For years, Medellin was the most dangerous city in the WORLD. From Pablo Escobar and the drug cartels to the military revolutionary guerrillas.
Car bombs, shootings, kidnappings and outright war were commonplace in the region.
While the city itself stood among the most violent on earth, until as recently as 2010; one neighborhood ranked deadliest of all.
The neighborhood of San Javier, commonly referred to as Comuna 13.
With thousands of villagers displaced from violence in the countryside surrounding Medellin, the city saw an influx of new residents. Coming with nothing, most of the new residents set up in small communities in the hills on the outskirts of town.
Illegal houses were built using whatever materials could be found. With no official infrastructure, homes were built above existing homes, drainage and waste filtered un-diverted into the streets. The government for a short time tried to tear down some of these homes but having no place else to go the residents would soon rebuild them.
A vicious cycle of government tear-down and community rebuild ensued. This cycle went on for years, but with each rebuild, the community grew stronger until the government finally caved – only leading to new problems.
Eventually the government did set up minor utilities and allowed the residents to stay.
However, as they did not pay taxes, the area was to be unrecognized by the police. Guerrilla groups from the countryside used this to their complete advantage and became the unofficial law enforcement. This also gave them easy access to new recruits.
In 2001, Medellin police and the national security forces attempted to violently enter the neighborhood on ten different occasions to end the war between guerrillas and paramilitaries. Each time however they failed and the violence continued.
October 15, 2002 General Leonardo Gallego began an attack that would make history for the people of Comuna 13.
More than 1,000 soldiers and policemen, supported by armed helicopters, attacked the area.
Heavy combat lasted until October 20. A local resident describes gunfire from helicopters as raining down through rooftops, killing both innocent and guilty.
At one point the news showed the world women waving white flags out of their windows begging for the military to cease fire on the inhabitants because they were killing innocent people as well.
During the shoot out this area was a pivotal turning point in the battle. Police were unable to advance any further because militia gangs had the high ground.
The military sent an unarmed helicopter to scout out the area. Because the helicopter was unarmed local militants did not fire upon it.. In fact they WAVED hello the the chopper. After having obtained the positions of the enemy the pilot reported back and 10 minutes later the military sent two armed helicopters take out the militant faction at this spot.
After this event which was considered highly controversial the community was able to rebuild. Graffiti became a way of expressing the trials, tribulations and growth of the community.
The eyes in this graffiti mean there’s ‘always someone watching you’ in the comuna.
While there is still violence and gang activity today, it is nowhere nearly as dangerous as it used to be. Tourism flourishes daily.
There is a large police presence for tourists and the area is very safe during the day.
Local residents warn though, you cannot come here at night.
This graffiti is an ode to the wonders of the human body.
The Comuna is very large, is full of life and art. There are multiple galleries inside where you can purchase artwork from local artist.
There are six levels of elevators which take you progressively to the top.
You can easily spend a full day here.
According to our tour guide this space used to be a building were bricks were made. Local gang members used to burn the bodies of their victims in the large ovens to erase all evidence. It was torn down and made into a soccer field.
Sugarcane juice. Only natural sugar cane and lemon. If you have never had it you have not lived. It is literally the most refreshing drink in the world.
Michilada is a very common drink in Colombia. You can choose your mixtures. Beer is the main ingredient, then you can mix and match your salt, mango and passion fruit
Don’t worry, after your drinks there is plenty of food to eat by the local vendors ready to feed you until your hearts desire.
Comuna 13 is one of those wonders that you really have to ‘see to believe.’
This graffiti represents the woman. The woman wears the ‘crown of all of the people.’ The woman controls the world. There are faces of men and women from different nationalities and ages representing her control over all of them.
In reflecting on the statements our tour guide put it very simply. “It’s very true, whatever my wife wants I do.” Hard to argue with that.
It is unbelievable that one of the most dangerous communities in the world at one point- is now almost over populated with tourist walking on top of each other to appreciate its many artistic marvels.
With all that Comuna 13 has to offer you would really be missing out by not visiting this place. Food, drinks, culture, artistic expression as well as the warmth and kindness of the people make this a place you must visit during your time in Columbia.