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Comuna 13 of Medellin, Overcoming Stigma


Comuna 13 Medellin
Visiting the Comuna 13 in Medellin is a draw for tourists visiting Colombia. Credit: Luis Ospino/Colombia One

Comuna 13 in the city of Medellin today is one of the main destinations of tourists visiting the capital of Antioquia, Colombia. The sector has worked long and hard to overcome the stigma of a terrible past that seems more and more distant. Among the steep streets that climb the slopes of the neighborhood, the humble self-built houses are surrounded by stalls selling souvenirs, drinks and all kinds of snacks for visitors, local and foreign, who enter what was once known as the ‘cradle of Pablo Escobar’, the fearsome criminal who put Medellin and Colombia in check more than 30 years ago.

The district also saw Operation Orion, an assault by the military forces, with the collaboration of paramilitary groups, which in 2002 led to a massacre, under the pretext of fighting organized gangs that controlled the drug market and crime in the sector. However, in recent years, the social inclusion programs of various mayor’s offices in Medellín have changed Comuna 13. It is true that today it still lives from what it was, but it is overcoming a past of violence and instrumentalization of poverty and opening up to the world to explain a new vision of the future to those who visit it.

Comuna 13 Medellin
Comuna 13 in Medellin has experienced a significant urban transformation in recent years and the Electric Stairs were a key element in this process. Credit: Luis Ospino/Colombia One

According to official data, today less than 250,000 people live in Comuna 13. As in the past, they are people of humble social status, many of them displaced from other regions because of the internal conflict that still shakes the Colombian countryside. The main economic livelihood of these people is in the informal sector. However, the massive arrival of visitors has enhanced the possibilities of earning a living for thousands of these people.

A change that began more than two decades ago

It was precisely Operation Orion, which was explained as an attempt by the State to eliminate the leaders of the criminal gangs that dominated Comuna 13, that inadvertently changed the life of the neighborhood. More than 1,500 military personnel participated in the operation, sowing terror indiscriminately, committing all kinds of human rights violations.

As reflected in the Museo Escolar de la Memoria, most of the victims were civilians, as a result of bombings in the middle of the city, helicopter attacks and overflights, and even the use of tanks, which led to the domination of paramilitary groups. In reality, some criminals were exchanged for others, with the aggravating factor being that from that moment on, anyone who protested against an unjust situation was labeled an insurgent, tortured and disappeared. That was the sad outlook of those who lived there who, nevertheless, managed to ensure that the 100 disappeared and 400 arbitrarily detained in that action of war were not in vain.

Parallel to the determination of various mayor’s offices, the youth of Comuna 13 stood up and decided to put an end to this scenario of struggle between illegal powers, to transform the neighborhood and turn it into what it is today.

Hip Hop, the engine of nonviolence

From that moment on, many opted for nonviolent struggle. Thousands of young people channeled their rebellion and their desire for change through music, specifically hip hop, essentially through four manifestations of this urban art: music, graffiti, break dancing and DJing.

Comuna 13 Medellin
Urban artists dancing hip hop. Credit: Luis Ospino/Colombia One

They were the ones who sowed this change among the inhabitants of Comuna 13, who were fed up with violence. Although investments in public transportation, escalators and social inclusion programs drove the transformation, it was the younger residents who were the protagonists of the change. Many of them had never seen the neighborhood in peace and decided to take a stand. The festive daytime atmosphere in the cultural and tourist sector of the Comuna has given rise to initiatives such as Casa Kolacho, a hip hop cultural center led by the Hip Hop collective C15 and Camaleón Producciones.

From there, festivals of this musical style were promoted, such as ‘Revolución sin muertos’ until 2010, and now with the ‘Festival Manifiesto, Cultura Viva Comunitaria’, in addition to the project ‘Territorio de Artistas’, a permanent proposal to make the neighborhoods and communes of Medellín a space for creation, for meeting and dignified life.

Comuna 13 Medellin
Comuna 13, Medellin. Credit: Luis Ospino/Colombia One

Not everyone approves of the conversion of the neighborhood into what some have called a sort of ‘theme park’ of a terrible past, but what is evident by visiting it is that tourism is the economic engine that drives the life of Comuna 13.

The rebelliousness of overcoming

Today, the streets are lined with T-shirts bearing the image of Pablo Escobar, known worldwide for the various television series that have tried, not always successfully, to explain his human and criminal profile. Among the network of alleys and simple houses built without any planning on the irregular terrain, escalators facilitate the ascent of the visitor, who enjoys improvised urban dance numbers, starring young people from the neighborhood.

Pablo Escobar
Among the many tourist reminders there are pieces depicting Pablo Escobar. Credit: Luis Ospino/Colombia One

Likewise, urban art also manifests itself in a multitude of colorful graffiti that is photographed to immortalize the reality of a society that has decided to take the path of change and improvement.

One thing that has not changed in Comuna 13 is the number of young people who live there. Not surprisingly, about 65% of its residents are under 39 years of age. Although the majority of the population is white or mestizo, there is a proliferation of black people, mostly from the neighboring department of Chocó. The rhythms of Africa are also palpable in the urban musical performances that dot the visitor’s walk.

Beyond escalators

Another successful experience is the Graffitour, a historical, aesthetic and political tour developed by artists of the hip hop movement, in which they show the stories that move and inspire hope and the search for better living conditions for the community. Among the teachings of these artistic displays, the visitor can find stories of inequalities and violence that the country still suffers.

Comuna 13 Medellin
Beginning of the Graffitour. Credit: Luis Ospino/Colombia One

Like the Graffitour, there are many other proposals that go beyond the tourist and commercial exploitation of its history, but that can only be known once people ask themselves what, beyond the escalators, is behind the international phenomenon that today is the Comuna 13.

Explaining what the neighborhood was is easy; more difficult to answer is the question why? These young social activists are determined to overcome the image of a television set, the usual stereotype of tourist destinations everywhere, and to bring a deeper understanding of history and human needs to anyone who wants to know.

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