Many Americans still ask if it’s safe to travel to Colombia. Their vision of this visually stunning and culturally rich nation is rooted in past decades when violent drug cartels run by infamous leaders such as Pablo Escobar ruled the streets of the country’s major cities and when left-wing guerrilla groups dominated large swaths of the rural countryside. This is part of a complicated history that many Colombians have tried to put behind them, even though popular TV productions such as Netflix’s “Narcos” have made turning the page more difficult. Over the past two decades, Colombia’s citizens (often in spite of their government’s actions) have made great strides in creating safer communities where the country’s rich heritage and wealth of cultural diversity are now on full display.

Medellin born artist Fernando Botero’s painting of a dead Pabo Escobar. Photo: Henry Lewis via the Botero Museum, Bogotá.

Colombia’s Past is fading but not forgotten

A decades-long period of political instability began soon after the assassination of presidential candidate Jorge Eliecer Gaitán in Colombia’s capital, Bogotá, in 1948. By the 1980s and ’90s,  government chaos, a lack of security and rampant corruption led to the formation of extremely powerful and rich drug cartels that supplied a booming cocaine market in the USA.

The two most legendary drug cartels were based in  Medellín and Cali, Colombia’s second and third most populous cities respectively. Previously, much of the violence raged in the countryside where millions of farmers and their families were displaced, many fleeing to the outskirts of cities. In the ’80s and ’90s, the dynamics changed with the added stake in controlling profitable cocaine transit corridors worth billions of dollars, and the bloody violence spread to many of the country’s major cities.

What newcomers see today is a far cry from 1990s Medellín when the city was labeled with the unenviable distinction of being the murder capital of the world, thanks in no small part to Pablo Escobar’s control of the Medellín cartel and its constant feud with the rival cartel in Cali. The drug lords were at times in conflict with, and at other times in cahoots with, right-wing paramilitary groups sponsored by some of the government’s most powerful politicians as well as some of the country’s largest corporations.

Beginning in 2000, the US Government, along with the CIA working within Colombia’s borders, pumped billions of dollars into helping security forces (yes, the same ones who were often supporting right-wing death squads) defeat the old Communist threat posed by the FARC and other left-wing guerrilla groups. The US initiative, named Plan Colombia, would later be criticized for helping Colombian authorities to carry out murder, displacement and other human rights abuses.

View to the north from one of the steep slopes in the heart of Medellin’s Comuna 13. Photo: Henry Lewis

Comuna 13’s Amazing Story

A prime example of Medellín’s (and the country’s) dramatic transformation is Comuna 13, a neighborhood that clings to the mountain slopes on the western edge of the city. The neighborhood, also known as San Javier, is one of the city’s 16 numbered districts and has a population of around 135,000 very determined souls who have proven that it’s possible to turn what was once a war zone into a booming tourist destination.

During the second half of the 20th century, settler-created neighborhoods such as Comuna 13 sprang up on the edges of Colombia’s cities as poor rural farmers and their families were forced to flee the violence in the countryside for the relatively safer conditions in urban areas. With little money or government aid, the displaced masses built illegal homes on steep mountain slopes (land deemed too unstable for construction by local governments) just outside official city boundaries. This meant these poor neighborhoods had little access to public services such as electricity, water, transit, medical care or public education.

Location, location, location

Medellin’s Comuna 13 (San Javier) is situated on a steep mountain side on the western edge of the city. Neighborhoods such as this are often more prone to mudslides and earthquake hazards due to the difficult terrain and lack of building code enforcement.

As if living in abject poverty and without municipal services wasn’t a harsh enough fate, the isolation of these illegal districts made them attractive for the establishment of criminal networks since it was difficult for police to mount raids in areas without street access. Comuna 13’s location near a main highway linking Medellín to the Caribbean coast further sealed its fate as an illicit drug transit corridor. Still, prior to the mid-1990s, the homicide rate in Comuna 13 was lower than that of the city of Medellín as a whole.

This all changed in the late 1990s when paramilitary groups decided to root out (and take over) the drug operations of the neighborhood’s already established gangs. This full-scale war terrorized the citizens of Comuna 13 as the homicide rate tripled between 1997 and 2002, going from a relatively low 123 to a frighteningly high 357 per 100,000 population. Those statistics made Comuna 13 the most dangerous neighborhood in what was considered, at the time, to be the world’s most dangerous city.

A mural in Comuna 13 representing both the scars of the past and resident’s hope for a brighter future. Photo: Henry Lewis

During this period, the daily violence between rival gangs in this single neighborhood led to the forced displacement of more than 1,200 individuals and families who had to once again flee from their homes in search of a safer environment. However, fate had yet to deliver the almost fatal blow to a population of already beleaguered residents.

Detail of a neighborhood mural depicting the destruction brought by Operation Orion, a 4-day government attack on organized crime in Comuna 13 that also terrorized the trapped innocent residents. Photo: Henry Lewis

In October of 2002, the Colombian military, working with the CIA and American government funding, launched Operation Orion attacking leftist guerrillas living in Comuna 13. During the siege, the skies over Comuna 13 were filled with helicopters and the streets were filled with gunfire. More than 1,000 policemen and soldiers attacked the neighborhood. Innocent civilians were caught in the crossfire, wounded, tortured, and detained by authorities.

he  2002 operation became known for the widespread human rights violations it generated. But it is far from the only controversial military campaign during Colombia’s five-decade-long war, which was amped up in the 2000s with a U.S. security assistance package known as Plan Colombia that injected more than $10 billion into the bloody war over the course of 15 years.

Angelika Albaladejo, Huffington Post

During the conflict, residents banded together helping to care for those unable to seek medical attention. The community reacted together in solidarity, waving white flags, and calling for peace. It was this decisive act that finally ended the fighting on the fourth day. Many residents were killed, including children, but exact numbers are unknown. Many more disappeared and recent searches have located mass burial sites nearby that may contain hundreds of bodies disposed of during and immediately after Operation Orion.

A mural in Comuna 13 showing Donald Duck and his ‘golden vape’  which represents the attitudes of many residents toward continued American interference in Colombian affairs. It speaks directly to the use of American funds in Colombian military campaigns that have terrorized communities such as Comuna 13. Photo: Henry Lewis

A continuing work in progress

Following these traumatizing events, local residents slowly began to rebuild from an operation praised by Colombian authorities as one of the most successful offensives against illegal armed groups to date. While the murder rate may have dropped the day after the operation ended, the suffering of the neighborhood’s residents lingered as they tried to rebuild their lives and community.

One of the most important infrastructure investments in Comuna 13 has been the construction of a series of escalators that climb the steep hillsides, enabling residents to easily connect with opportunities offered by the city of Medellin. Photo: Henry Lewis

Cycles of rebuilding followed and along with the changes came increased community cohesion along with a vision for the future. Over the past 10 years, development funds have provided infrastructure projects such as a metro train link on the ground, a metro cable system above and a series of escalators that climb the steep hillsides. These projects demonstrate the commitment by Medellín’s leaders to ensuring Comuna 13 residents are connected with the entire city along with the opportunities provided by such access.

The community’s desire for a peaceful future is represented in many of the street murals that cover the walls of structures in Comuna 13. Photo: Henry Lewis

Utilizing the talents of local creative artists has been a main focus of neighborhood revitalization. Retaining walls and other structures in Comuna 13 became giant canvases for street murals, many of which illustrate both the community’s past struggles and hope for a more peaceful future. Schools teaching art and other skills have been established to encourage and nurture this local talent.

Exterior mural on a school in Comuna 13. Photo: Henry Lewis

While the visual arts have had a dramatic effect, street music and an ever-evolving dance scene have also given the neighborhood’s youth creative outlets that didn’t exist in the past. Live performers give almost continuous daytime shows to the ever-growing throngs of tourists who flock to Comuna 13 each day. Cafes and restaurants owned and operated by locals – often from their own living rooms – have mushroomed along with guided tours of the neighborhood that tell emotionally powerful stories of local resilience.

Exterior mural on one of the many restaurants opened by residents of Comuna 13 that cater to the ever-growing number of tour groups that descend daily on the neighborhood. Photo: Henry Lewis

Rebuilding the social fabric of a neighborhood is no easy task and the residents of Medellín’s Comuna 13 have faced enormous challenges in transforming their neighborhood. Even though most businesses still close soon after dark and locals agree there’s still a lot of work still left to do, there’s no denying that the transformation from war zone to thriving tourist hub (at least during the day) has greatly improved the lives of those who call Comuna 13 home.

Scores of tourists join the organized tours as knowledgeable guides tell the stories of Comuna 13 residents. Tourism has become the neighborhood’s largest source of income. Photo: Henry Lewis

Final Words

Fully understanding the complexities of the conflicts that raged across Colombia for half a century is beyond the scope of this post. Suffice it say the current peace process within the country is grappling with ways to bring justice to victims without further tearing the country’s social fabric apart. The stakes are further heightened by one of Lain America’s highest rates of economic disparity.

Despite this and the many stumbling blocks that remain in the path of fully implementing a 2016 peace deal the government signed with some of the country’s largest guerrilla groups, I choose to be as optimistic as most of the Colombians are that I’ve met. If a burning desire by a nation’s people to live in peace and harmony is any measure, then Colombia surely has a bright future ahead.

peace~henry

 

Posted by Henry Lewis

Unconventional artist, writer, videographer and teacher. Personal Quote: It isn't easy being me ;-)

23 Comments

  1. Love this Henry. I visited Comuna 13 a couple of years ago and I loved it. It is a lesson in the power of local neighborhoods, cooperative relationships with local government, and the arts. What a wonderful success story.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Hi Kimmie,

      I remember you mentioning your visit to Comuna 13 either on your blog or in a past comment on here. Yes, Comuna 13’s success story is one of hope for humanity in general. Thanks for sharing your experience!

      Like

  2. Thanks for the historical insights on Colombia. The stories told in the brightly colored murals of Comuna 13 indicate that it’s possible for a community to recover after a crisis and to thrive. Beautiful photos, by the way 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Rosaliene,

      Yes, the murals are imbued with the powerful personal stories of the locals. BTW, I want to visit Guyana, both because it sounds like an interesting place to explore and because you’ve introduced us via your blog–Three Worlds, One Vision. Flying such a short distance is ridiculously expensive and land and sea options don’t really exist in the current regional political climate.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s great, Henry! I can’t advise you on the best and cheapest way to get there, since I haven’t returned to Guyana since 2001. At that time, I was living in Fortaleza, Northeast Brazil. It was a complicated trip that ended up in an overnight-stay in Suriname. On the return trip, I had to stay overnight in Belem, North Brazil. Perhaps, I could share that experience in a future post.

        Guyana has now embarked on its oil boom. No doubt, the country’s newfound wealth will transform the country.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. That would make an interesting post Rosaliene. I will be sure to let you know if I have the opportunity to visit Guyana.

        Like

  3. Great post. We visited one of the other poverty stricken neighborhoods in Medellin by one of the new metro-cable cars. What impressed us was not only how the city has re-built, but how proud Colombians are of the transformation.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for commenting M & R. Medellin and it’s people (and Antioqueños in general) are indeed very proud people.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Outstanding on all counts. Great photography. The colors snap!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks CJ. So happy you enjoyed!

      Like

  5. Seeing and learning about Comuna 13 ranks way up there as one of the most favorite adventures I’ve had with you. Thank you my dear friend for being my own personal guide in Colombia.

    One aspect of the community that really impresses me is the type of engagement they are getting from people beyond the immediate community. For example, the new escalators; not only do they improve access to and from the community, but they make an artistic statement at the same time. Note the orange painted metal panels above the escalators are riddled with holes, representing holes made by bullets.

    Each mural is rich with meaning and messaging. I was impressed with one of the murals which you’ve shared in this post, the one with the dark skinned lady whose face we see in three layers: skeleton, muscles and skin. It was painted by a surgeon (an artistic doctor – imagine that!) who wanted to convey that “underneath we are all the same”.

    Thank you for taking time to write about this. Comuna 13 is an inspirational example of a community remaking their identity and of people uniting to improve their lives collectively.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Kristy,

      Thanks for sharing those bits of information on the murals that I had forgotten. It was such a pleasure to have you with me when we visited Comuna 13! Let me know when you’re ready to plan your next adventure!

      Like

  6. This is a great story, notwithstanding the historical issue of what American involvement has done to places like this. Few Americans seem to know or care about the implications of our overseas ventures for the people who live there. The colorful murals, though, tell a brighter tale.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Ken,

      It’s true that many Americans don’t seem to be able to connect their country’s foreign policy mistakes to the current squabbling over immigration, especially relating to Latino immigrants. A review of American foreign policy going back to the 1980s Reagan administration would be a good place for them to start.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Thank you for this post. The history of Latin America is always tied in some way to the actions of the US. And while I know you are bringing the resiliency of the Columbian people to the forefront, I can’t help but comment that due to these actions many Columbians came to the US, sought and received asylum. The effects of US foreign policy and and those in power in those countries have created many people whose only choice is to leave or die. This continues to this day.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I couldn’t agree more @PPJ. That’s the reason I continue to speak out about the insanity of American foreign policy and the damage it’s wrought in places where I’ve lived and worked over the past 2 decades–especially in SE Asia, the Middle East and now Latin America. Thanks for sharing your insights!

      Like

  8. That was an interesting, educational, and inspiring story. I had heard and read bits and pieces of it over the years. It was helpful that you put them into context. I wish the people of the city and region much continued success.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Jim. I do as well.

      Like

  9. Thanks for telling the story of transformation and community in Medellin, Colombia. The murals are so beautiful. I hope they can be an initial source of healing for all the wrongs that can’t be put right. -Rebecca

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Rebecca,

      It really is nice to witness the amazing progress made by a community that came together to force positive change for residents. Art and music have played a key role in creating that atmosphere of solidarity. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. In the book I just read, Lost Connections, it talks about the power of community to heal and make social progress. Thanks for showing a powerful example with such outstanding creative work. Gracias, Rebecca

        Liked by 1 person

  10. A beautifully colorful place – you seemed to capture it with your bold photos! It is a shame that Americans are afraid to travel to places like Columbia and Mexico. They miss out on the beauty of the countries culture and people. I would love to see the Botero Museum! Great post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree wholeheartedly. Latin America in general is filled with color and life, and could never be boring. If you’re interested in Botero, large selections of his work can be seen at both the Museum of Antioquia in Medellin and the Art Collection of the Bank of the Republic in Bogota (the latter collection being mainly paintings).

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