Twenty years ago as passengers boarded planes destined for Colombia, airlines were obligated to inform passengers to avoid the city of Medellin. The city was the epicenter of Colombia’s exploding cocaine trafficking industry and, naturally, its drug and gang violence were out of control. With drug lords colluding with politicians and police, Medellin was one of the most dangerous cities in the world. A lot has changed since then and the city is making strides in improving life for its citizens, although crime and gangs still have a major presence in the city. Here is our experience.
It is common knowledge that Colombia’s drug industry ruled all of Colombia for decades and the fallout has been very messy. We knew this before arriving in Colombia, but were very naive before arriving in Medellin. Only a day or two before arriving did we become halfway aware that this city was the city where incredible amounts of violence and bloodshed plagued the daily lives of its citizens. So, here we come, cruising down the highway in our old truck and beat up camper, ready for an urban camping trip! Ok, it wasn’t exactly like that, but it’s not too far from the truth!
Emphasizing how tall the mountains are in Colombia is difficult and those surrounding Medellin are no exception. Descending from the mountain pass to the east of Medellin, we caught our first glimpse of the city nestled in the valley below. The city is long and skinny as it grew along the river at the bottom of the valley. Vast amounts of people live in countless villages alongside the hills and being able to see both edges of the city on opposing mountainsides makes the city feel enormous. And it is enormous with a population of nearly 4 million. Red brick is the material of choice for construction in this area, especially in poor areas where paint is not affordable. Instead of seeing an organized downtown with tall skyscrapers, gradually tapering in size, we saw a fairly organized central area with pockets of tall buildings dotting the mountainsides of the valley. Occasionally, there would be a cluster of red brick buildings with one thirty floor apartment building in the middle which seemed a bit odd to us. After a relatively uneventful drive through the city, we parked out front of the Art City Hostel in the Poblado neighborhood which would be home during our visit to the city.
Our first order of business in exploring Medellin was setting out on the city’s metro system to get a better look at it’s layout. Medellin’s metro system is unique in that it has two lines that use cable cars to connect citizens from high mountain villages to the city below. This part of the transportation system was built to allow citizens in hard to reach places and participate in the city’s job market and industries that they were otherwise excluded from. In years past, but probably still true, it was known that the poorer you were, the higher you lived on the mountains and building the cable cars helped level the playing field. The cost to take the cable cars was about $2,000 pesos, which is less than a dollar and was a great way to see the city from above. We took a five minute walk to the Poblado Station near our hostel and rode through the city until we arrived near the north end of the city. From there we hopped on the first cable car taking us halfway up the east side of the mountain and transferred to a second cable car into the forests covering the top of the mountain. It was incredible to see houses built upon houses and we continued to discuss that it is very likely people could live their entire lives on the mountainside seeing but never visiting the city below. Poverty became more apparent the higher we rode but the people appeared relatively happy as the buzz of life in these neighborhoods carried on. The day we toured the hills on the cable cars happened to be a national holiday and people were lined up for their turn to ride. Luckily, we never had to wait more than five minutes to board a car. This is a cheap and wonderful way to get a feel for the layout of the city and a glimpse into daily life in Medellin.
In Medellin, there are dozens of city tours many of which focus on issues the city has faced in the past due to it’s intimate relationship with drugs, guns, money and corruption. Knowing our visit would be short, we opted for the graffiti tour which takes place in Comuna 13, a neighborhood once known as the most dangerous in the city. There are many interesting articles and documentaries that give very detailed information on the history of the neighborhood, but we will do our best to give our Reader’s Digest version from what we learned on the tour!
Comuna 13 is located on the west side of the city covering quite a large area on the steep mountain slopes. When the neighborhood was being built, many people chose this location to escape problems in other parts of the city and because they would be left alone being right on the urban edge. Nearly all of the building was done without any formal planning so buildings are literally built on top of each other with only small sidewalks and alleyways in many areas. In one part of the neighborhood, there is a new road that is suitable in size only for motorcycles as it is still quite narrow. Many staircases were built throughout the neighborhood on the steepest slopes to help residents ascend to their homes and descend to the city below. The geography of the neighborhood adds another level of difficulty to living in poverty in one of the most impoverished neighborhoods of the city.
One of the many stairways for residents to climb where the slope becomes too steep for roads:
This is the only “playground” for the nearly 18,000 residents in the area:
The notoriety of Comuna 13 comes from the history it has faced over the last 40+ years and reached it’s pinnacle in 2002. Nearby, there is a major highway that runs right through the middle of the community and leads directly to the Caribbean coast. This was a strategic area for drug lords to control as controlling the area meant they could control what came into the city and what left, specifically, drugs, money, guns, etc. In the 1980’s the community quickly became the territory of the FARC which didn’t initially cause problems for the residents and actually provided protection in many cases. After being taken over by FARC, another group ended up attempting to take control over the area and struggles over turf impacted the neighborhood.
Fast forward to the late 1990’s and early 2000’s when the Colombian government began attempting to take back control of the neighborhood from the guerillas. In 2002 after a new president was elected, the police attempted to penetrate the natural fortress Comuna 13 twelve times and twelve times they left defeated. This didn’t look good for police and other governmental forces and ultimately led to Operation Orion in October 2002.
In October 2002, more than 1,000 police officers and paramilitary forces were organized, heavily armed and supported by armed helicopters to begin the operation. For twenty four hours beginning at 3am, the helicopters and forces open fired on the entire community to force guerrillas, gangs members, and everybody else to retreat from the community.
The residents of the community felt betrayed by their government that indiscriminately fired at guerrillas and innocent people alike. In the aftermath of Operation Orion, hundreds were killed and several thousand people were displaced resulting in the complete fracture of an already delicate neighborhood. Community distrust of the government, FARC and really any organization for that matter filled every house within the community.
Fast forward again to the late 2000s and early 2010s. In order for the government to truly “take back” this neighborhood, investment in infrastructure was used to help connect the residents of the community to the city of Medellin and to symbolically show that the only the City of Medellin controls the neighborhood. 340 of the most arduous stairs right in the middle of Comuna 13 were replaced with modern escalators. These escalators not only allowed people to easily move throughout the neighborhoods but created a focal point for rebuilding the community. Although not completely accepted without incident, the escalators have been a major success in improving the neighborhood.
So, what does graffiti have to do with our tour of Comuna 13? When the FARC initially began taking control of the neighborhood, spray paint was used to mark every building in the neighborhood to show that it was controlled by the guerrilla group. Following Operation Orion and its fallout, community members began using graffiti as a way to rid the community of the FARC’s still visual control. Initially, community members thought the artists were coming to regain control of the neighborhood by a different group but when the artists left, they were left with beautiful works of art. These small works gradually took hold and, now, nearly the entire community is covered with incredible works of graffiti by artists from all over the world. Many argue that graffiti, as well as hip hop music, dancing and other outlets have had major impacts on converting the most dangerous and notorious neighborhoods into a much safer place for residents and tourists alike to visit. That said, Comuna 13 still has problems with drugs, gangs and continues to have an abnormally high murder rate.
Within the graffiti there is plenty of symbolism which we will not describe here. There are surely places where you may be able to find out plenty more if you are interested. We will share our favorite graffiti photos below:
Somos Transformación – We are the transformation:
We highly recommend the tour which we booked through Toucan Cafe in the Poblado neighborhood and they do the graffiti tour everyday. Other tours are available too. Here are some photos from our tour:
Medellin is an incredible city with too much to learn in just a few days. We made the most of our short visit and have a newfound appreciation for the transformation of the city in a very short period of time. We highly recommend others to visit the city if visiting Colombia!