The Comuna 13 in Medellin – Is it worth it?

Today we booked a tour of Comuna 13 in Medellin. By car we are picked up from our accommodation. A young man sits in it and greets us friendly. He introduces himself to us as Juan. We pick up two more tourists, an American couple. Then we are off to our first stop the hill Nutibara, a recreational area in the heart of Medellin. We get a compact overview of the neighborhoods and a few tips on what else to look at.

The cable car is one of the new pillars of Medellin’s public transport

Then we move on to the first cable car, which was used to connect the outlying districts with the urban core of Medellin.This has led to a significant upgrading of the previously disconnected districts. For the multiple trip, our guide paid 2,400 COP for us each time, which was about 60 cents per ticket. We drive up and down with several stops. Then there’s a rest stop at the Central Library. There are drinks and then we start with the information about the Comuna 13. To understand the history of the Comuna we make a short excursion into the history of Colombia and Medellin.  We take a little further at this point for understanding.

The history of Colombia, Medellin and Comuna 13

How the slums in Medellin came to be

It all began in the 16th century, when the Spanish established a settlement here. Due to its central role incoffee export Medellin grew to become Colombia’s second largest city by the twentieth century. In the forties, there was political unrest in Colombia, as a result of which many people moved from rural areas to the cities. As a result, the city of Medellin was also expanded by some areas in terms of urban planning. But by the seventies, the number of its residents had eventually tripled. The transportation systems were completely overwhelmed, in the outskirts spread poverty, it arose unauthorized slums and the violence increased.

The slums of Medellin are undergoing many changes in recent years

How the FARC EP came to be

Already in the 1960s and 1970s, the drug trade to the United States began to flourish in Colombia. Marijuana was cultivated on a large scale. However, this gradually lost importance and was increasingly replaced by cocaine.Local farmers and teachers in the cultivation areas joined together to form the so-called FARC-EP rebels. These resisted the Colombian military, which was trying to curb drug cultivation. At first, it was a simple movement to improve the living conditions of the rural population. Fighting against the military and other paramilitary groups led to an increasing radicalization in the course of which the FARC-EP soon did not shy away from targeted kidnappings, hostage-takings, revenge expeditions and extortion.

The politicization of the FARC-EP and influence in cities

At the same time, the FARC also turned increasingly toward communism and developed a self-image as communist resistance against Colombia’s capitalist government. Increasingly, the organization began recruiting young workers and students from the big cities, especially from the slums into its organization. The late 1970s also saw the emergence of big drug cartels in Colombia, such as the Medellin and Cali cartels. These cooperated in part with the FARC or fought it as well. In the eighties, the FARC tried to integrate more politically, formed the UP party and negotiated a peace treaty with the government.

The political importance of the UP, however, remained low. In the late 1980s early 1990s, however, between 2000-5000 party members of the UP were systematically kidnapped and executed by members of the right-wing paramilitary vigilante group AUC. Involvement of the Colombian government at the time in these incidents could not be ruled out beyond doubt. There was therefore a retaliatory attack by the FARC on the military, there was a new peace treaty, the and gradually the FARC also took control over large parts of the country. Colombian politicians were kidnapped, drugs were grown in FARC territory, and they collaborated with Basque terrorists and drug cartels. In addition, kidnapping continued to be an important source of revenue for the rebels. In some cases, they kidnapped over 3,000 people a year.

Uribe and Operation Orion

At this point our tour began. In the shade of a small tree in front of the library, our guide Juan stands and recounts with wide gestures the fateful days of Comuna 13.

In 2002, a new president came to power in Colombia. Uribe won with an election promise to crack down harder on the FARC-EP. It was a landslide victory, Juan explains, not without a certain pride in his voice.

The Comuna 13, or San Javier was a poor neighborhood of Medellin on steep slopes on the outskirts of the city. There, over the years, wild clashes raged between the various paramilitary groups and drug cartels. Eventually, the FARC gained the upper hand there. With his appointment to office, however, Uribe implemented his electoral promise there as well. An example was made of Comuna 13. First, there was a three-dayground assault on the municipality in which numerous military personnel were killed as FARC fighters held strategic positions.

Juan takes a dramatic pause at this point. You can tell he’s told this story many times before and has found some flow in it by now. One has more the feeling of a hero story than listening to a witness account. But then he, too, gets serious. What followed, he points out, remains highly controversial to this day.

The military returned to the neighborhood three months later with air support and arguably support from AUC paramilitaries. As part of Operation Orion, Comuna 13 was systematically cleared of FARC-EP within four days. Further fighting dragged on for months. Shooting was carried out on everything that moved, and anyone who appeared suspicious was killed. Also numerous civilians were killed in these days many people disappeared simply without a trace. The attack cleared Comuna 13 of FARC troops. The number of civilian casualties is unknown to date but is probably in the higher triple digits. The mass graves under a nearby rubble dump were never opened.

We sit quietly on the wall in front of the library, listening to Juan. In our minds arise images of human misery, and horror. In a moment, we will visit Comuna 13. At this point, we are beginning to feel a little unsure of what to expect. Juan, meanwhile, continues unperturbed:

The Comuna 13 got an escalator

After Operation Orion, there followed a period of deep uncertainty, traumatization and denunciation among the inhabitants of the commune.  The Comuna 13 became increasingly neglected. Then, as part of thesocial urbanism, which is being pushed hard everywhere in Medellin, the city decided to reconnect the comuna more closely to the rest of the city. To this end, a new connecting road, six open-air escalators and the cable car we had visited earlier were built.  The new transport routes are intended to make it easier for the city’s residents to access public transport.

But also in the Comuna itself had already shown the first signs of life again. Young artists, especially rappers and graffity artists used their art to work through the common trauma.

Vida, life, is one of the first images that greets visitors to the Comuna

We arrive at Comuna 13

With this information, we head to the car and drive a few streets away. On the side of the road there are colorful flower troughs on a wall. There is something written on them, but we can’t read it as we drive by. It is a memorial for the victims of the air strike, Juan explains.

We park on a sidewalk and start walking. Soon we see the first grafitis and especially many tourists. The city tour and history lesson goes seamlessly into the graphite tour. In front of a picture we stop.

What does it take to succeed in life?

What does it take to succeed in life?” asks Juan. We look a little perplexed. He points to the picture. “Good ideas, heart, perseverance, belief in yourself and the peaceful environment,” Juan explains, pointing to the graphity of a partially abstract man who symbolically combines these aspects in a colorful way.  

At the mention of the peaceful environment we get a little heavy around the heart, we have just heard the history of the place. But there it goes already further. Two emperor penguins with chicks and many flowers symbolize the value of family and love in a graffiti several meters high. The next image is a chimpanzee, which should admonish people to more environmental protection. Here, too, the most present problems are changing, we note with some relief.

The first escalator of Comuna 13

We walk up the street into the comuna. Meanwhile Juan tells us proudly about the local Grafitykünstlerlen, which he knows to a large extent personally. Again and again we stop at individual pictures and get their story explained. Then there is ice cream. The fresh fruit ice is dipped in salt water. Max thinks it’s great. I think the ice cream is great, but I wouldn’t need the salt.

An escalator that changed the face of an entire neighborhood

Now we come to the first  escalator. The escalators were built in the former water gutters to avoid having to demolish houses, the water now flows under the escalators, we are told.

We go up the first escalator. From a purely visual point of view, it could also be in a department store. At its edges we can already see the first cafes. It is shaded by a red roof, very reminiscent of modern art and glowing as colorfully as the surrounding paintings.

Coffee at Comuna 13

After the first escalator, we stop again. It goes into a coffee shop that sells regional coffee. We get a little demonstration on how to brew coffee and a cup of freshly brewed coffee. It is not spectacular. Although all sorts of curious coffee machines stand around, from Belgium, Japan, Italy and other countries of the world. To use but then the coffee pot with built-in filter to press down from IKEA. The coffee tastes good, but coffee connoisseurs we are both not. You can also buy the coffee. The other couple in the group takes a bag.

We visit a small coffee roastery

Artist atiliers at Comuna 13

Then it’s up the next escalator to an artist’s studio.Here a local graphic artist exhibits prints of his paintings. You can, of course, buy them directly. The artist, a young man named George is also just there and shakes us a little shyly the hand. We look around the studio. It is great colorful pictures, partly just nice, make profound and a few also quite naughty. We can not resist and take three sticker with, more does not fit in our luggage.

It goes up another escalator into a further studio. Again, prints can be purchased here. There is also a café attached. Prints hang on the wall, with pictures of the artist with celebrities in between. I know only one – Bill Clinton. Juan presses a twisted snack into each of our hands. “A specialty of the house” he explains. We taste it. It’s a sweet puff pastry with guava filling. What do they call it, we ask Juan. He shrugs, they have something different here every week.

We sit down a few miunten and look at a picture book pictures of Comuna 13 before and during the auseinandersetzung. We also see pictures of the construction of the road and escalators. The place is hardly recognizable in the pictures.

The road through Comuna 13

Juan gives us the choice of whether we want another coffee or snack here, or continue on to the paintings. We are hooked on the galleries and want to keep going.

We go up the rest of the escalators. At the top is a street just wide enough for a car. It is adequate for the scooters that are common here. For this road, 45 houses had to be demolished, Juan explains. The road connects the upper parts of the comuna with Medellin. If you look down between the houses, there really used to be almost no getting through here. It’s a mystery to us how people were able to get into the city at all before the escalators and the new road. There are just occasional paths and stairs between most of the houses that are wide enough for one person.

The small alleys used to be the only way to get into the valley

Thewalls along the street are decorated with great graffiti. Some of them are commissioned, but many of them have been painted by artists living here. Juan knows many of the artists and explains the paintings to us with great attention to detail.

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The new road runs across the hillside through the town

Showing the whole gallery here would be a bit beyond the scope, so we’ve compiled you an overview of our favorite graffiti from Comuna 13.

Life in Comuna 13

Then we come to two rappers who are just giving their performance The older of the two is a full pro from the area, the younger one has only been rapping for a short time and is a bit shy in the face of his audience of five. We sit down a little on a bench and watch them.

Then we go on and look at the rest of the pictures along the way. In between there are always souvenir stores with great prints, where we are almost a bit tempted and only with consideration for our luggage take nothing.

The road ends in a construction site. It is being widened to connect even larger parts of Comuna to the city and thus make it more accessible.

Deep holes in the wall bear witness to the house’s history

We go up a flight of stairs. There is a picture of a Comichaften cockatoo with a purple beak. There are holes in the graffiti, as if someone had worked on it with a drill. The holes are original from the guns of the  Blackhawk helicopters of Operation Orion, Juan explains to us. We get chills down our spines at the notion.

The Comuna 13 is changing

We turn around, looking at a few more minor curious images on the way back, like a unicorn dragon that someone painted on a bridge in the style of a child’s picture.

That’s where the tour ends.

On the way back we stop and look at a wall,  at which just some pictures are painted over. A new painting will be created here shortly, Juan explains. One of his favorite artists is involved. The old paintings were faded and damaged and this is not a place to hold on to the past. This place is continually recreating itself.

The way back from Comuna 13

We walk back to the car. The other couple wil dach Poblado, we just ask Juan to let us out at a cool shopping center. In Poblado we drive past some bars and pubs. Finally, Juan lets us off at a mall that is probably the nicest and most modern one we’ve ever been to. On the way home, however, we get into the rush hour, get no cab, no UBER and the public transport is full. Therefore, we run 6.5 kilometers on foot through Medellin. But that is another story.

Should you take a tour of Comuna 13?

We enjoyed the tour very much. Some time ago I had once read an article that addressed the question of whether it was morbid to visit Comuna 13. Today, we could answer the question with a very clear ‘NO!’ Our tour celebrated the city of Medellin and itsgreat urban planning ideas, like the cable car and escalator. In the Comuna itself, we learned a lot about its history, of course, but we weren’t there to see thescene of carnage, but to admire the art and the positive development this place has accomplished in the last decade. The place, its inhabitants and the whole state still have a lot to work through here, but the place refuses to resign itself to it. Comuna 13 has become a place of hope and creativity. It is the best example of how art and creativity can make the world a better place and help alleviate pain.

Would we therefore recommend the tour to Comuna 13? – Yes absolutely, and really as a tour. Because this way you will learn something about the deep opinion of many graffiti, their history and thedevelopment of the place in the context of its history.

The generation of a new Medellin will only know history from pictures

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