Photographer's Note

Medellín - Comuna 13 - After the urban war

Excuses, long note … Who’s going to read this ? …

My guidebook mentioned the name of a district in Medellín that once was the most dangerous part of the city but - thanks to ‘innovative’ urban regeneration projects - life has much improved there and crime has decreased enormously.
The name of the district is Comuna 13 and this barrio serves as an example for the reborn Medellín.

The book didn’t give much indications on where Comuna 13 could be found. I only knew it was located somewhere higher on the hill slopes. So I asked in my hotel how I could go there but the staff warned me not to go by myself. They advised to join a tour with an agency.
I suspected a partnership between the hotel and the travel agency and didn’t agree at first.

The hotel staff advised me to inform in the travel agency and said that the tours were not expensive at all.
Indeed, it turned out as inexpensive. It was a walking tour and the trip from the centre of town to Comuna 13 would be done by public transport.
This made me decide to join them. Since we were going by public transportation (metro and minibus; return by the escalators to the metro station) I would be able to leave the group if the tour wasn’t worth the money. I could have a look around by myself and I would know how to return to the centre.
Well, the tour turned out to be quite interesting. By no means it was a tourist trap.

We were an international group of 8 persons. A local man from Comuna 13 guided us around and the travel agency had sent a university student who translated everything in perfect English.
I didn’t leave the tour before it ended which was at the end of the afternoon. I feel almost certain that it’s not a problem to go there by yourself. Everywhere we came we met friendly people and nobody was pushy. Children were playing in the streets and the atmosphere felt quite relaxed and safe.

However, the tour was surely an added value. We got first-hand information from people who live there and who had been through the tough times. It was also very interesting to hear their future dreams and plans.
My suggestion is to go with a tour and if you’re still interested in exploring the district further, you can stay longer or return another day.
To put it clear, I’m a person who enjoys to explore new places on my own or together with someone else but not specifically in group. But occasionally and rather exceptionally a tour can provide you with more information.

What exactly is so special at Comuna 13 ?

Well, this barrio had the most tumultuous history of all Medellín.
Comuna 13 is an enormous densely populated district on the higher hills west of the valley. There are thousands of brick buildings built very close to each other. In the 80s it had become a pivotal center for guerrilla, paramilitary, gang activity and it was the breeding ground for crime.
Located not far from a highway it provided easy transportation of guns, drugs, and money.

In Colombia guerilla armies had forced many farmers off their land. The displaced people came to live in Comuna 13 where there were no jobs and a lack of basic services like electricity and water. The children born in these families grew up and found work in the criminal organizations run by Pablo Escobar. Even after his death in 1993 the Medellin-cartel still controlled Comuna 13.
This was possible due to the civil war, strong social tensions, very high levels of unemployment and big class differences.

Comuna 13 had the highest rates of homicide. Even in 2011 when the murder rate in Medellin was already decreasing, in Comuna 13 still 1624 people were killed.
The hills made this district a natural fortress and it was impossible for the government forces to penetrate and control.

In 2002 a bloody and long lasting military operation was held but this had also hit the population badly. You must know that in the civil war there were no good parties. The guerilla, the army and the paramilitary groups were all dangerous for everybody.

When the military operation was over, several thousand people were missing. Everyone in Comuna 13 knows they’re death but till today their bodies haven’t been found and family members and relatives have never been able to say goodbye or to hold a funeral ceremony.

The atmosphere in the district today is positive toward the future but the people want to keep alive the memory of the hard times. This is visible in several murals (I’ll present some in a next post).

In Medellin the government has made significant efforts to improve life in Comuna 13.
As already mentioned at my previous picture, a good accessibility of the district is of crucial importance.
The government has installed a giant outdoor escalator system on the steep hills.
The complex is divided in 6 sections and has a total length of 348 meters. It overcomes a height difference of about 28 floors.
An excellent help for the inhabitants to go to and come back from work, for the children to go to school and for the older residents to reach their homes.

The government also gave free house paint for the residents and this in a variety of colours. The neighbourhood could really use a refreshment. Besides, a neat neighborhood gives the residents a greater sense of self-worth.

Further, libraries were constructed nearby for the younger population that is large in numbers.

The different investments in Comuna 13 have led to a dramatic reduction in violence and a miraculous transformation of the entire district.

Possibly some of you might think that I write a little too positive about the developments in Medellín or in Colombia.
But if you become aware what life once was in Comuna 13 (hell on earth) and you walk around in its streets today, you realize that there are nevertheless points of light in our world.

For those who have read up to here, tomorrow you can take a break. I won’t post a new picture then :)

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Additional Photos by Paul VDV (PaulVDV) Gold Star Critiquer/Silver Workshop Editor/Gold Note Writer [C: 4259 W: 17 N: 9968] (41070)
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