I spent a few days visiting Comuna 13 on the western edge of Medellin. Comuna 13 iscurrently famous for its vibrant and colorful murals. But more than just impressive street art, the zone is historically infamous as well. Urban warfare took place throughout Comuna 13 between guerrilla groups and the government, and between guerrilla and paramilitary groups. Comuna 13 remains one of the poorest areas in Medellin, despite the fame and infamy, despite the murals and the groups of tours that visit regularly. And it’salso one of most dangerous areas … still.
Here’s a bit of the why and the how of Medellin’s Comuna 13. I’ve included more photos than usual in this post to give you a feel for the murals, which areindeed impressive.
The Physicality of Comuna 13
To help you get your bearings, Medellin isdivided into 16 districts called comunas. Those comunas contain neighborhoods and areas. For example, El Poblado, the upscale district most popular with touristsisComuna 14. Laureles, another trendy neighborhoodbelongs toComuna 11. I live in Simon Bolivar, a subdistrict of Comuna 12. Eighteen different neighborhoods comprise Comuna 13, carved out of and built onto the steep hillside that forms part of the western slope of the valley in which Medellin sits.
The first day I went, a friend of mine along with her sister who lives in Independencia II (one of three Independencia neighborhoods of Comuna 13), served as my tour guides. We met at the foothills in an area called El Veinte de Julio (the 20thof July). The area seemed normal enough: bakeries, cell phone stores, folks going to work. And it is normal, even in its dangerousness. Barely 20 years ago, El Veinte de Julio was the front line in a war. On May 30, 2002, A coordinated attack waged by guerrillas, once forced the mayor, accompanied by reporters and with all his security escort, to withdraw. The mayor had intended to visit to show the zone’s citizens that law and order could still hold sway in their day-to-day lives. The guerrillas proved him wrong.
Violence Begets Violence
Unfortunately, the government’s response to the guerrillas was equally heavy-handed. According to Fernanda, police killed Comuna 13 residents indiscriminately. Any man they came across was assumed to be a guerrilla. Women were the wives of guerrillas. Children were the sons and daughters of guerrillas. And guerrilla’s lives held no value.
Paramilitary groups, as illegal as the guerrillas they formed to combat, seized other neighborhoods. Comuna 13 became an urban war zone.
When police would arrive enforce, residents began the habit of hanging white sheets from their windows in a sign of surrender, because the police would fire indiscriminately into the area killing or wounding whoever their fired bullets happened to find. The sheets signaled those in nearby neighborhoods to call the red cross who would send intermediaries to mollify the police response. At that time — the beginning of the new millennia — many Comuna 13 residents still didn’t have power or telephones.
In October 2002, under the banner of liberating the neighborhoods from the guerrillas (something that certainly needed doing) the government mounted a military operation. Operation Orion’s mandate: subdue guerrilla forces in the neighborhood by “blood and fire.” Sanctioned by then-President Álvaro Uribe, a specially trained urban assault military unit of more than 2,000 soldiers entered Comuna 13. Operation Orión lasted two days. The name came from the military custom of designating operations with names that began with the same letter of the current month. The battle began in El Veinte de Julio and advanced block by block. Soldiers freed 21 kidnapped victims being held by guerrillas for ransom. But the neighborhood liberation of Operation Orion cost plenty. Warzone turned into urban massacre. Hundreds of residents were killed by the operation. No official statistic exists on the deaths because of disputes over whether or not residents may have in fact been guerrillas. Hundreds more simply disappeared. An area called the escombreras, a hillside used for raw construction material, isreported to contain mass graves of residents killed by paramilitaries because of suspected guerrilla affiliation. Additionally, over the years, more than 3,600 residents have been displaced because of the violence.
Fernanda, my guide told me some of the history as we walked toward her house. She rattled off the numbers of killed, disappeared and displaced without pausing to think or remember. She’s lived with these numbers since they came into existence — a lot of death and tragedy to keep in one’s head.
(Full disclosure, Fernanda preferred not to have her picture taken. Fernanda isn’t her real name either: precautions taken against possible reprisals for how openly she talked about the history and current events of where she’s lived for the past 31 years.)
We walked up a narrow street to the famous external escalators that took us up to the main drag lined with murals. The escalators have become an icon, both for Comuna 13 and for Medellin. Constructed in 2011, they reduced a 28-story sweaty hike to a five-minute ride. The stairs and now the escalators are the principal means of entering and exiting. Imagine beginning your commute to work having to descend 28 flights of stairs, or ending your long workday by climbing them!
The Graffiti Murals
Many of the murals testify to Operation Orion. Governmental sources recount the siege as a successful liberation. The community residents recount it as an attack against them, all of them, not just the guerrillas. Images of elephants, representative of never forgetting, are common motifs.
The Depth of Comuna 13
Typically, visitors don’t go past the strip that contains the majority of the murals. Because I’m not ever a tourist, and because my tour guides gave me an inside track, I went deeper.
I’d been distracted by all the wonderful graffiti murals. Then, as we kept walking, the murals ended. I looked around. We stood somewhere in the midst of narrow, maze-like alleys that ran horizontally along the hillsides. Imagine terrace farms on a mountainside, but instead of plots of land sit houses. The walls of houses made the alleys seem narrower and sometimes darker. Getting lost would be easy.
The History of Comuna 13
Populations displaced by the armed conflict from other parts of Antioquia and Colombia became the first residents before an official Comuna 13 existed. Think domestic refugees. Many weresquatters who built their own dwellings out of whatever they could find: wood, plastic, cardboard, bamboo, zinc canisters. And then routed power illegally from nearby electrical conduits. Dwellings lacked running water and sewage. Residents cooked on wood stoves and just made do.
But the conflict that displaced them found them again. Guerrilla movements of the FARC, ELN and M19 installed themselves in the neighborhoods. Not allies at that time, the groups claimed different neighborhoods as their territory and conducted forceful recruitment in the neighborhoods. Terror campaigns and kidnappings forced compliance. They shot anyone suspected of talking to police or authorities. Even asking a cop for directions, or answering a casual question from a police officer could get one killed.
Hollywood Vs. Real Life
I recently saw the movie Sicario: Day of the Soldado with the same friend who now guided me. She reacted to the scenes where the characters flew over the Mexican coyotes in helicopters, with derision. To her Hollywood waspretending again. I didn’t really get her point until visiting Comuna 13 and learning of Operation Orión (which did have aerial support from helicopters). She had actually lived through those scenes I had only seen in cinematic portrayals. She told me of afternoons walking home when she had to grab her kids and duck and run because of bullet fire.
I think of myself as a tough Bronx native. But tough is the last thing I feel next to my friend, because of what she’s lived through.
The Current Comuna 13
My first visit wason a weekday. The touristy stores closest to the escalators wereclosed (because of expected gang violence). But further in the neighborhoods, away from the graffiti murals, folks worked their jobs. We passed municipal employees working on neighborhood upgrade construction projects. They drilled for soil compaction samples to see what fortifications might be needed to expand the paved walkways that crisscross the hillsides. And as we walked to my friend’s sister’s house, a social services worker asked her for directions.She just tagged along with us as we headed in the same direction as her scheduled visit.
The city has provided social services in the form of governmental programs for job training and education and those peripheral services that enable folks to enter and stay in the workforce. They don’t provide money, instead they help families identify and access services. For example, someone may have just found a job, but without reliable childcare, they’ll eventually lose the job. Too many days missed because a parent has no place to take a pre-school child. The social services remind me of my days writing grants for a soft-skills workforce development nonprofit in New York City. Human problems areuniversal. We all want the same things, safety, security, a hand up instead of a handout. I may not be from Comuna 13, but I understand it and feel comfortable in it.
These days violence perpetrated in Comuna 13 comes from gangs vying for territorial control. Not as organized as the conflict between the guerrilla groups and the government back in the day, unfortunately the gang violence kills too.
A taxi driver told me of an unwritten rule that foreigners be left alone. Gang members know that injuring or killing a foreigner in a Comuna 13 neighborhood would bring another military action that nobody would benefit from. But inter-gang violenceisstill escalating. The first two times I asked my friend if we could visit her sister she said no, it wastoo dangerous. The day before I published this post two gangs had a shootout that lasted hours. Another violent governmental intervention may be inevitable.
I heard about two deaths the day I visited. A woman was killed in her home and a bus driver was killed while driving his route. I don’t know the circumstances behind the woman’s death. As for the bus driver, frequently gangs extort the drivers as they pass through the different territories.
The division of gangs controlling different areas grows out of the original displacements from the armed conflict. Many distinct cultures from different parts of the country wereforced together in a small area. Additionally, the area remains a strategic corridor for drug trafficking from the Atlanta coast. As with any poor neighborhood, drugs and their potential to generate fast and excessive cash become a sought-after escape.
Nothing can be seen to let you know of the dangers or where one territory ends and another begins. Only the gang members and the residents know that critical information.
Neighborhoods Full of Life
I don’t mean to paint a doom-and-gloom picture of Comuna 13. But I do want to provide a realistic account.
There is also life in Comuna 13 and anticipation and hope. In the midst of sporadic violence and killing, folks live their regular lives. Fernanda’s niece sells mazamorra (a popular drink made with milk and corn) near a metro station not far away. Her son goes to school and plays soccer afterward. When I asked if she worried about her son, she answered not too much. His school and where he plays soccer both lay within the same gang’s territory, meaning he doesn’t have to cross any invisible territorial boundary. A few days after my first visit demonstrations were held by residents against the gang violence.
The murals recount the violent past, but also point to a hoped-for brighter future. Comuna 13 is multifaceted, dynamic and complex. This isn’ta regular place. But on the other hand, it is. Meaning, it’sa real place. It exists. No screenwriter has invented this for a movie.
The story of Comuna 13 continues. Consider this the first post in a series.