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  • Andrea Juarez

The transformation of Medellin’s Comuna 13

How one Colombian neighbourhood overcame violence and became an international urban art spot.

Operation Orion Mural by John Alexander Serna, “Chota 13” at the Comuna 13 in Medellin, Colombia. Photo by the author.

For many North Americans, Colombia has a bad reputation: gangs, violence, druglords, you name it. Television shows like Narcos don’t do any help. However, the Colombia depicted on TV is in the past. The country has moved on and it’s glowing. My boyfriend lived for a few years in Colombia, so we made plans to visit Medellin — the country’s second-largest city, it’s home to great art, music, and restaurants. We booked our trip a year in advance, to get the best price on airplane tickets from Canada. Then, a month or before our departure, I began to research what to see in Medellin. On Instagram, I found many vivid pictures of graffiti murals in the Comuna 13. Located on the west side of the city’s Western Central Zone, it is one of Medellin’s 16 communes. Then I googled “Graffiti Medellin” and found a free graffiti tour of Comuna 13, guided by volunteers and residents, so we booked it. A month later, we rode the Medellin Metro and got off at the busy San Javier station, where we met Evelyn, our tour guide. Evelyn was already talking with a group of tourists from Colombia. We joined them, hopping on a bus that would take us to the Comuna 13. The bus was packed, and we barely got a seat. The road was bumpy, but nothing stopped our excitement. In less than 15 minutes, we arrived, unloading in front of a convenience store. Evelyn reunited the group and asked why we had signed up for the tour. “Because of the art,” I replied. When she asked the Colombian tourists, they said the tour had been recommended to them. Then she asked if they ever heard anything about the Comuna 13 before. They had heard it was dangerous and thought it was strange that it was now a tourist hot spot. Evelyn nodded.

The Comuna 13 used to be the most dangerous place to be in Colombia and, in fact, in the world, she said. Murder rates were astronomical, and gang violence was widespread.

Now, however, pre-COVID, it welcomed more than one thousand visitors from around the world every day.

To understand Comuna 13, you need to go back a few decades.

At the end of the 1970s, homeless families from different parts of Medellin arrived in the Comuna 13 neighbourhoods, an area that occupies roughly seven square kilometres.

Then, other families — displaced by violence in other regions of the country — joined them.

They built houses with wood, plastic, clay, cardboard, zinc cans and guadua, the most important American bamboo.

But despite the attempt at creating a community, violence followed. By 1990, urban criminal organizations such as the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), began operating in the zone.

As various guerrilla groups came in, the conflicts grew. Kidnappings and murder were common.

Criminal groups forced Comuna 13 families to hide kidnapping victims. The families, like the victims, were monitored so they were unable to contact the police.

The violence and injustice brought unbearable pain to the commune, but residents stayed. They didn’t have anywhere to go.

One of the worst days of fighting took place on July 4, 2002, when a criminal group killed three civilians and forced other families to flee from the neighbourhood of El Salado. Four hundred people were displaced. Their houses were burned.

It had been 10 brutal years that the people of Comuna 13 had been ruled over by illegal gangs.

Everything changed on October 16, 2002, during Operation Orion, which sought to end the presence of the illegal militias — FARC, ELN, CAP — in the commune.

More than 1,200 troops; the Administrative Department of Security (DAS), the Technical Investigation Body (CTI), the jury, the Colombian air forces, and the national army took part in the operation, which began at 1 a.m.

There was heavy fighting. But by the end, the soldiers rescued 21 people who had been kidnapped. They seized 330 kilograms of explosives, 90 grenades, 62 firearms, 6,452 ammunition of different calibres, two kilograms of potassium chlorate, and various handmade explosives.

Eighteen people — four civilians, four soldiers, and 10 alleged guerrillas — were killed during the rescue operation and 34 individuals were hurt.

But after Operation Orion, the number of murders and the crime in Medellin decreased drastically.

And residents of the Comuna 13 began to express their history publicly through the arts and community events.

In the neighbourhoods of Las Independencias and 20 de Julio, residents painted graffiti art inspired by peace and solidarity.

Music, especially hip-hop, became very popular.

In 2003, the city administration created a Comuna 13 investment plan, with the goals of activating the economy, restoring the social fabric and paying a historic debt to the zone.

Seven years later, in 2010, the Medellin City Hall announced it would install escalators in the neighbourhood to shorten the distance residents had to walk — until the escalators, many had to climb 28 storeys to get home from the bottom of the commune.

In December 2011, the 384-metre-tall escalators opened to the public. The escalators travel past six sections of the mountain in just two minutes.

“Walking upstairs was very hard,” said Claudia Garcia to El Tiempo newspaper. “With this project, our lives were changed.”

This project gave residents and foreigners — including us — easier access to the neighbourhood.

When you take the escalators, you almost immediately start seeing an explosion of colourful designs.

By the time you reach the top, you are captivated by a massive mural named Operation Orion, a nod to the Comuna 13’s bloody history.

The mural portrays an African-Colombian girl. Next to her is another girl with tears on her face, who mourns and remembers the victims of the past. She sees plants growing around her that depict the growth and resilience of the residents, who are hopeful for a brighter, better future.

Most of the murals were created by the artist John Alexander Serna, known in the neighbourhood as “Chota,” who grew up in the sector of Independencias I when the urban militias controlled the area.

“In the past, the value of what I did wasn’t noticed. I just made graffitis for the neighbourhood; almost no one saw them, only the community,” he said in 2019 to El Malpensante magazine. “Ever since the escalators, we started getting recognition and incentive since they guarantee access to the neighbourhood and allow residents to expose their work and art to foreigners who visit us.”

Art has allowed the residents to tell their own stories and the story of their country.

And when you’re ready to take a break, there is a cozy coffee shop that serves not only tasty Colombian coffee but also drinks and snacks. It is surrounded by more of Serna’s bright murals.

As you walk to other levels of the Comuna 13 — not every level is accessible by escalators — you can find booksellers operating small stands. And everywhere, you’ll find food and snacks such as mango and natural fruit slushies.

While we snacked, we watched happy children, playing and dancing to hip-hop and reggaeton beats.

Before your tour ends, if your tour guide is cool like Evelyn, you’ll be tagging your name with graffiti on a wall. Trust me, it’s not easy.

By the time our trip to Medellin wrapped up, I knew the Comuna 13 was my favourite part of the city. I was caught up by its history and the resilience of its people.

“The Comuna 13 is the best example of social transformation, where the impulse can be given by a project. The escalators made people feel part of the project and own it,” said Juan David Gonzales to El Economista newspaper in 2019.

“Today, the escalators are one of the most visited places in the city of Medellin. You can always say that it is because of the escalators, but the point is that the project gave origin to change.”

Indeed, the Comuna 13 is exciting proof that a city can change, and it can change for the better.

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