Friday 15 March 2024

Comuna 13 - a story of hope and hip hop

Hello from Medellin, a vibrant, thriving city and Colombia's second most populated. In fact, if you knew or read about its history, you would find it impossible to imagine how big a transformation it has gone through over only the last 10-20 years. 

You see this is because, since the 1980s until the beginning of 2000s, big areas and neighbourhoods of the city were synonymous with Colombia's deadliest drug wars and also a critical hub of guerrilla activity. It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that in the early 2000s, Medellin was the world's most dangerous city. 

Today, only 22 years after one of the city's deadliest military operations, we went on a walking tour through Comuna 13, the district where drug gangs and paramilitary groups used to rule. In our three-hour tour, we learnt about the violent and gruesome history of the community living there and the impossible challenges they overcame. 

History, as I'm coming to realise in this trip, is not a straight line drawn by a ruler but more like a river winding down the valley of eternity (wow, did I just have quite a deep, philosophical thought here?). So, bear with me while I try to describe what I understood has taken place in Comuna 13 over the last 50 years or so. 

In the 1970s, the area where Comuna 13 now stands was barren, empty land. In the late 1970s, people escaping the political struggles all over the country moved into the area, building their houses out of whatever material was available. They were very poor, and had no infrastructure, taking water from mountain streams, stealing electricity with a complete lack of health or social services. It was an unrecognised area of the city and its inhabitants were considered illegal. In the next decade, three guerrilla groups moved into the area and started ruling and fighting over it. 

But why would anyone be interested in such a deprived, poor zone I hear you ask? Well there are three reasons:

1. Its' strategic position on the hill overlooking the city means that the guerrillas could spot quickly anyone entering the neighbourhood.

2. Because Comuna 13 is up crazy steep hills, there was (and still is) very little connection with the main city making it easy for them to hide and engage in their illegal activities.

3. At the very top of Comuna 13, there is the only road from Medellin heading to the Pacific ocean. And why is this important? Because that is a huge advantage for drug trafficking and other illegal operations. 

Over the next decade, the cut-off, lawless area was ruled by guerrillas and drug gangs ruling the community with fear and a fist of steel. Our guide who is from the area described the complete lack of opportunities and the stigma that surrounded people living in this area. 

From the late 1990s to the beginning of 2000s, there were 20 military operations to dislodge and eliminate the guerrillas from the area. All of them failed, although the last one (called Operation Orion) was partly successful in that the guerrilla groups fled the area. However, at what cost? Though the number of people who were killed, often innocently in cross-fire, or disappeared is not officially known, the community still talk about the trauma and the loss of their loved ones. 

But the story is one of hope and incredible resilience. Over the last decade or so, the area has been transformed (our guide called it 'divine justice') into one of the most vibrant areas in the whole of South America where artists live and work, inspiring others from around the world. Street art performances, hip hop artists, colourful graffiti and beautiful murals cover the walls of houses where thousands of tourists wander everyday. It's now the most visited place in Medellin. 

We walked through the narrow streets and admired the incredible graffiti but we also watched a hip-hop dance performance from an incredible group of young men. Behind them, a mural (my favourite) was linked to their dance depicting two elephants making music. At the end of the tour, we visited a community centre where people come to learn how to dance, how to make music and DJ and how to make graffiti. All of these initiatives and workshops are offered for free to the local community so that the legacy can continue. 

Another important change that made all of this possible was that the area now has better links to the main city of Medellin: escalators, a metro and better transportation give access to residents of  Comuna 13 which used to be isolated and cut off. 

I felt so inspired by this tour but it still seems to be so complicated. I can't come to imagine history that has passed through these streets. It feels like the only battle that remains is the one of hope, love and resilience.

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