High above the city of Medellin, Colombia, sits Comuna 13. Walking up the brightly colored rainbow of stairs that leads into Comuna 13, you almost wouldn’t realize all that this area and its resilient citizens have been through in recent years.
Once one of the most dangerous and crime-ridden neighborhoods in all of Latin America, Comuna 13 is now a thriving community that is a model for urban transformation. So, how did this community go from gang violence and drug trafficking to a safe haven for families and tourists alike?
Comuna 13 was formally established in the 1970s as part of an effort by the Medellin government to provide housing for those who had been displaced by an earthquake. However, due to its location on a steep hillside, the area was largely cut off from public services and quickly became a hotbed for crime. By the 1990s, Comuna 13 was considered to be one of the most dangerous places on Earth.
Despite the crime and difficulties experienced here, the residents of Comuna 13 were determined to devise a way to end the violence and turn things around for the town that they loved. Around 2003, they began establishing art programs, dance crews, and various youth programs that could provide alternative forms of expression for kids that were safe, positive, and productive. Following the turnaround, the government additionally assisted with the construction of a new escalator system that linked the neighborhood's upper and lower sections to help with tourism efforts. This made it much easier for residents to get around and also created a sense of pride and ownership among residents.
Additionally, in 2006, a series of murals were painted throughout Comuna 13 as part of an initiative to beautify the area and make it more inviting for tourists. The project was so successful that it sparked a Graffiti Tour movement, which has since grown to include other areas of Medellin.
Since then, Comuna 13 has become a popular tourist destination, known for its street art, music, and friendly locals. It is also home to some of the best views in the city, where visitors can appreciate stunning panoramas of Medellin's green mountainside setting. Local artists have brought new life to Comuna 13, and its transformation is an inspiring example of what is possible when people come together to create positive change.
One of these positive changemakers that we had the opportunity to meet during our time sourcing coffee in Colombia is Rodolfo. Rodolfo has begun a special movement in Comuna 13 with the help of his followers that works to transform the area into a mecca for art lovers all over the world. A local art gallery that Rodolfo takes us into has colorful artwork plastered all over the walls, including a beautiful rendering of the famous coffee character Juan Valdez, a fictional person representing the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia but who has become a global icon for Colombian coffee over the years.
The Where Coffee Takes You Crew had an opportunity to sit down with Rodolfo during our tour and learn more about his life and his background in this remarkable community.
“First, I see he knows a lot of people in the neighborhood. And I want to thank him for not only giving us the tour but really immersing us with all the people in the community,” remarks Kirk. “But what would be more interesting would be how his life was growing up from the beginning.”
As we sit and intently listen to the translator’s response, we learn that sadly Rodolfo’s father was killed during a campaign that the infamous drug lord, Pablo Escobar, ran where $100 was offered to every person who killed one of the local cops in the area. This loss left him and his family grief-stricken and Rodolfo growing up without a father.
As we continue to learn more about Rodolfo’s background growing up in Comuna 13, Kirk asks “What incidents really triggered him to really give back. What are some things that really made an impact?”
“Many. That’s the truth,” says Rodolfo, “When I was growing up with my friends, there was a moment where all of a sudden all the friends weren't around anymore. They’ve all been killed. Many of them. For real. From this neighborhood.” he continues, explaining, “Being here gives my life meaning. It inspires me.”
Following our visit and upon learning Rodolfo’s powerful story, it’s impossible to not leave Comuna 13 with an overwhelming respect and appreciation for the strength and resilience of the residents here following everything the community has been through during the Escobar drug wars.
Comuna 13 is living proof that even the most dangerous and crime-ridden neighborhoods can be transformed into thriving communities. Thanks to the resilience of the local residents and ambitious urban transformation projects led by inspiring people like Rodolfo, this once-dangerous place is now safe for families and tourists alike. If you find yourself in Medellin, Colombia, be sure to check out Comuna 13 for yourself—you won't be disappointed!