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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.