Today I took the famous Graffiti Tour of Comuna 13 in Medellin. It is a place full of art and a harsh history of violence, but also social transformation. The people of this community has a powerful lesson to teach the world about hope, teamwork, and entrepreneurial spirit.
To understand the graffiti tour is necessary to know about Comuna 13. It used to be one of the most deprived areas of Medellin and is conformed by 19 sub-neighborhoods. For its geographical location close to the Pacific Ocean, guerillas groups used it as easy access for transporting drugs and guns to other regions of the country. At the beginning of '2000s, the government started to pay attention to the social and economic activities of Comuna 13 and organized military missions against the illegal groups that left hundreds of innocent victims.
The Mariscal Operation: On May 21st of 2002, the government of Colombia organized a mission called The Mariscal Operation, "Operación Mariscal," in which members of the military had a confrontation with guerillas in a shooting that lasted twelve hours. The people of the 'comuna' were hiding in their houses, but the bullets transferred the walls killing families and children. In the middle of the shooting, an elderly woman took a white cloth from the window as a signal of peace. The neighbors started to do the same, pulling out white sheets asking war participants to stop. The military left that day but made a deal with the paramilitary (another illegal group). The government would not attack them. Instead, they would become collaborators in the war against guerillas.
The Orion Operation: Orion was probably the most robust mission that the government organized against the gangsters of Comuna 13 and the guerillas' members that were hiding there. This time the military came back accompanied by paramilitaries, war tanks, and more futile weapons. It left 82 dead people, 80 people injured, 12 tortured people and the other 92 disappeared.
Between 2002 and 2003, the government could decrease the number of criminals significantly in Comuna 13 and the drug business, but the war left a total of 600 victims.
Transformation of the community: The community never forgets the loss of their loved ones. However, they have transformed their neighborhoods with beautiful art in their walls that tell the story that they lived. They have worked together and have created small businesses in which they sell paintings, t-shirts with representative drawings of the war, craft beers, and high-quality coffee.
Seven years ago, the government of Japan gave a gift to the city. It was the building of electric stairs in Comuna 13. Before this construction, people had to climb up 300 stairs to go from their job places to their houses. It was because the area is located in a mountain. Now their life quality has improved as they have easier access to public transportation. Hundreds of tourists from all over the world go every day to visit this place and pay to see the graffiti tour. It is impressive to see that there is a business in each house; people love to create products and sell them. They show that violence could not stop them from dreaming and creating better opportunities for themselves.
"It makes me happy to see my son playing outside and riding his bike, that is a privilege that the kids of my generation, and I did not have. We had to be inside our houses all the time because it wasn't safe to play in the streets. The Graffiti Tour project has opened opportunities for the whole community, and it has received the support of the city hall and other institutions". Explained to me Sandra, the tour guide.
By visiting the Comuna 13 today, I learned that nothing is as powerful as the willingness to build a better future and the love that a community can have for its members.