If you had said back in 2010 that you were going to Comuna 13, people would have thought you were crazy. Back then Comuna 13 was the most dangerous district of Medellín. For years this area was the territory of the drug cartels, gangs and guerillas. From drug lord Pablo Escobar to FARC and ELN, this area did not have it easy. Still today, it is not 100 percent safe in Comuna 13, but this district is on the road of recovery. One of the positive influences is street art. Just like in the capital Bogotá street art has helped this violent city to start a new chapter.
District of Pablo Escobar
Comuna 13, officially known as San Javier, is a densely populated and poor area built on the hills around the Aburra valley. This neighborhood has a strong strategic location: close to the San Juan Highway. Perfect for smuggling money, guns and drugs quickly in and out the city. Another major strength: Comuna 13, popularly known as Trece, is virtually inaccessible for police and army. You really have to know the area, if you want to come in or exit without being seen. The infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar saw the potential of this area and made sure that it was fully under his control. If you control the district, you control the highway.
Murder district number 1
This might come as a surprise to you, but the real violence in Comuna 13 only started after the death of Escobar in 1993. The power vacuum created a bloody battle between left-wing guerilla, right-wing paramilitary groups and combos (local street gangs). They all wanted to establish control over Comuna 13. Between 1997 and 2002 the murder rate in Medellín tripled. The district was divided into zones of the guerilla and paramilitary. There were ‘invisible borders’ everywhere. If you would cross one, it would mean freedom or death.
Stop the guerilla: Operation Orion
The government had enough of the guerilla. In 2002 Operation Orion started. Goal: to put an end to the control of the guerilla. The government made an alliance with the paramilitary. Together they went into the district on the hunt for FARC and ELN members. The district suffered air attacks for four days. Officially the death count is 11, but in reality the number of deaths is much higher. Hundreds of civilians went missing, presumably put into a mass grave. The operation left the residents of Comuna 13 with tragic memories.
As a reward for their support in Operation Orion the paramilitary were give free reign in Comuna 13. Don Berna – if you have seen the series Narcos you know him – was head of this movement. Drug trafficking, extortion and kidnapping continued. When Don Berna was extradited to the United States in 2008, the combos saw their shot to control Comuna 13. Again, a bloody battle started. In 2009 the murder rate rose by 200% in Medellín. Eventually, a truce was called in 2013 after a decade of fighting.
New life thanks to street art
Good. So far the bloody history of Comuna 13. But luckily there is also a positive note in this story: the city has pushed for major reconstruction in the last few years. And it has done so successfully: in 2013 Medellín was declared the most innovative city of the world. The ambition of the city council was to work towards an accessible and modern city. This resulted in two metro lines riding high above the cars and a cable car network connecting all districts with the city center. Also in Comuna 13 living conditions improved. The government installed electric escalators so that residents did not have to climb up the hills anymore. Furthermore, local artists found their way into the neighborhood to create amazing wall paintings. In my opinion, it is absolutely worth your time to walk around this district for an afternoon, but do this by joining a tour. It is discouraged for tourists to walk around the district by themselves. A tour is perfect and safe option.
Enough with the background story. Time to show what kind of works you can actually see in Comuna 13.
Would you visit Comuna 13?