In January 2009, on my third full day in Medellín, I took the metrocable from the San Javier metro station to La Aurora in Comuna 13.
The metrocable to La Aurora was new at the time, having just opened the year before. There wasn’t much to see at the top, aside from a distant view of the city, so after asking a police officer to take my photo, I went back down.
It was only later that I learned Comuna 13 was the most dangerous district in Medellín, plagued by a recent history of violence at the hands of guerrillas, paramilitary groups, drug cartels and local gangs.
I would take the metrocable to La Aurora on only one other occasion, a month or two later, to visit a Colombian Couchsurfing friend who lived nearby. And the only other time I’ve gone to San Javier since 2009 was to celebrate New Year’s Eve at the end of 2012.
According to 2005 statistics, Comuna 13 is home to a little over 134,000 people, 65 percent of whom are 39 years of age or younger.
In addition to being a younger population, Comuna 13 is also predominantly in the lower economic strata (on a scale of 1 to 6).
It breaks down as follows:
- 35.7 percent of households in Strata 1
- 30.9 percent in Strata 3
- 27.7 percent in Strata 2
- 5.7 percent in Strata 4
San Javier is mostly residential, occupying a hilly area at the western edge of the city. It is one of the most densely populated areas of the city.
In the last 15 to 20 years, Comuna 13 has been an epicenter of violence and struggle for criminal control within the Medellín valley. As a result, residents of all ages have been caught in the crossfire, and forcibly displaced from their homes.
It has long been an area of strategic importance to guerrilla and paramilitary groups, as well as gangs looking to control the San Juan Highway leading west out of the city (and north to the Caribbean coast). Control the highway, and you control the illegal goods flowing in and out of Medellín, and much of Colombia.
On October 16, 2002 the Colombian military launched the controversial Operation Orion to remove left-wing rebels from the area. While successful in that regard, their presence was almost immediately replaced by a paramilitary group lead by “Don Berna,” an heir of Pablo Escobar.
In 2010, more than 10 percent of the city’s 2,019 homicides occurred there.
On September 21, 2010, Juanes, a Grammy-winning singer and Medellín native, organized a free concert to promote peace in Comuna 13. He was joined by J Balvin, Jowell & Randy and other artists.
The violence also lead local hip hop artists to begin speaking out, with unfortunately sad and tragic consequences.
In trying to save their communities through their words, music and art, they drew the wrath of the gangs, with no less than 10 hip hop artists murdered since 2009. Dozens more were forced to flee their homes.
Points of Interest
There’s still little reason for tourists to visit Comuna 13 outside of a ride on the metrocable, or to see the new outdoor escalator.
Both were established to improve residents’ access to the city, and have contributed to the Medellín’s international acclaim for urban renewal.
The metrocable is easily accessed from the San Javier metro station, at no additional cost. If you get out of the metrocable at La Aurora, you’ll be treated to some nice views of the city, but you’ll also then need to buy a return metro ticket.
A series of six covered escalators rising 400 meters up a very steep residential neighborhood seem to be a big deal, but it’s hardly the first time escalators have been used in this way.
In the mid 1990s, the 800-meter Mid-Levels Escalator was constructed on Hong Kong Island to serve a similar purpose.
The escalators can be accessed visa a short bus ride from the San Javier metro station.
I’m told the area immediately around the San Javier metro station is generally safe, as is taking a ride on the metrocable to/from La Aurora. I’m less sure about the escalators, though like the metro, there are plenty of police stationed around them.
I recommend visiting during the day, and preferably with at least one other person (Colombian if possible). This is not an area you want to be around once the sun goes down.
While you probably will not run into any problems, it’s safe to say as a foreigner in this part of the city, you will be noticed. If you want to take photos, do so subtlety.
Don’t walk around like this guy shooting video stating you’re in the most dangerous part of the city over and over again.
Special Reader Discount
Use discount code MLTOURS when booking your tour of Comuna 13 online with Medellín City Services and save 20 percent! If booking by phone or email, you can mention it as well.