Finding peace in Medellín
How do you find peace in a city rife with crime and violence?
During the 1980s and most of the 1990s Medellín had the reputation of being one of the most violent cities in the world. It was the unofficial ‘capital’ of Colombia’s infamous drugs trade and the base for the most famous of its cartels, led by Pablo Escobar. As well as exporting vast quantities of cocaine to the US and elsewhere, the cartel (and others like it in the country) was heavily involved in terrorism and paramilitary activities.
At the same time the population of the city was swelling, as large numbers of the rural poor fled the countryside, displaced from their lands by the drug cartels and coming to the city in search of work. They settled on the hillsides around the city in makeshift homes unconnected to utilities such as water and electricity supplies. When an uneasy peace was established in Colombia, and Medellín began to develop as an industrial and business hub, the people in these areas were left isolated, unable to benefit from the growing prosperity. A gulf was opening up between the haves and have-nots of Medellín. And there were inevitably high levels of both deprivation and crime.
It is only in recent years, under a forward-thinking mayor, that the lives of these people have improved. He saw that the way to increase the overall well-being and prosperity of the city was to start with its poorest inhabitants. If they were able to work and contribute to the city’s economy, while also benefitting from its resources, it would be better for everyone. So he initiated anti-violence campaigns and community improvement initiatives. Every comuna, as the city’s districts are termed, was to have its own community centre where people could meet, take adult education classes and access arts and culture. And key to his programme was the development of a transport infrastructure. New metro lines, trams, cable cars and even an escalator now enable people from these districts to access job opportunities all over the city. Good public transport helps them to feel connected rather than isolated.
Today some of these comunas are vibrant places to live and visit, and even the poorest are starting on the path that their more affluent neighbours have followed. On our recent visit to the city we went with our guide to two rather different comunas. There we saw for ourselves how the people of this once violent city are finding peace.
I’m very aware that these crowded and in places still marginalised communities are not what Tina had in mind for this week’s Lens Artists challenge, when she proposed that we share how we ourselves find peace. No, I didn’t find peace here myself, as the locals have done, but I did find inspiration. Having been involved in some social inclusion projects in the UK in the past, how could I not be inspired by seeing first-hand one of the biggest and most successful such projects in the world?
A stroll around Comuna Una
To visit Comuna Una we used one of several cable car lines that link these districts to the city centre. Here they are only just starting to welcome visitors, keen to benefit from the economic benefits they will bring. I’m sure Jo will find a Monday Walk here of interest.
With our guide Jean (visiting with a guide is strongly recommended) we walked up from the station past some simple shops and houses of varying quality to a viewpoint over the district. Jean pointed out the community centres built so that people could meet and get involved in social events, art classes etc. You can see one on the hillside near the top of my photo below.
We then looped around the hillside to a small café with an even better view. From here and other points in the comuna you can see the city spread through the valley far below. Today that city is easy to reach, thanks to the cable cars, metro system and trams. But only a few years ago it would have seemed like another world, far out of reach despite its proximity.
As part of their efforts to welcome visitors the community is beginning to encourage street artists, and we saw a sprinkling of great pieces.
We also encountered some of the locals. It was a Saturday and children were playing in the streets and in the simple playground near the cable car station. A man near there was offering pony rides, reminding me of those I’d enjoyed on donkeys on English beaches as a small child. One young man stopped to talk to us, welcoming us to Medellín and to his home area. He happily posed for a photo when I asked.
A stroll around Comuna 13
By contrast, Comuna 13 is much further along its transformation journey. Jean described how this comuna had suffered when the government sent in tanks and troops to clear the district of guerrilla groups, with innocent locals killed in the fighting. Control of the area then passed to paramilitary groups, but more recently people have been able to take back control of their community and their lives. They had encouraged street artists as a way of lifting the district’s fortunes, opening it up to tourism. We only had to look around us to see that the strategy had worked.
When we visited it was lively with tourist groups as well as locals out enjoying the start of their Saturday night socialising and drinking. We walked around soaking up the atmosphere, then started to descend via a series of escalators. These are perhaps the most celebrated of the innovations brought in to improve access to these hillside communities.
There is street art everywhere, but also crowds of visitors. Unlike Comuna 1, where we stood out as tourists, here it almost seemed as if it were the locals who were out of place. Maybe for some of them change has come too quickly and is something of a mixed blessing? Do they welcome the boost to their economy, the opportunities to open businesses that make money from the many ‘graffiti tours’ run here? Or do they find their lives too disrupted by those who come to stare and photograph? Just as I did, of course! Here’s a selection of my favourite works for Natalie’s Photographing Public Art challenge. The first few are all segments of a very large piece depicting the recent history of the comuna.
Looking around Comuna 13, and to a lesser extent Comuna 1, it’s easy today to forget how recently this city was a battleground, with various factions fighting for control here. Today’s Medellín is a very different city, whose inhabitants seem (for now at least) to have found peace.
I visited Medellín in February 2023
Excellent. My youngest daughter is a development consultant. She once did a study on Medellín, where indeed, the new transportation systems were critical in “unlocking” the poorest communities…
(Having said that, there are areas in Bogotá where I don’t go. Not even by day… violence in Colombia remains. Sadly)
That must have been an interesting study – I’m glad her findings bore out the claims made ‘on the ground’. But you’re right to say that violence remains an issue. There was an area in the centre that our guide skirted around, saying we shouldn’t go there while carrying cameras. I thought maybe he was being over-cautious but I later saw warnings about that area on several websites. But then, there are cities all over the world that have ‘no go’ areas for visitors.
Your guide did the right thing. There are places in Paris I don’t go. (And I almost got mugged in le Marais broad daylight a coupla years ago…) (Shaking my head… LOL)
I’m glad to know that Medellin is now a calmer, safer, and more liveable city. Your photos of the street art and people make the place come alive.
It still has its more dangerous areas (much like any big city) but is a lot safer than it used to be for sure!
Wonderful street art, Sarah! I especially liked the one of the woman with blue light coming out of her eyes.
Thanks so much Siobhan – that one is a favourite of mine too 😀
philosophy through photographyPhilo
Love those wall graffitis
Thank you for sharing
Thank you 🙂 More art than graffiti, I would suggest?
Thank you for sharing this story, Sarah! Inspiring post with beautiful photos. It reminds the villages we visited in Peru.
Thank you Amy, I’m happy that you found this inspiring, as I did. I don’t remember anything much like this in Peru but our visit there was many years ago. What area of that country are you reminded of?
I meant how people connect with one another, chating with older people, how kid playing…
Oh yes, that’s so often the case in poorer communities. Maybe people need and value those connections more, or maybe they have fewer luxuries to distract them from building relationships?
What an interesting place and story! Thanks so much for sharing!
Thank you Teresa, I’m pleased you found this interesting 🙂
Medellín – the very ring of the name – used to send chills in my body and soul. I did not know of this transormation – thank you for giving us your picture of it, and bless that one person who understood, and started working on “peace” for yhe citizens. Looking forward to seeing and hearing more about this!
Thank you Ann Christine 🙂 I’m so pleased I was able to give you an updated and more positive image of Medellin. I’ll share something of the city centre too very soon.
It’s so sad when the people of a city get caught in the middle of something so big and terrible like that. So glad that it’s the beginning of something better for them.
Yes absolutely – the ordinary people of Colombia have suffered enough
Aletta - nowathome
What an interesting post and a wonderful take on the prompt Sarah. The interesting history and the colourful marals are just amazing. Thanks for sharing.
Thanks so much Aletta 😊 I’m glad you found this interesting and enjoyed the murals!
Aletta - nowathome
That’s a very interesting way of looking at the pun ‘finding peace’ (because I doubt whether I will find peace in such a big city), but you’re probably spot on with this one Sarah. From your story and photos, it appears that the locals of these poor areas are better off than they were. Uplifting of a community is normally the way to go forward. Thank you for the detailed history on Medellín and your photos of the beautiful and colourful street art.
Thank you, I’m glad you understood what I was getting at with this post 🙂 I’ll show you the city centre soon!
lots of vibrant colour there!
Thank you Graham 🙂
Great post Sarah and we’ll researched. As I’ve not heard of these towns before it’s interesting to read about them. As you say I wonder if everyone is happy with hoards of people gawking at them, but at least they are not forgotten now and can showcase some of their wonderful talents through art. The cable car looks heart stopping!
Thanks so much Alison 😊 I love a cable car ride but have never had one in so urban a setting!
I do too actually, we’ve had quite a few when I think about it
Well Sarah you are right, NOT what I was expecting but a clever twist of the challenge to fit your post! Very interesting and informative. I loved the street art and it’s great to hear and see what is being done to improve the lives of so many. Thanks for sharing with us!
Thank you Tina, I’m glad you found this interesting and enjoyed the street art even though it wasn’t what you had in mind for this theme!
Gorgeous photos to a gorgeous story. Glad things are on the up! And as i said last post – those colours!!
Colour everywhere in Colombia, Anna!
Mike and Kellye Hefner
Oh, what a wonderful world we would have if so many other cities/countries would follow Medellin’s example. I adore the public transportation for all and the community outreach centers. The street art is fabulous. Thanks for a super interesting post, Sarah!
So glad you liked this Kellye 😀 And yes, it would be wonderful if more cities were run on these lines!
This was so interesting, Sarah. I think it definitely speaks to finding peace. As peace is inside all of us. Fantastic to think there was a vision to make changes, and there was follow through. They seem like a proud people. Beautifying it with murals and impressive graffiti shows their efforts. As you know, I always love that you show the true culture of a place through its people. and took time to talk with some people as well. Very nice. Finding peace indeed.
Thank you so much Donna 😊 I’m glad you saw how this relates to the ‘finding peace’ theme, and you’re right about peace being inside all of us. The people here now have the opportunity to feel that peace which in the past must have seemed a distant dream.
Yes, sometimes I think we forget how lucky we are. To think, for some, basic needs are a dream.
It is interesting to see and read your experience in Communa 13. We didn’t visit it, mostly because it sounded like there were more tourists than locals, which sounds like what you saw. The city has had such a great transformation though, it was so impressive to witness. Maggie
Yes, that’s definitely true of Comuna 13. I loved it for the street art but it did feel more touristy than I’d expected and of the two I found Comuna 1 more authentic and interesting to visit 🙂
I can’t remember which one we went to, but it was still very transitional and I was glad to have a guide!
So many parts of South and Central America have a parallel history having had a tough time recovering from the depths of control by drug lords. However I’ve previously read many good things about Medellin (in fact we have an open invitation to visit from some fellow travel bloggers) and we’re keen to get there. Everything in this post has enhanced that, soaking up the progress of transition from the worst of the history sounds as fascinating as I thought it would be. Great and informative post, Sarah.
In some ways Medellin was my favourite of the places we visited, although Cartagena would give it a good run for its money in terms of interesting history and of course is prettier 😀 I’m sure you’d love it here and be as interested as I was in its recent transformation. Lots to see in the city centre too, which I’ll share soon!
Thank you, Sarah, for your PPAC contribution and a thoughtful post. I like that the murals are colourful and edgy. The houses and street art on the hillsides remind me of Valparaiso in Chile. Once again you captured the local people very well.
Thanks Natalie. I know what you mean about Valparaiso, and as there, these murals have brought tourists and their spending money to a previously run-down area 🙂
This is an engaging and inspiring story. And finding peace is clearly all relative, because those pictures of an apparently unending city bring feelings that are anything but peaceful in me!
Thank you Margaret 🙂 I guess there’s a distinction between feeling peaceful, which I agree you’re unlikely to do here, and having a situation of peace as opposed to war, which these places thankfully do have.
And which is no doubt plenty good enough for people who’ve had war as a backdrop to their lives,
Thank heavens for forward thinking mayors. Those kids look like kids should, playing on the streets with no worries. Long may that continue. Many thanks for the link, Sarah.
Yes, those kids were having a great time playing chase I think 🙂
That was so inspiring. Thankyou so very much for sharing.
So glad you liked it Yvonne!