Comuna 13, Medellin. From Notorious to tourist hot spot
Comuna 13. A place that evokes fear amongst many people. Everyone knows Colombia is safe to visit nowadays, but what about one of the most notorious districts in the world for warring drug Cartels? In a city famed for Colombia’s most famous citizen, Pablo Escobar, you wouldn’t necessarily think there would be such a vibrant tourist scene. Medellin is one of the most beautiful cities on earth, but Comuna 13 has it’s own unique story to tell. Once one of the most dangerous places on earth. Is it now the safest place in Colombia for a tourist?
The history of Comuna 13
District 13 has a tumultuous past from it’s strategic position within Pablo Escobar’s empire during the 80’s and early 90’s. After Pablo’s exit Comuna 13 had a power struggle between the Paramilitary, FARQ and ELN for its strategic position for drug and weapon smuggling. Leading it to be named as one of the most dangerous places in the world. In 2002, after 20 years of violence, the government decided to intervene with 10 operations. The most notable called Orión.
The operation involved 1,500 officers, two helicopters and one tank and was carried out on the streets amongst the houses of normal people. It is assumed the Paramilitary helped the government to identify gang members. The siege lasted three days with locals being forced to hide inside, some without food or water as there was no warning from the government to prepare. Three days of terror, surrounded by gunfire and bombings. Until one woman, desperate to feed her children, came out with a white flag and ended the shooting. The Paramilitary took over the area, and are in charge of the area to this day. Still ruling by fear.
Hope for Comuna 13
But there is some hope for Comuna 13. Starting in 2006 a new mayor decided things must change and the government must make up for the past. In 2008 a new cable car was built to connect the people to the rest of the city. Then in 2011 escalators were put in to allow easy movement on the steep mountain slopes. And now a huge pathway is being built to connect the community further. The walls are covered in street art and tourists poor in to see the troubled yet beautiful area. The people in Comuna 13 are warm and welcoming, having been through so much, they seem happy just to live in peace.
It is now seen as a global model for transformation. When money is invested into poor areas, instead of brut force and arrests, real progress and change for the better can happen. People just need the opportunity. Read the story from a local here.
Is it safe to visit Comuna 13, Medellin?
In a word, yes. Medellin is now a safe place to be a tourist but Comuna 13 is probably the safest place to be in Colombia. As mentioned earlier, the Paramilitary still have most of the control in the area with the government overseeing. It’s a strange co-existence that I’m unsure could exist anywhere else on the planet. The Paramilitary are feared, laws are by neighbourhood and straying too far between them can have deadly consequences. Much like the Mafia, money is payed by all businesses to the organisation to ensure safety for residents. Are they better than the drug cartels of past? It’s not for us to say. The locals seem to think so, though they rule with an iron fist, the area is now prospering.
Of course tourism is a huge reason for this prosperity. The upshot is tourists are seen as very valuable commodities. There are severe penalties for any harm to visitors, for example robbing a tourist can result in a beating. Even ripping someone off or exchanging bad words is dangerous for a local. It could seem like there is a falseness to the peace now enforced on the area. But that couldn’t seem farther from the truth. People are genuinely warm and welcoming. Passionate to share their stories through art and music.
The Street Art In Comuna 13, Medellin
District 13 is now one of the top things to do in Medellin. It attracts over 25,000 tourists a week. Although the history is a big draw, the street art is surely the main attraction to visit in Comuna 13. Stories from the areas past are told through murals painted from a place of deep passion and hope for the future. It’s impossible not to get caught up with the communities struggle through these moving works. Do a street art walking tour with a local like the one from Comuna 13 tours.
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