Commune 13 of Medellin, all you need to know before you go
Medellín’s Comuna 13 has become one of the most visited places in the city in recent times.
Its famous Comuna 13 Graffiti Tour is the best way to get to know this commune in depth, hand in hand with its inhabitants.
Why is Comuna 13 so famous?
Well, this may be a bit controversial, but the reality is that it has gone from being a place where you couldn’t enter due to the violence of the guerrillas, paramilitaries, gangs and narcos to a kind of open-air museum that tries to tell what Comuna 13 was before and how it has become what it is now.
Is it dangerous to go to Commune 13?
We must not forget that in the 1990s Commune 13 was one of the most dangerous and violent places in the world.
Today this has changed radically, we were in October 2019, and once you enter Commune 13, you are in a completely safe place.
But don’t forget that there are places and situations that can change for different reasons in a short time.
That’s why it’s better to get an update on the state of Commune 13 before you go, in Medellin.
To be honest, when we entered and our guide gave us advice for the visit, he gave us none regarding safety.
He told us that if we took pictures of the inhabitants of the commune, we should first ask if we could.
That we should not give money to the children who come to you to explain in perfect English some of the graffiti.
If they earn money like that, they don’t go to school.
And then some.
Brief history of Commune 13
The city of Medellin is in a valley surrounded by mountains.
The communes that surround Medellín were built informally on the slopes of the mountains.
The origin of the communes comes from their inhabitants, the great majority of them displaced from rural areas in conflict with the guerrillas or paramilitaries.
When they settled in these areas, they built informally, and lacked all kinds of services.
The authorities turned their backs completely on the communes, and they had to organize themselves.
The guerrillas of the ELN, FARC and the CAP (Comandos Armados del Pueblo) initially intended to help the commune against the bourgeoisie that was inheriting them, but it didn’t take long before it became a nightmare.
The first child soldiers who were recruited by these guerrillas and the violence that was being exercised was the turning point.
Then the paramilitaries came to drive out the guerrillas, but that was more violence and killings, as in a war.
And the Medellin cartel did not help solve that war of “shootings” and deaths at any time of day every day.
Pablo Escobar’s cartel fed on young people with no future to turn them into hitmen, kidnappers or extortionists.
During our visit to Comuna 13 we bought a book written by a community policeman from the commune.
He had to live the hardest moments there.
I totally recommend it, it is not very long, you leave money in the community, and besides, you will understand better the story told from inside.
It is called Commune 13 of Medellin, the drama of the Armed Conflict.
Commune 13 was a hell on earth.
Another of the moments that have marked Commune 13 the most was Operation Orion.
Launched by Alvaro Uribe in October 2002 to get the FARC, ELN and CAP guerrillas out, he sent some 1500 military and police, along with tanks and helicopters of war.
During the operation that lasted several days, the balance of victims was very high, 80 civilians injured, 17 homicides committed by the Public Force, 71 people killed by the paramilitaries, 12 people tortured, 92 forced disappearances and 370 arbitrary detentions.
The controversy still continues, since La Escombrera, a place where construction materials and garbage are piled up, which is located in front of Commune 13, is where it is said that those who disappeared during Operation Orion were buried.
Excavations have been made to find the bodies of the missing, but they have not been found.
The expulsion of the guerrillas did not bring Commune 13 back to peace, as it was the gateway for the paramilitaries, specifically the Cacique Nutibara group.
Assassinations, torture and forced disappearances were once again the order of the day.
Why has Comuna 13 changed?
Well, one of the main reasons is that the authorities have started to invest in improving the services of the commune.
They started with the cable car, a means of public transportation that brought the commune closer to downtown Medellín, and downtown Medellín closer to Commune 13.
And to top it off, they invested in free escalators for the inhabitants of the commune.
This made getting up and down easier.
During the works there had to be a truce, a cease-fire, something.
Not only public works did their work, but also the many social inclusion programs, which opened a new path of opportunities for the youngest.
Something that woke up the youngest and they decided to start painting with graffiti their sad walls stained with blood and marked by bullets, giving them a color that today attracts thousands of tourists from all over the world every day.
Even the football pitch, which in hard times was used as a place for public executions, has become a place to play again.
Not all that glitters is gold
But not all that glitters is gold.
The guides have to pay a small amount of money to the bands for every tourist that enters (3000 COPs – 0,70 euros).
The owners of the different establishments opened because of the massive arrival of tourists also have to pay another small amount.
It is as if the gangs have seen tourism as an easy way to make money without having to kill.
If I’m honest, it was the only place in Medellín where I took out the reflex camera without any fear.
On the positive side, Commune 13 is a hotbed of artists, music, color, graffiti, souvenir shops, restaurants (there’s even a vegan one) and cafes.
That leaves money in the neighborhood and gives opportunities to see a more real future.
In fact, there are social programs in the neighborhood that provide free training in tourism.
Dozens of kids from the neighborhood are guides to show you around.
The negative, although there is a real effort, especially in graffiti not to forget the past, is that certain terrible events are forgotten and can be repeated.
Graffiti Tour Comuna 13
Well, the Graffiti Tour is the perfect excuse to get closer to Commune 13.
We hired a Free Tour through FreeTour.com, just the day before.
Our guide was a young man from the commune, his grandparents were among the first to start living there.
And we were lucky enough to meet them at their commune house.
Each one of the graffiti you will see represents moments or people that transcended in the history of the commune.
The tour is very interesting, since they will tell you first-hand the history and stories that make this place different.
That it has gone from being a place without future or opportunities to having a real hope.
In addition to graffiti by artists from Commune 13, there is also graffiti by artists from around the world who have been invited to leave their artwork on these walls.
If you like graffiti, you’re going to love the place, and if you’re not a fan, I assure you that you’re going to convert.
Without a doubt, the Graffiti Tour and the visit to Commune 13 are well worth it.
Another perspective of the city of Medellin.
How to get to Comuna 13
To get to Comuna 13, the best way is to use the city’s public transportation, specifically the subway.
The people of Medellín are extremely proud of their public transportation system.
They always joke that they have a metro and the capital, Bogotá, does not.
Perhaps this is the reason why the metro is spotless and very well maintained, no vandalism.
Well, the metro stop where you have to get off is San Javier.
This stop is at the end of line B, in orange.
In our case, our Free Tour guide picked us up there.
And there we saw dozens of guides of the Graffiti Tour Comuna 13 waiting for other tourists, or offering the services.