Street art from communa 13 in medellin

Comuna 13 History – Medellins Street Art Capital

Home » Colombia » Comuna 13 History – Medellin’s Street Art Capital With A Twist

Medellin is a city that many people around the world associate with a troubled past. Comuna 13 is a neighborhood in Medellin that for many years was the most dangerous area in the city. Comuna 13’s history is a complicated story that put innocent people in harm’s way for many years.

Fortunately today Communa 13 is much, much safer and is actually one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city. This is because the community is now a vibrant place full of art.

So let’s step back in time and go through Comuna 13’s history and its miraculous recovery.

Where Is Comuna 13?

Comuna 13 is located on the steep hills in the west of Medellin. Over 200,000 people call the neighborhood home.

It is a maze of streets winding all over the hill. This is because the community was built illegally so there was no formal planning from the city when all the homes were constructed.

Comuna 13 map showing it's location in the west of the city
Communa 13 Map

Comuna 13 History – A Troubled Past

How Comuna 13 Was Created

Medellin sits within a valley that is surrounded by steep hills. These steep hills are full of informal communities where people have built houses illegally without proper consent.

The reason for this was that many people came to Medellin to escape violence in the countryside.

Much of this violence was because of the civil war in Colombia that began in 1964 and is still not totally resolved today. This seemingly never-ending civil war has been a negative cloud throughout Comuna 13’s history.

A football field with a collection of buildings on the hill behind it. A good depiction of the Comuna 13 history
A football field with the hills of Comuna 13 in the background

The civil war in Colombia displaced over 7 million people so a massive number of people were forced to move to the cities.

Many of these people built neighborhoods in the hills of Medellin as this was the only land available to them.

Comuna 13 was one of these many neighborhoods built illegally in the hills of Medellin.

Because Communa 13 was created illegally it was mostly ignored by the city. This meant that there was no infrastructure such as proper schooling for children, public transport, or other social services.

The location of Communa 13 in the hills also made it difficult to get into the city to get jobs. It could take hours to get into Medellin which made it impossible to get a good job.

The lack of opportunity for the people living there created a community with little hope of making a better life for themselves.

Violence Due To Para Military Groups And Youth Gangs

The Civil War in Colombia played a huge role in Comuna 13 history. During the civil war in Colombia, right-wing and left-wing militant groups were fighting for control of the country.

Unfortunately, this conflict spilled over into Comuna 13. This was the first reason that Comuna 13 history was so violent for such a long time.

This was terrible for residents as they had come to Medellin to escape the violence in the countryside. But unfortunately, it followed them to the city.

A painting showing a young boy holding a paintbrush with two grenades and dark colors on one side and on orange bright colored side on the side of the paintbrush head
Painting showing how art was able to change Comuna 13’s history

Paramilitary organizations such as AUC fought for control of Comuna 13. They claimed to be fighting a political war against leftist guerillas.

But in reality, they were involved in illegal activities such as drug trafficking, kidnapping, and extorting local businesses.

There were many youth gangs in Comuna 13 due to the poverty in the area. These gangs were also involved in drug dealing and illegal activities. These gangs would often align themselves with guerilla groups.

Youth gangs and guerilla groups fought for territory in Comuna 13 in order to control drug trafficking and control of illegal activities. This resulted in armed shootouts in the densely populated neighborhood.

Unfortunately, many innocent civilians were caught up in shootouts between the gangs. As a result, the people of Comuna 13 lived in a mini-war zone.

Drug Trafficking And Comuna 13

During the 1980’s the infamous Medellin Cartel came to power. Led by Pablo Escobar they caused terror all over Colombia while building a drug empire.

Comuna 13 was important to the Medellin Carel. This was because there was a highway behind Comuna 13 that could be used to traffic drugs out of Colombia.

As a result, youth gangs were contracted by the cartel as hitmen, kidnappers, and more. This added to the violence in the neighborhood and made life even worse for the residents living there.

A colorful piece of street art in Comuna 13 Medellin

The Medellin Cartel was broken up in 1993 which was a relief to Colombia. However left-wing paramilitary groups maintained control in Comuna 13.

This meant that through much of the 1990s, the homicide rate in Comuna 13 was actually fairly low compared to other areas of Medellin.

This was until the government decided to intervene and remove the paramilitary groups in 2001.

Operation Orion

On October 16 2002 the government carried out Operation Orion to remove left-wing paramilitary groups from Comuna 13.

To do this the army along with black hawk helicopters, usually only used in warzones. Were sent in to clear out the neighborhood.

This operation was very controversial as Comuna 13 is a densely populated area. But the army was sent in fully armed and were firing their weapons with disregard for the local’s safety. So many locals were caught up in the crossfire when the army entered.

The main street of Comuna 13 on a tour with zippy tours
The main street in Comuna 13 is totally transformed from how it looked in the early 200s

This resulted in the deaths of many residents. Also, many people from the neighborhood were detained without trial and disappeared.

To this day many locals are still demanding justice for loved ones who disappeared or were killed during this operation.

The government was successful in removing the paramilitary groups from Comuna 13. But this was not the end of problems for the community.

Life After Operation Orion

After the military groups were removed from Comuna 13 there was still no peace. With the military groups gone youth gangs took over control.

This resulted in constant gang battles which terrorized residents for years.

However, after many years of Comuna 13’s history being full of violence the city finally took steps to turn the community around.

Fortunately, the city decided to invest in positive social services to turn Comuna 13’s history around.

The city built infrastructure such as cable cars and escalators. This greatly improved the quality of life for residents because they could get in and out of the community much faster.

A woman in a pink hat and black top standing on the comuna 13 escalator
Escalators that were built in 2011 in Comuna 13 to help residents move around easier

Another major step the city took was to encourage the youth of the community to get involved in the arts. This was heavily influenced by hip-hop culture such as rapping, dancing, and graffiti art.

The idea of this was to keep young people out of trouble. This was very successful and Comuna 13 quickly became an arts hub in Medellin.

It was never intended to turn Comuna 13 into a tourist destination. But over the years people heard about all the art in the community and slowly tourists started visiting. Now today it is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Medellin.

So it has been a miraculous transformation. It is an inspiration for communities around the world that no matter how bad the situation things can be turned around.

Comuna 13 Tours

You can visit Comuna 13 by yourself, especially if it is during the weekend as there are plenty of other tourists around. But I think you are really missing out if you do not go on a tour.

Many of the tour guides are people who grew up in Communa 13 so can give you a personal insight into life in the area.

We decided to do a tour with Zippy Tours as they have really good reviews and all guides are from the area. Our guide was amazing and shared lots of personal insights.

Our guide shared with us that her dad was sadly killed during the early 2000’s. So her life could easily gone down the wrong path.

But then due to the social projects in Comuna 13, she was encouraged to find something she liked doing. These social projects were specifically created to focus on people like her in single-parent households.

A man in a blue shirt rapping on a tour about comuna 13 history
A group of hip hop dancers in medellin

After trying dancing and drawing she found out she was no good at either. But she found out she liked learning English so she was encouraged to do that. So she was placed in special classes to learn English which she now uses in her job today.

So now she does tours because of the social projects that were put in place to help the community. This was one of many interesting stories she told, so I can highly recommend Zippy Tours.

On the tour, you will be taken on a walking tour around the community. Plus there is also a dance performance and a freestyle rap show from locals which was really cool.

Zippy Tours is a free walking tour. This means you only pay what you feel the tour is worth by tipping the guide at the end.

Communa 13 Graffiti Tours

If you are not as interested in Comuna 13 history then you can go on a graffiti tour. Comuna 13 is covered in graffiti art and many areas feel like an open-air art museum.

Much of the art is related to Comuna 13’s history. So it is great to see art with so much meaning.

If you would like to book a Graffiti Tour you can book one here. This tour costs 20 USD and a local guide will show you the best graffiti art in the area and explain the meaning behind it.

As part of the tour, you will also get to sample some typical street food from Comuna 13.

Visiting Comuna 13 By Yourself

As I mentioned above it is totally possible to visit Comuna 13 by yourself. You can either Uber there are take the metro to San Javier metro station and walk.

There are bars, restaurants and cafes there. So you can just visit yourself and have something to eat and drink. But if you are new to Colombia and your Spanish is not very good will be easier to take a tour.

TIP : If you travel to Comuna 13 by yourself lookout for the orange escalators going up the hill. This is the middle of the touristy area which you should head to.

Know You All About Comuna 13’s History

Comuna 13’s history is a dark one that luckily has a happy ending. When I arrived in Medellin and heard about tours there I was a bit unsure about whether I wanted to go.

I usually do not like going on a guided tour of neighborhoods like this. But I am really glad I did. It is such a unique neighborhood and I have seen nothing like it in my travels around the world.

Some parts of Comuna 13 are getting a bit touristy. But it was super interesting and I am glad I went and I recommend that you go too.

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