A comuna is a zone of the city, and Medellin, Colombia is divided into 16 of them. But Comuna 13 was always plagued by violence since its inception on the steep side of a mountain overlooking central Medellin.
As a logical access route for drug traffickers coming into and out of the city, it became a war zone in the 1980s and 90s, with rival drug cartels, military operations, paramilitary groups, rebel groups FARC and ELN, and street gangs all shooting it out on a nightly basis.
The government even had 10 incursions into Comuna 13 in 2002 alone, using helicopters, tanks, machine guns, and bazookas on the local populace! All of this caused indiscriminate killing, disappearances, and terror, putting neighbor against neighbor with the normal, humble residents the true victims.
Further isolating the people of Comuna, their neighborhood was built on a steep mountainside with few good roads to get in our out. So, they had to access alleys, paths, and mountain trails to come or go, including 350 stairs!
Needless to say, it was nearly impossible for the residents to leave for central Medellin on a daily basis, so jobs, schools, medical care, and city life were largely inaccessible to them.
As part of an international project as well as investment by a newly elected mayor, the modern new escalators climbed the steepest part of a 384-meter incline through the Comuna, saving residents a difficult 25-minute walk straight up.
These escalators are similar to something you’d see in a mall, but open-air with roofs against the rain. Additionally, a cable car system with gondolas was constructed to join the new San Javier Station at the base of Comuna 13 with central Medellin. Soon, a wide paved ramp, Viaducto Media Ladera, was constructed within the Comuna, further connecting smaller barrios within.
This sparked a new era of pride and hope in Comuna 13, and residents could now come and go for jobs, education, healthcare, and to enjoy the best Medellin had to offer.
It also garnered a good deal of curiosity, as people starting coming to witness the modern marvel for themselves, a stark transformation from the war zone it once was. Tourism began to grow, but Comuna 13’s growth transcendence into a butterfly was fully underway around 2015, when local artists came together to discuss an organized approach to decorating their barrios.
Today, Comuna 13 is like a living museum of street and graffiti art, with vibrant colors, grand murals, historical depictions, and symbols of hope and perseverance covering almost every available surface throughout the entire barrio – walls, sides of buildings, front doors of houses, stairways, park benches, and more.
This skyrocketed the tourism industry in Comuna 13, and it’s now one of the safest barrios for foreigners or visitors to walk through in all of Medellin. Of course, it’s still a poor barrio with a lot of social problems – many of them exacerbated by the pandemic. There isn’t even a proper hospital or clinic in the entire Comuna!
But now, they are inexorably tied to the modern, outside world (I even saw a working QR code painted on the side of a building and Comuna 13 has its own NFTs!), with plenty of education and social programs involved in bettering the lives of the youth and people there.
I was lucky enough to stumble upon Comuna 13 when I lived in Medellin for six months, and a local guide and resident, Laura Loaiza, was recommended. Laura is the founder of Zippy Tours and was nice enough to get mic’d up as we walked through her home neighborhood, talking about the history, art and people.
In this, part 1 of the podcast on Comuna 13, we talk about her memories of the neighborhood as a war zone when she was a child, the early history of the Comuna, as well as the architectural marvel of the escalators, and later the explosion of color and vibrance with street art.
In part 2 coming soon, we’ll delve into the artwork of Comuna 13, discussing pieces, painters, significance, and style as we walk through the barrio. (I’ll make sure to offer plenty of photos and videos for that one.
Enjoy this guided tour of Comuna 13 with Laura and thanks for listening!
Check out Zippy Tours here.