Street art reflecting the Comuna 13 history in Medellin Colombia

Comuna 13 History: From Dangerous to Colorful

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Medellin is a Colombian city that many people around the world associate with a troubled past. Comuna 13’s history shows that a transformation is possible and how a most dangerous neighborhood can turn into a colorful place to live.

Today Communa 13 is much, much safer and one of the most popular tourist attractions in Medellin. 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 so you can get the best out of your visit! ✨

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.

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Comuna 13 map showing it's location in the west of Medellin
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 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.

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

Overlooking the valley of Comuna 13 - a troublesome history
Houses in Comuna 13

Many of these people built neighborhoods illegally in the hills of Medellin as this was the only land available to them. Comuna 13 was one of them.

Because Communa 13 was created illegally it was mostly ignored by the city. This meant 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.

A half painted and finished house in Comuna 13
Most of the houses in Comuna 13 are only half-painted to avoid taxes

Violence due to Para Military Groups and Youth Gangs

The civil war in Colombia played a huge role in Comuna 13 history. During this war, 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 a terrible situation 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 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.

Comuna 13 street with houses

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 Cartel. 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 residents 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 2000s

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 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. The government art projects were 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!

This 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 💛

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

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.

Most of the tour guides are people who grew up in Communa 13 so they can give you a personal insight into growing up in such a troublesome 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. These projects were specifically created to focus on people like her in single-parent households.

A green modern school in Comuna 13 Medellin
A school built in Comuna 13 for the youth

After trying dancing and drawing she found out she was no good at either. But she liked learning English so she was placed in English classes. A skill she now uses in her job as a tour guide daily today.

This was one of many interesting stories she told, so I can highly recommend Zippy Tours. You will see her and all the other local guides on their website ✨

What to expect on the tour

On the tour, you will be taken on a walking tour around the community. You will meet at the nearby San Javier metro station📍which is easy to reach by Uber or metro.

Tour details:
➡️ Duration: 3 hours
➡️ Free, tip-based (5-10 USD recommended)
➡️ Local English-speaking guide
➡️ 5 neighborhoods from Comuna 13
➡️ Art expressions (street art, break dance, galleries)
➡️ Outdoor escalators
➡️ Viewpoints, best views

Plus there is also a freestyle rap show from locals which was cool and entertaining!

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 💰 20,000-50,000 COP (5-10 USD) p.p. are recommended.

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

Communa 13 Graffiti Tours

If you are not as interested in Comuna 13’s history then you can also 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. You will also get to sample some typical street food from Comuna 13.

➡️ You can book a Comuna 13 graffiti tour here. For 20 USD a local guide will show you the best graffiti art in the area and explain the meaning behind it.

Visiting Comuna 13 by yourself

It is totally possible to visit Comuna 13 by yourself. You can either Uber there, take a bus or 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 it might be easier to take a tour.

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

Orange escalators in Comuna 13 - which changes its history

Now you know all about Comuna 13’s History – enjoy your visit!

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 booking one.

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 too touristy. But it was still super interesting and I am glad I went. I recommend that you go too!


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Hi, I am Allan, a travel, health and fitness fanatic from New Zealand. I'm a former lawyer who turned into a full-time nomad in 2020. For the last 4+ years I've been traveling the world. I'm always on a hunt for good food, activities on a budget and workouts on the go. I hope you find my tips helpful and get inspired to travel more!

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