effects. Inequality, bad education, no jobs or opportunity – that’s where we need the changes.
Regardless, Comuna 13 can’t help but grant visitors a sense of optimism for the world. If they can turn their situation around and make their community a place of such beauty, we all can.
Reviewing the Comuna 13 Graffiti Tour
Do I Need to Book a Tour to Comuna 13?
Let me start by saying that, no, you don’t absolutely need to join a tour to this barrio. Yes, you can make the trip out to Comuna 13 by yourself. The metro system is easy to figure out and though the buses aren’t as simple, you can pick up free wifi in the subway and order an uber easily enough.
We never had any intention of travelling halfway around the world, to one of the most interesting parts of Colombia just to wander aimlessly through their street art though.
The power of Comuna 13 is in their history and in their stories. These two things simply cannot be understood as an outsider walking through the city; to really dig into the district, you’ll want a guide.
Why Comuna 13 Graffiti Tour?
With tip-only tours available elsewhere in Medellín, we opted to join one that had a set rate. Why? For two reasons – number one, their
amazing reviews and number two, simplicity.
We have a bad habit of turning up to walking tours a little behind schedule because we almost always try to join them when we first make it to a new city. They’re a great way to orientate yourself to a new place but of course, not knowing your way around can make it difficult to get there in the first place! Imagine our excitement when we realised the meeting point for this tour was our nearest metro station, Poblado. Not only the tour pick up the cost of our metro ticket but setting such a convenient starting point is a massive help to tentative tourists. We’re relatively comfortable navigating South American public transport systems now (albiet whilst running a bit late) but there’s nothing wrong with getting a helping hand every now and then.
We loved that the Comuna 13 Graffiti Tour included everything within the very reasonable ticket price (COP70,000/USD24/NZD33.60) including metro, bus and cable car tickets, drinks and best of all, fresh local snacks – seriously, try the corn arepa (made crispy with butter, yum!) and without doubt, the fresh mango iceblock – I’m still dreaming of it!
Oscar, our guide, was passionate, informative and personable throughout the duration of the tour. He was always more than happy to answer our questions and shared his personal insight to Medellín’s somewhat troubled past. We loved the manner in which he was upfront about the challenges the city has faced whilst remaining upbeat and of course, respectful – this is after all his city and one that he loves unreservedly.
The more time we spend here, the more we can appreciate why.
Keen To Book a Tour? Here’s the Key Information You’ll Need:
- Book: Email Arthur of Comuna 13 Graffiti Tours. Tours run seven days a week and are conducted in English. Bookings are required.
- Pay: COP70,000 each directly to the guide (additional tips not required, though I’m sure appreciated if you feel so inclined)
- Meet: Outside the ticket station at the Poblado metro at 10am. This is a popular place for visitors to stay so may well be your local stop.
- Visit: Start by taking in the views at the top of the cable car and then make your way over to Comuna 13 where you’ll soak in the local street art and most importantly, gain an understanding of what life was like in this barrio and how it has changed over time, in the face of great adversity.
Thank you to Comuna 13 Graffiti Tours for hosting us on this tour for the purpose of this review. As always, all thoughts are 100% our own – it just so happens that we unreservedly recommend this tour.