Light spills onto the congested streets, casting shadows on the murals that envelop timeworn buildings with a halo of vibrant color. The street art here is not the usual graffiti tag, it is thought provoking and quite deep. The artistry is apparent. It is the kind of art one has to pause to interpret and ponder for a bit.
Indigenous children in brightly colored clothing stare with their eyes like bright moons. Painted on the old bricks of a slanted building, a woman stands proudly. There is a dove resting on her shoulder, and brightly colored sneakers on her right side, and a chess piece to her left. Our tour guide explains that the end goal is peace (the dove), and it takes strategy (the chess piece) and following your path (the sneakers) to achieve one’s goal. I look at the proud woman in this mural, she symbolizes all I have felt from Colombian people; their dignity and undeniable strength.
The walk up Comuna 13 is terribly steep, my knees have this dull throbbing ache in them, I am in shape but feel wrecked. Living in the hills is living in a place with difficult access to anywhere else in the city.It is remarkable how the people here coped without the escalators and cable cars that are now accessible to all residents. Now things in this barrio are better. Lively bars line the narrow streets, vendors sell arepas with warm smiles, and art galleries attract crowds of tourists.
There are a group of street dancers contorting their bodies, a mirage of sweaty figures and rhythm. Rich powder blue mountains engulf the barrio, an unfamiliar feeling sweeps over me. I am in the midst of this buzzing city but I have such a feeling of calmness from being within nature’s grasp. The mountains hold me gently and the chaos of the city becomes easy to embrace. A type of meditation.
The same hills that provide this sense of beauty are simultaneously the same hills that acted as a fortress for the guerillas, the paramilitary, and gangs. The narrow streets, dense population, and tall lookouts made this an ideal territory for gang activity with little to no consequence. Less than nine years prior, these same streets gave birth to 243 homicides and earned the title of Medellin’s most dangerous neighborhood. There were ‘invisible borders’ where these opposing groups took hold of the land, and if one crossed these lines it would result in death.
Thousands of children were unable to attend school due to these invisible borders and residents became displaced from extreme violence. Colombia Reports states that “While Medellin’s average homicide rate had been steady around 170 per 100,000 inhabitants around the turn of the century, the homicide rate in the Comuna 13 tripled between 1997 and 2002, going from a relatively low 123 to a staggering 357. In that same period, forced displacement went from three cases to 1259.”
The development of infrastructure and investment in social urbanism is what broke the vicious cycle of poverty and extreme violence. In the nineties, residents organized to fight for basic services like electricity and clean water. When basic survival needs were met, residents then began to press for access to the rest of Medellin. Being located so high in the hills isolated them from the central part of the city, creating a lack of resources and jobs. In 1996, cable cars were created after the implementation of the metro to connect this comuna to the rest of Medellin, opening a plethora of opportunities. Accessibility matters. Public transportation is crucial to the becoming of Medellin.
International teachers came to educate barrio children and teach them English, many classes had 70 students for every teacher. The 23-year-old young man, Esteban, who gave us the tour of Comuna 13, said he would have never had the opportunity to make money or frankly survive without his education. Many barrio children were swept into gangs because the government abandoned them, they had no sense of structure in their lives, and this work became their form of organized chaos.
The new recruits had a job that paid them, they were in a community where they could be respected, and their leaders cared for them more than the government did. Thankfully, when Esteban grew up he had a sustainable form of structure because he had classes to attend, teachers for guidance, resources for help. Many of his older cousins are dead because they did not have access to schools at the time, only the streets.
Uvas were developed, which are recreational centers containing basketball courts, soccer fields, swimming pools and dance studios. Parque Biblioteca was built to provide students with computers to use, tutors to teach them computer skills, and access to new books. Community centers like Cada Vida were made to teach women about financial freedom. The investment in social urbanism in developing areas gave residents like the ones in Comuna 13 a chance to redefine themselves and re-write history.
This was the fight for life, a story of resilience in the face of mass murder and government failure. When people have the capability to survive, they do not need to kill each other and themselves for a few dollars. Crazy concept, right?