We came to Medellin, Colombia knowing very little about its notorious past. Decades of unrest in the midst of the drug war left Medellin in shambles with many lives lost, but now Medellin is thriving, safe, and vibrant with love. The hill-side neighborhood of Comuna 13 was one of the epi-centers of the violence in the peak of the drug war. Drug lords, or guerrillas, were at war with Colombian military forces and innocent people were stuck in the midst of the flying bullets.
Until the mid 1990's, Comuna 13 was controlled solely by the rebel groups and guerrillas. Police were afraid to risk their own lives to assist, which meant no government assistance or resources were provided. Essentially the locals of the neighborhood were on their own. When there were issues in the neighborhood, such as petty theft or crime, the locals would contact the guerrillas who would resolve the issue for a payment. This all went on until the Colombian government decided they needed to seize control of the neighborhood again. That is when the real violence started.
One of the most famous battles in Comuna 13, Operation Orion, occurred in 2002 when the military forces sent in thousands of troops and several black hawk helicopters to overthrow the rebel groups. As the battle raged on, the innocent, caught in the midst of the violence, took to the streets with white flags sending the sign that all they wanted peace. This growing movement of love and unity eventually led to the signing of a peace treaty between the Colombian government and the guerrilla groups in 2016.
During our tour, we had a difficult time comprehending how kids grew up in this violent atmosphere. Guns, violence, a lack of laws, and drugs were normal to these kids. We were fortunate enough to connect with a local who spent his childhood in Comuna 13. Sergio, the owner of Inside Medellin Tours, offers a guided walking tour of the city that shows tourists the neighborhood's history and progress. Within a few minutes of meeting Sergio, his positivity radiated and we realized that he has a special gift to instill change and transformation in everyone he meets. He's the kind of guy that is a living example of how we can be better people and unify to create a better society. We won't forget the way the kids latch onto Sergio as their role model -- who was once a kid himself raised in the chaos.
So where is Comuna 13 today and why is it important? The neighborhood has seen many improvements over the past decade. Recently, escalators have been installed that help connect Comuna 13 to downtown Medellin. A new library was built for children and adults to visit. The multiple cable car lines have improved lives and accessibility. From our perspective, the neighborhood feels more like a community or home than any other neighborhood we've witnessed. The streets are vibrant, productive, creative, full of life, and inspiring.
We'll leave the rest of the information up to the expert, Sergio:
Can you give us a brief description of Comuna 13 past and present?
Comuna 13 was a completely gray place, violent and without control by the government. We were not abandoned by the government because they never really made an effective presence here. The illegal armed groups were practically the government. In some way, they only occupied a place where the government did not want to be. They were only present with military operations that violated human rights again and again under the excuse of removing illegal groups. Thanks to life, things are now very different. Many people realized that they had to change the course of the place. Now we have artistic collectives that generate culture and, through art, they have achieved using colors instead of violence. Hope is growing in each of the inhabitants even though some problems are still alive. The most important thing is that people now have the power to improve the community and that we are doing it.
What was your day-to-day life growing in Comuna 13?
Despite all the violence that I lived around, I had a very happy childhood. And since I did not know a different environment, everything was normal for me. Inside my innocence, I knew that seeing dead people in the streets because of bullets was not normal, but I understood that that was my life. I grew up thinking that this was going to be my life forever and that it was simply reality -- not only from my neighborhood, but also from my country.
How has the cable car, library and other modern amenities in Comuna 13 changed the lives of the community?
All these things have something in common and that is that they gave people access to new opportunities. Internet opens the door to the world in a single click. It gives you information in just seconds and that somehow empowers people. The cable car and the escalators connected the people of the highest slopes with the city in general, giving them access to better jobs. Not only that, but they were granted access to other attractions in the city that improved people's capacity for having fun in new places.
What is your goal of Inside Medellin Tours? What inspired you to start working in tourism?
To be honest, I started this as a way to make money because I had no job at that time. But, over time, I discovered that I could use tourism as a lever of development in Comuna 13. The money that comes to Comuna 13 must be used for the benefit of the community, not only for a few who are getting rich by taking advantage of the place. The objective of my company is to continue to improve the social situation of this place.
What does the ever-changing graffiti art in Comuna 13 signify?
I think it is a very good way to keep art alive and to keep the interest of great artists. New artists with new ideas who want to contribute to art will always be welcome.
If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be?
The borders. We were born as human beings and it's natural. Borders create division and lead to stupid wars.
Inside Medellin Tours runs daily (except Monday) at 9:45 am and 1:45 pm.
The tour is free, but donations are greatly appreciated.
Contact Sergio for bookings on social media or Whatsapp: 3145481075
A huge thank you to Sergio for his participation in our blog. Continue smiling and spreading love!