How Did Comuna 13 Transform Medellín?

The Columbian neighborhood Comuna 13 serves as a living example of the transformative power of art. Here’s how hip-hop artists changed Medellín's dangerous neighborhood.

May 13, 2024By Agnes Theresa Oberauer, BA Drama & Philosophy

what is comuna 13 medellin

 

Nestled between coffee hills, Medellín is one of South America’s most beautiful cities. But until very recently, it also had a reputation for being one of the most violent places in the world. The story of Comuna 13 in San Javier proves that art and civil resistance can put a stop to violence and change the face of an entire neighborhood. Read on to find out how hip-hop artists and civilians turned one of the most violent places in the world into a hub of artistic creation.

 

Comuna 13: The Most Dangerous Place 

medellin skyline city transformation hills houses colombia.
Medellin, photographed by Juan Saravia, 2018. Source: Unsplash

 

In the 1990s, an average of 16 people were murdered in Medellín every day, earning it the title of the murder capital of the world. Given Colombia’s tumultuous history of colonization, civil war, and drug trafficking, it was a place most people associated with cocaine and excessive violence.

 

Today, Medellín has become a Mecca for digital nomads traveling through South America. But don’t let the presence of hipster cafés serving avocado toast fool you, Medellín was not only the hometown of Colombia’s most infamous drug Lord Pablo Escobar, but a battling ground between various gangs and the powers of the state.

 

The violence has been especially present in the poorer communities living in the hills of Medellín. Comuna 13, a neighborhood in San Javier, was one of Medellín many no-go zones, which were avoided by non-residents at all costs. This was mainly due to its strategic position in the Western part of Medellín, which turned it into a gateway for arms and drug trafficking.

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As the neighborhood came to be dominated by paramilitary organizations, drug traffickers, and gangs, many innocent men, women, and children lost their lives.  A simple act like going to the grocery store was dangerous as one could get in the crossfire between rival gangs. However, the civilian population of the neighborhood did not only suffer violence from nongovernmental agents. The police and military also played their fair share in perpetuating the violence, killings, and kidnappings that plagued the neighborhood.

 

The Trauma of Operation Orion 

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Comuna 13, photographed by Adriano Cirino, 2019. Source: ArchDaily Brazil

 

In 2002, the government decided to solve the issue once and for all. They sent in helicopters and more than 1000 members of its military, shooting gang members, paramilitary troops, and any civilians who happened to be in the crossfire. The goal of the military operation was to drive out the members of the left-wing paramilitary organizations that had come to dominate San Javier.

 

But the reality was much darker. According to some eyewitness reports, the soldiers had quotas to meet, so they ended up arresting, torturing, and killing civilians while being fully aware of their innocence. According to the Legal Cooperation of Freedom, this military intervention left 80 civilians injured, 90 people killed and 370 arbitrarily detained, including various civilians who remain missing to this day. Other sources claim that the numbers were much higher.

 

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Comuna 13 in San Javier, Guilherme Parol, 2022, Source: Via Estação Conhecimento

 

Up to this day, nobody knows exactly what happened during the four-day strike. While the Colombian government portrays this military operation dubbed Operation Orion as a move that brought law, order, and security to the area, many eyewitness reports tell a different story. Based on the version of truth perpetuated by some sources, the government forces were aided by Paramilitary troops, who used the operation to drive out the opposing guerrilla forces and establish control in the area. While we may never know what exactly happened to the people who disappeared and how many people were injured, tortured, or killed, one thing is for certain—Operation Orion was extremely brutal and it left a lot of questions unanswered.

 

The La Escondreira Landfill in Comuna 13

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La Escombrera Landfill, photographed by Natalia Botero, 2015, Source: The Nation

 

Another dark aspect of Comuna 13’s history is the La Escondreira wasteland area. People of the community believe that this is the place where both the police and gangs have hidden away the bodies of those they tortured and killed. But given the size of the wasteland and the endless hills surrounding Medellín, there is little hope of retrieving the corpses. Up to this day, there are many families in Comuna 13 who never got closure on the disappearance of a loved one.

 

But after years of being subjected to violence and maltreatment from all directions,  the civilian population had had enough. Things had gotten so bad, that they lost the fear of being punished for speaking out. Knowing that nobody was going to help them, the community decided to take things into their own hands.

 

Civil Resistance

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La Buena Vida Exposition curated by Emiliano Valdés, Ana Ruiz and Cristina Vasco, 2023-2024. Source: Museo de Arte Moderno, Medellin

 

In the early 2000s, violence and military interventions like Operation Orion had pushed the neighborhood of San Javier to rock bottom. But it was during this time that the community showed its incredible resilience. When militaries assaulted Comuna 13 a few months prior, the civilian population came out into the streets, waving white flags. To the surprise of everyone, the fighting stopped. The community had proven that unarmed resistance could stop the violence, at least on some occasions. On the same day, hip-hop artists held a peace concert. It was too late for the nine civilians who died that day, and it did not prevent Operation Orion from happening a few months later. But the residents of Comuna 13 had proven that if they stood together, they could achieve much more than they ever believed was possible.

 

The Death of Kolacho 

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Graffiti in Comuna 13, Guilherme Parol, 2022. Source: Via Estação Conhecimento

 

In the years surrounding Operation Orion, a growing number of hip-hop artists from the neighborhood started publicly speaking out against the violence, encouraging young children to make art instead of joining gangs. One of them was a young man called Héctor Pacheco, nicknamed Kolacho. One day, as he was walking back home from his aunt’s house, gunmen shot him down, leaving his twenty-year-old body riddled with bullets. He was neither the first nor the last hip-hop artist to be murdered in the streets of Medellín. And yet, his message of non-violence could not be silenced. His legacy lived on through his music, inspiring a whole generation of Comuna 13’s young residents to stand up for peace. The death of Kolacho also inspired his friends to start a culture center aimed at bringing peace and art to the neighborhood.

 

Rising From the Ashes

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Comuna 13 Graffiti, Josseph Downs, 2023. Source: Unsplash

 

As a way of countering the violence, the artists of the community started to self-organize. Apart from empowering their community by rapping about the tough reality of poverty, violence, and marginalization faced by the residents of Comuna 13, they started teaching breakdance, graffiti, and rap to the young kids in their neighborhood. By giving the children a creative outlet, a sense of community, and a source of pride, they prevented them from joining gangs or getting wound up in crime. The streets of Comuna 13 which had been haunted by gunshots and screams for decades slowly started to get filled with colorful graffiti, breakdancers, and the beats of music.

 

Community-Based Tourism

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Casa Kolacho, Guilherme Parol, 2022. Source: Via Estação Conhecimento

 

One such community-driven project is Casa Kolacho, a cultural center run by the Colombian hip-hop artist Jeihco. By teaching breakdance, rap, graffiti, and DJing to the young children of Comuna 13, the older artists are giving the younger generations a way of expressing and empowering themselves. In order to finance their efforts, the group of artists has started giving tours of Comuna 13 to tourists. By inviting people from across the world to visit their community, the young artists have also turned themselves into ambassadors for Colombian culture, its tumultuous history, and the transformative power of art. More than 5000 Kids have been in Casa Kolacho studying Hip-Hop. There are more than 1000 Rappers, 1000 Graffiti Artists, and over 1000 Breakdancers in Comuna 13, a resident reported in 2022. Given these numbers, it is hardly surprising that Comuna 13 has earned itself international fame for its beautiful murals, making it one of the most Instagrammable locations in the entire city.

 

The Magical Transformation of Comuna 13

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Comuna 13, photographed by Reiseuhu, 2019, Source: Unsplash

 

But it wasn’t just the local artists who transformed their neighborhood. In 2013, the government installed a series of cable cars, making the steep hills more accessible to residents and tourists. By doing so, Medellín, which is also known as the City of Eternal Spring due to its year-round warm weather, proved that investments in infrastructure also had a positive effect on violence rates. Today, Comuna 13 is still ruled by gangs. And yet, hip-hop has given the new generations an alternative to a life defined by violence and crime. Its colorful streets filled with murals and art have attracted a constant stream of tourists, which has served to bring more prosperity to the residents of the neighborhood. When asked, most residents of Comuna 13 will tell you that they are proud to live here.

 

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Magical Realism Graffiti in Comuna 13, Guilherme Parol, 2022, Source: Via Estação Conhecimento

 

The story of San Javier and its people serves as a living example of how art can transform the lives of people, by bringing them together over a message of peace and resilience. Walking through Comuna 13 feels like walking through an open-air museum that is incredibly alive. You will find breakdancers dancing to the newest beat while rap artists and the graffiti on the walls of the neighborhood tell the story of the violence and beauty that has defined the community. Many around the world still associate this South American nation with drug trafficking and Pablo Escobar, its rich culture is a testament to the power of this wild and magical place. After all, Colombia has not only given the world Shakira but it has also given birth to the magical realist writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who won the Nobel Prize in 1982.

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By Agnes Theresa OberauerBA Drama & PhilosophyAgnes Theresa completed her BA in Drama and Philosophy at the Royal Holloway University of London in 2014 and is currently finishing her MA in Physical Theatre Performance Making at the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre. She works internationally as a writer, performance artist, theatre director, and performer. Born in Austria, she has lived in six countries (Russia, Ukraine, Austria, Germany, Estonia, and the UK) and traveled many more, always seeking to expand her horizons and challenge her preconceptions. Her interests range from Greek philosophy to capoeira, posthumanism, and Nietzsche.