Storytellers of Comuna 13: More Than a Street Art Tour
During our time in Medellín we took a tour of Comuna 13 with Stairway Storytellers. We were interested in visiting this neighbourhood for its famous street art. But we discovered so much more! We heard many intimate stories about Medellín’s violent past, and its current change for the better.
Stiven, our guide, was young, very enthusiastic, and sometimes quite intense. But we loved him and his stories! They were very personal and touching. He knew Comuna 13‘s history first hand, because he grew up in this neighbourhood and still calls it home. And he’s proud of the changes he has witnessed in his young life. It gives him reason for real optimism.
The Recent History of Comuna 13
To bring the present into context, you have to know a little about Comuna 13‘s past. It was once the second most dangerous neighbourhood in the world; certainly the most dangerous part of Medellín, which was then the most dangerous city in the world.
If you are as old as we are (even if you haven’t watched the recent TV series, ‘Narcos‘), you will probably recall the name Pablo Escobar. In the 1980s and early 90s, the recurring TV news was often about yet another car bomb or violent shoot-out in the streets of Medellín.
To understand what follows, you need to get a picture of the topography of this neighbourhood. Comuna 13 basically consists of densely built, small wooden or brick and cement structures, which appear to be stacked on top of each other. They cover several steep hills, with hardly any road access. Traffic inside the neighbourhood is mostly on foot, up and down rickety stairs and muddy paths, with a few tracks wide enough for a bicycle or small motorbike.
The neighbourhood encloses part of National Route 62, one of Colombia’s major roads to the coast. Traditionally, this road has been a main smuggling route for drugs, weapons, and other illegal contraband. If you control Comuna 13, you control what’s coming in and out of Medellín along this road.
The struggle for Comuna 13 didn’t end with Escobar‘s death. Due to its strategic position, guerrillas like FARC moved in. Their presence was eliminated in 2002 with the very controversial ‘Operation Orion’, which caused hundreds of civilian casualties.
After this fight, the government forces left a power vacuum behind. Rival drug gangs and several vigilante groups fought for control. They terrorised the locals, forced them to vacate strategically important buildings and pay ‘protection money’, and – when not killing each other – killed anybody who dared to oppose them.
Stiven told us that, as a kid, he had to leave his home well before 6 o’clock in the morning to get to school – long before the night’s gunshot victims had been removed from the streets.
Funiculars and Escalators Bring Real Change
Finally it took one visionary politician (yes, they exist occasionally) to jump-start a real change for Medellín: Sergio Fajardo, mayor from 2003 to 2007. He initiated an impressive infrastructure program for the forgotten poorer neighbourhoods of the city, in an effort to integrate them and bring peace to the entire city.
Money was found to build schools, libraries and public health services in those parts of town which needed them the most. Medellín was the first city in Colombia to build a Metro – a public transport system. To this day, its citizens are proud of it and use it with respect and care. Finally, Comuna 13 was integrated into this transport system by extending the Metro from San Javier with a funicular, the Metrocable, going further up into the nearly inaccessible hills, and giving people easier access to the city and increased opportunities.
The part of Comuna 13, which we went through, has a row of connecting escalators built up the steep hills. These are the only free, public, community escalators in the world! Previously, people who live on top of the hills had to climb down steep and badly maintained stairways to reach the nearest bus stop, medical services, or larger (and cheaper) shops. It would have taken them up to 30 minutes down, often much longer up. All supplies into the community would have had to have been carried up the same rickety paths.
The Stairways Storytellers – Local Guides with Local Stories
Stiven put all these impressive changes into context. As well as explaining the meaning of particular street art pieces, he pointed out the economic changes that peace brought to many, the new small businesses, kids playing freely and happily in the streets (something he never had a chance to experience), and repeated the overall positive impression that “Change is possible”.
Please click thumbnails below for a larger photo with description.
Towards the end of the tour, he told us how he had learned English in a community school, which is financially supported by the Stairway Storytellers. It took him only a year and a half to get to where he is, and he now volunteers to teach beginner classes at the same school. It is his hope that a good knowledge of English will open up better job opportunities for the people of Comuna 13. Now people can actually go out to work and earn an honest income – the same people, who less than 10 years ago were too scared to leave their homes…
The Street Art – Only the Most Visual Sign of Change
In the mid to late 2000s, the youth of Comuna 13 started to rebel against the never-ending cycle of violence, and to protest against how so many of their friends were turned into drug mules or drug addicts. Their initial way to express themselves was rap and hip-hop music, with lyrics expressing their daily struggle. This didn’t go down well with the controlling gangs, and many of the newly emerging rappers were quickly murdered.
The first street art slowly emerged alongside this new wave of rap music. It often depicted either the violent history, or expressions of hope. Now the street art has evolved into the most visible and colourful expression of the change, which is sweeping through Comuna 13. Some of Colombia’s best known street artists still call the neighbourhood home.
All under the slogan “Peace – Love – Transformation – Hope”.
Finally some street art! Please click thumbnails below for a larger photo.
Short Practical Information
Any tour with ‘Stairway Storytellers‘ should be booked in advance, best through their Facebook page . This is a tour for tips.
Meeting point for the tour is at the San Javier Metro station. Try to be punctual and don’t make the entire group wait for you (like we did)…
Tours are available in the morning and the afternoon, and last 2½ to 3 hours. You should be reasonably fit, as you have to climb some steep hills and stairs. Be careful taking photos from the moving escalators – I was caught by a support pole for the roof and almost swept off the stair. If you visit during the rainy months (what Colombians call “winter”), October- November or March-April, better book a morning tour; rain usually starts around 2pm.
We were told, repeatedly that Comuna 13 is safe and you don’t have to fear for your camera or other valuables. As always: don’t be completely careless, though!
Please click thumbnails below for a larger photo with description.
I have referred to a lot of history, without going into too much detail. Here are some articles that delve into that detail.
“Medellin’s Turbulent Comuna 13” by Insight Crime, published in 2011. This article highlights the stories of the various “Combos” (gangs) and the number of their victims. Keep in mind: this was written only 6 years ago (from the time of writing this post)!
“Colombia’s Medellin named ‘most innovative city’” by BBC News, March 1, 2013. About Medellín winning a prestigious award from the ‘Urban Land Institute‘, sponsored by Citi Bank, for its efforts of urban renewal.
“Medellín, Colombia: reinventing the world’s most dangerous city” , a long article by The Guardian, published in June 2013. This is really worth reading from beginning to end! I was very tempted to quote a number of statements from it, as they express so well the thought process and outcome of specific projects. It highlights how the everyday lives of so many were transformed, in quoted personal accounts.
“‘A Sea of Tears and Impunity’: Victims Still Searching for Justice 14 Years After Infamous Colombia Military Operation” , published by the Huffington Post in October 2016. This article focusses on the plight of victims of the infamous ‘Operation Orion’ in 2002.
The only other articles about ‘Operation Orion’ that I was able to find, were all in Spanish. Maybe you have more luck with Google.
“How a hip-hop collective in the mountains of Colombia is mixing urban beats with farm eats” , published by Splinter News in October 2016. It feels good to close this list with another positive article.
The tour with Stairway Storytellers was a real surprise to us, as we left with our heads full of many amazing stories. I still managed to photograph a lot of outstanding street art, so please see our follow up gallery with 32 street art photos from Comuna 13 .
Do you know of any other place, which has made such a dramatic turn-around? In such a short time frame?
Please tell us in the comments below!