Comuna 13 How a narco hotspot turned into a tourist magnet

Kids are running out of the school, class has just ended. 9-year old Ciro is one of them. It is a sunny day in Medellín, the city of eternal spring as people call it. The kids' happy playing is suddenly disrupted by shootings. It is the year 1999 and two armed groups are fighting for the control of the territory: the paramilitary group Bloque Metro and the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN). Masked men, big guns, chaos. Someone in the school puts a song on the building's outside speakers at full volume. No más guerra, no more war. 8 days later, Ciro sees a group breakdancing on the streets to the same song. He recognizes one of the guys from his school. Curiously, he walks over and asks about the song. "It's called rap. It talks about challenges and protests. It was born in the United States, but its roots are in Africa and here in Latin America," the guy tells him and gives Ciro the cassette. The song will change Ciro's life.

For a long time, the Comuna 13 was at the heart of the narco syndicates and gang wars that shaped Medellín's reputation as infamous murder capital. This neighbourhood at the city's margins used to be one of Medellín’s most notorious neighbourhoods. During the last years, much has changed in the city that gained international fame because of the Netflix series Narcos. Many Colombians are not exactly impressed by the hype around Pablo Escobar that draws hordes of tourists into Medellín. A city that has much more to offer than paintball games in the drug baron's house and flashy backpacker parties in El Poblado. It had to prove its endurance and strength over and over again, but always found ways to get up to its feet, as inhabitants will never get tired of reminding you. The colourful Comuna 13 is one of its success stories, driven by innovations in urban planning, street art and hip hop culture.

The Comuna 13, also called San Javier, streches over 7 km2, which is about 6% of Medellín.

Palm trees are sticking out behind unplastered red brick houses that are typical for Medellín's outskirts. Here, however, most houses are covered with street art by both local and international graffiti artists, offering a glimpse at the community's experiences. One of them shows an eagle waving a white flag. It symbolizes freedom and peace and is reference to the Comuna's past, as most art works here are. This one reminds of the community's perseverance throughout the military operations in the area and the white flags people put in front of their houses, showing that they did not want to have anything to do with the fights raging around them.

The neighbourhood is a striking example for Medellín's development and at the same time for Colombia's enduring social problems. Poverty levels in the Comuna are high and the reality of social exclusion has not vanished. However, innovations in urban planning, the popularity of hip hop culture and a huge number of tourists, turn the Comuna 13 into a role model for peace and transition. The group that is driving the change is Casa Kolacho, a collective of rappers and graffiti artists. Ciro, today 27, is one of them: "We want to be an example for the many communities around the world and show that transformation is possible."

What happened here? Let's have a walk through the Comuna's past.

up to the 1980s

Medellín is growing. Displaced Colombians from the countryside are settling on the city's hillside margins, many of them informally. Most of them come from the conflict shaken regions Urabá antioqueño and chocoano and lack financial resources. Poor city planning and the state's neglection of the area result in a further obstruction of the social and economic environment for its inhabitants. Public services are barely existent. The dynamic is similar to the development of various comunas in Medellín. The crime rate, including homicides, skyrockets.

The absence of state control combined with its strategical geographic location make the Comuna a perfect spot for narco syndicates and drug trafficking. Controlling the area means controlling the San Juan highway, which connects Medellín with the Carribean coast. It therefore is an imporant route for illicit trade.

1990s

For the first time the state invests into social projects in the centre-west of the city. This starting interest of politics into the area comes around the same time, when illegal armed groups expand their influence. Up to the end of the 90s, it is first and foremost the far-left guerrilla groups Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) and the ELN who are controlling the territory of the San Javier. They are joined by a third independent group, formed by inhabitants, the Comandos Armados del Pueblo (CAP). They all oppose the Colombian state and fight for alternative paths - with all means.

2000/01

New development projects for Medellín are in the making, which are incompatible with the resistance of FARC, ELN and CAP. The conflict with the state, as well as with paramilitary groups, intensifies.

2002

Alvaro Úribe moves into la Casa de Nariño, the presidential palace, and exacerbates the fight of his predecessor Pestrana to clear the Comuna 13 from guerrilla groups.

It's the year of military operations in the area, causing even more grieve for the community. The densely populated area turns into a battlefield. During the various operations throughout the year, numerous inhabitants get arrested, wounded or die. Many victims of the war are first presented as fallen guerrilla fighters and later turn out to be innocent inhabitants, some of them minors. Their death is used to improve the statistics and for the soldiers to receive rewards for their alleged successes. This practice of presenting dead bodies as guerrilla combatants, as so called falsos positivos, happens all over the country.

The best known operation, Operación Orión, launched on October 16, lasts for four days and ends with the death of 4 militaries, 10 civilians and the arrest of 450 people, of which 424 turn out to be innocent. A second phase of the operation starts soon after. Many further inhabitants disappear. By the end of it, the Comuna 13 is controlled by a paramilitary group. Later confessions of ex-paramilitaries attest that the government and military supported them.

Mid 2000s

Things are not cooling down in the aftermath of Operación Orión. Quite the contrary happens and the Comuna 13 further strengthens its reputation as one of the most dangerous neighbourhoods of Medellín.

There is no trace of up to 300 people, who disappeared during and after Orión. As members of paramilitary groups later disclose, they have been buried in a mass grave on a hillside neighbouring the Comuna. It is one of the world's largest urban mass graves.

2006

The Biblioteca de San Javier opens. It is the first one of a network of library parks in Medellín that are targeting economically and socially marginalized communities. The libraries today form a vital part of the educational system by providing access to books, computers, internet as well as by functioning as a social space for learning. They constitute an important cornerstone of the rapid shift of the city's reputation of being a murder capital into a capital of innovation.

2008

Metrocable Line J starts to float over the hills of San Javier. Millions of people get connected to the city centre overnight. The key word here is social inclusion. Line J is the second line opening after Line K in Santo Domingo, another hillside neighbourhood, which started operating in 2004. Since then three further lines have been opened and a fifth one will follow in the end of 2017.

"It doesn't just unite the city geographically but also unites different social strata. It eliminates barrios and generates a sense of belonging within the Medellin citizens," says Medellín's former mayor Anibal Gaviria about the Metrocable system in an interview with CNN.

2011

Following the Metrocable system, another project promoting social inclusion starts running. The Comuna 13 appears in the international press because of the opening of its escalators, ranging 384 meters, which equals around 28 floors. Instead of a onerous climb up or down the steep hill, today inhabitants can access the city conveniently.

''I think the escaleras are an engine to a lot of social transformations right here in the Comuna 13'', says architect Carlos Escobar.

The founders of Casa Kolacho, amongst them Ciro, met each other in 2004 with the vision to combat the different forms of violence in their neighbourhood. The idea to start a network for Hip Hop artists began to grow. In 2011, the local YMCA encouraged them to start their project and provided space for get-togethers and practicing. Finally, on March 22, 2014, the collective found its own place and the doors of Casa Kolacho opened, named after Kolacho, a young hip hop artist from the area, who was killed in 2009.

Outside, the small house is painted all over. Inside, photographs of the collective's members are decorating the room. On a wall on the backside, it says Burn the Streets in big letters. Next to it are the names of the groups that form the collective and their members. C15, Vandalos, Jeihhco, Ciro, Juda, Manuela, Bicho, Chavo, Kbala. For them, their work is about much more than just music. "Hip hop is a social and political movement", says Jeihhco.

It is this spirit that they want to pass on to future generations. Education is one of the cornerstones of their project. Country-wide, the public school system is rather poor, even though improvements have been made during the last years and Medellín spends a huge percentage of its budget on education. A special focus is put on remembrance and awareness for the city's past. Yet, there is a long way to go and the issue of high inequality rates remains. Investments such as into the library parks, for example the Biblioteca de San Javier, are a step to tackle this problem and improve the opportunities for people of low-income areas. Today, the percentage of inhabitants of Comuna 13 completing secondary education ranks above the city's average.

Casa Kolacho wants to contribute and pass on its experiences to the youngsters of the neighbourhood, offering free classes in graffiti, music production, rap and breakdance. Currently, about 50 kids visit the courses. "This used to be one of the most violent areas of Latin America and today it is the land of opportunities, of dreams, of artists," Ciro says. Memory and non-violence are the core of the transformation.

In a confrontation between the police and a local gang, a 9 year-old boy dies. In memory of him, the community decides to build a slide at the place were he got shot. It is a reminder for passengers to see the world through the eyes of kids and encourages people to step out of their routines every once in a while. In this case it means: use the slide instead of stairs.

The main source of income for the artists is tourism. Daily, Casa Kolacho's members guide foreigners through their beloved streets and take them on a journey through the historic development of the area. "Sadly, the first thing people all around the world ask a Colombian is about Pablo Escobar. They need to see the real Medellín. The Medellín that has risen from the war,'' Ciro says. Every fortnight around 500 to 700 tourists take part in the graffiti tours. Of 100.000 visiting tourists around 5 or 6 stay in the Comuna afterwards, either offering language courses or working in farming projects.

“Medellin isn’t a model of a perfect city, Medellin is a lab-city, where we experiment on a daily basis, because we’re tired of suffering, because we’re tired of living what we’ve lived. Because we believe it’s possible to have a better world and that we’re capable of doing it”, Jeihhco says.

And the paramilitary groups? They are still there - in the Comuna 13 as in the rest of Medellín. Inhabitants can still tell, who is part of which armed group when meeting their members on the street. But unlike some years ago, no open fights take place in the neighbourhood. For Ciro, one of the most important things that has changed is that young people today have more opportunities in choosing their path. Joining an armed group is not the go-to option anymore. "Today they have more possibilities. To live their dreams, to study, to travel, to start a career. With computers, with music," he says.

Ciro ©Manuela Bustamante

The Comuna 13 is only one of various communities throughout Colombia, who suffered under the already over 50 years-long conflict that can still be felt in many of the impoverished regions. Some have adopted similar ways to improve their lives through street art and hip hop. ''We want to be an example of transformation for the world,'' Ciro says. It is the aim to collectively learn from the each other's past and try new things. In Medellín it is about transforming the system of inequality of which Pablo Escobar is the most prominent symptom. Cultural acupuncture, as Casa Kolacho calls it. Gone is the fear of visitors to walk through the streets of the Comuna 13. The lively and colourful neighbourhood has turned into a magnet for tourism and role model for communities facing similar challenges.

Credits:

Created with images by Omar Uran - "Medellin, Comuna 13" • Omar Uran - "Medellin, Comuna 13" • Gildardo - "Parque Biblioteca San Javier" • Omar Uran - "Medellin, Comuna 13, Metro Cable" • Nigel Burgher - "Comuna 13" • Nigel Burgher - "Comuna 13" • Nigel Burgher - "Comuna 13"

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