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