Escalating to Peace: How a Simple Investment Helped Change the Face of Colombia’s Most Dangerous Neighbourhood

Comuna 13, also known as San Javier, used to be the most dangerous part of Medellín, cut off from the rest of the city and a place to avoid by all means. An ambitious infrastructure project has changed that, turning the district in a tourist destination.

We go up on the bright orange escalators, admiring the work of graffiti artists around us. “Just a second!”, Fernanda says. She forgot to take a picture, so she goes back down, shoots, and comes up again where the rest of the group is waiting. Fernanda, in her 50s, is Colombian, but currently lives in Spain. This is the first time in 11 years that she visits her hometown, Medellín.

She had avoided coming back to the city where she grew up – the Colombian capital of violence and drug lords, devastated by armed conflict for over 60 years. Some old friends wanted to show Fernanda how Medellín has changed, so they took her on a graffiti tour of the particularly infamous neighbourhood of Comuna 13, organised by the hip hop collective Casa Kolacho.

Once a slum at a crossroad between the urban settlement and the countryside, this district used to be a separate world altogether. Controlled by guerrillas first and paramilitary groups later, it was a place where Colombian government officials (at any level) never set foot. Comuna 13 lacked basic services and security. In 2002, the homicide rate doubled Medellín’s average: 357 people killed per 100,000 inhabitants, compared to 177.

Reaching the Top

However, significant improvements turned Fernanda’s visit into a pleasant surprise. In 2011, along with locals’ initiatives, the city council agreed to build a set of orange escalators to facilitate citizens’ access to the hill where Comuna 13 developed.

It made a huge difference, allowing residents and everybody else to reach the top in six minutes, rather than climb the equivalent of a 28-storey building. The 385-metre long, shopping mall-style, free to use# escalator opened in 2011 and cost about 6 million U.S. dollars. It worked as a bridge between Comuna 13 and the rest of the world and it certainly contributes to social cohesion in the whole city.

“This escalator represents a celebration for all of us as a city,” said then-mayor Salazar Jaramillo when it was officially opened. “This should be a symbol of city transformation and peace for Comuna 13.” The question is whether this is enough or not. If it is not, what is still missing?

Layered Histories

Given the conflict’s complicated levels of responsibility and involvement, everything in Colombia has multiple meanings. Including the escalators. The infrastructure project also can be seen as a ‘compensation’ attempt – aiming to remediate what happened previously.

As we ride up and down the hill, we learn about the struggles of the people living there. Indeed, the drawings are more than just beautiful: they are powerful and empowering. Every detail makes a statement: for instance, the elephants waving white flags represent the memory of those residents who waved white flags as a request for ceasefire during Operation Mariscal, a military intervention, in May 2002.

Their action resulted in a truce; it was a historical achievement. But Mariscal was just a prelude to the much larger Operation Orión in October 2002, when then-president Alvaro Uribe ordered a military offensive with the supposed goal of removing guerrilla groups from Medellín.

For the community, it was one of the most traumatic events of the entire conflict. According to non-profit website Colombia Reports, “the battle left hundreds of civilians injured” but “the amount of civilians killed remained unclear as official counts contradicted others and some civilian casualties were reported as guerrillas killed in combat” and, “additionally, approximately 70 people disappeared.”

Our guide, hip hop artist Tatam, points at the fragile walls: “Here they used helicopters to attack people inside their houses, which are made in very poor material so bullets can easily penetrate.”

A District Going Well

Now those walls are different: colourful and (to some degree) safer, because of people like Tatam, who embraced artistic culture and decided to spread love rather than violence. The image of Comuna 13 has gradually changed in the mind of visitors, too. Once known as the most dangerous area in Medellín, if not in the entire country, it has been going through some major changes since the time of Operation Orion, and it’s currently listed as a must-see for tourists.

“The last violence period was meant to end with ‘the pact of the rifles’ in 2012, an informal agreement between gangs (called ‘combos’),” says Jaime Andres Olarte Martinez, political scientist at Universidad Nacional de Colombia and researcher in Latin American political studies, who has been investigating Comuna 13 for over two years now. “But it rather looks like a pax romana because violence didn’t really stop, it just transformed itself and expresses itself in different forms such as extortions.”

According to Olarte Martinez, the escalators are not enough. He believes that “the State has to think about more means of inclusion, better way for Comuna 13 to access the productive life of the city, and increased safety.” “Comuna 13 deserves attention and support,” Olarte Martinez continues.

Meanwhile, responsible forms of tourism are increasing the popularity of the district that is working hard to adopt a cool vibe. Local singer Bomby is now a celebrity, after his song, “Estamos Melos” (“we are melos”), became the Colombian anthem during the 2018 football World Cup. According to the artist, the correct definition of melos is “to be well, to be calm with oneself and to share it with people.”

While residents are doing a great job at diverting from a painful history to a path of success, the escalators made this entire area accessible for the first time. And, what’s more, now that it has become that visible, the government can no longer forget about it. Everybody needs to stand by Comuna 13.

Emanuela Barbiroglio

Emanuela Barbiroglio is a freelance journalist. She holds a bachelor's degree in History and Anthropology and a master's degree in Information and Publishing. Emanuela also spent three years training in Germany, after which she studied Science Journalism at City University London. She then worked as a data journalist for Property Week, the UK’s leading weekly real estate magazine, doing investigations and turning complex datasets into stories. She recently moved to Brussels to write about social issues and science.
Emanuela Barbiroglio
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