An area of Medellín once considered one of the most violent and crime-ridden places in Latin America is emerging as an attractive spot for foreign tourists to explore the “transformation" of the city. The tourism boom is helping bring attention and funding to local initiatives against crime and violence, but ongoing gang activity and the commercialization of the community’s activism could hinder further progress.
Tourists traverse the winding path of bright orange escalators up the mountainside and past vivid graffiti murals spray-painted across nearly every home and business in sight. Hip hop music blares from a boombox somewhere off in the distance, and local residents look on as the foreigners snap photos of their neighborhood. The visitors sip beers, eat street food and follow a local guide narrating the various sites.
Their visit is casual and comfortable. But it would have been unthinkable just two decades ago.
Comuna 13, a collection of low-income neighborhoods built into a hillside in northeast Medellín, was once considered to be among the most dangerous places in the world. Now it's one of the city's hottest destinations for foreign tourists looking to immerse themselves in a unique culture that has resisted decades of violence through powerful artistic expressions.
In just twenty years, Medellín has gone from holding the mantle of the murder and organized crime capital of the world to luring in growing numbers of tourists.
Colombia’s tourism industry is currently booming following the end of the country’s five-decade-long armed conflict and the growing popularity of television shows like Netflix’s Narcos that dramatize the bloody reign of Pablo Escobar’s infamous Medellín drug cartel. In 2017, Colombia received more than 6.5 million foreign tourists, the most of any year in the country’s history, and the industry is expected to continue growing.
Amid this upswing in tourism, Comuna 13 is fast becoming a must-see spot for visitors seeking out experiences that put the “transformation” of Medellín -- and Colombia at large -- on display.
From Crime Hub to Tourist Attraction
Dressed in a baggy t-shirt and a snapback baseball cap, Dairo Andrés Hidalgo, better known by his rapper name “Kbala,” lounges on the patio outside of his budding new tour company and burger bar.
Kbala, a 27-year-old Comuna 13 rapper and community leader, has been guiding tourists through his neighborhood for more than six years. He says it fills him with pride to show off his community’s progress. But he still recalls how difficult it was growing up in the early 2000s, some of the area’s roughest years.
Lucrative drug and gun trafficking routes that run through Comuna 13 have long fueled violent clashes between gangs and other armed actors, including paramilitary and guerrilla groups. In 2002, tensions exploded when the area came under siege by Colombian security forces aided by a paramilitary group during the largest urban military operation in the country’s history.
At the time, Kbala was 12 years old and he said that facing “abuses of power, human rights violations, extortion, microtrafficking, abuses and atrocities,” there were “really only two options: hide in your house or be violent.”
But residents tired of victimization and fear created a third option: community action. Local groups began to channel their frustrations into social projects, reclaiming their neighborhood with gardening projects, clean-up efforts and public art projects reflecting on the violence they had endured and calling for peace.
Kbala said that a cultural movement built around the hip hop arts -- rap, graffiti, breakdance and DJing -- “became a fundamental key to begin articulating transformation” in the community by offering alternatives to a life of violence and crime.
A group of DJs plays hip hop and a breakdancer performs for an audience of locals and tourists at the top of Comuna 13's escalators.
Over the next decade, Kbala said community groups “joined forces to work together towards specific ideals [including] transformation, tranquility, peace, economy and progress.”
However, the social progress faced setbacks. In 2011 and 2012, the arrests of gang leaders led to a “tense and violent year” as Medellín’s fractured criminal groups restructured and fought for control against the newly arrived crime group. At least a dozen young Comuna 13 rappers were targeted and killed for denouncing violence and crossing “invisible borders” delineated by local gangs. Dozens more were displaced from their homes.
When the bloody turf wars died down in 2013, Kbala said community groups reignited their efforts, and found themselves able to tap into a source of support previously “unthought of, unimaginable” in Comuna 13 -- tourism.
Medellín’s city government had recently completed construction on a set of outdoor escalators connecting the metro station in Comuna 13’s San Javier neighborhood to the hillside dwellings of La Independencia I and II. The major infrastructure project was the first of its kind in Colombia, and not only improved accessibility for residents but also opened up the area to visitors for the first time.
The escalators fast became an attraction symbolic of the city’s “innovation,” drawing visitors with its unusual architectural design and generating interest in the more intimate ways that locals were reclaiming and beautifying their neighborhoods.
“We designed the tours so that people wouldn’t only come to see the escalators, but to get to know the real Comuna 13, the stories, and most importantly, the people who live in the space and are the ones who truly brought transformation,” Kbala said.
Early tours attracted residents from nearby neighborhoods who were interested in the handful of graffiti murals painted by local hip hop community groups. According to Kbala, the tours helped change perceptions of Comuna 13’s hip hop artists and bolstered much needed support and funding for their social projects.
“This was an opportunity for the city itself to recognize that the rappers in the community aren’t drug addicts, they’re the ones doing the social work,” Kbala said, adding that “the business gave us more opportunities to make more improvements in the neighborhood.”
Commercial vs. Community Tourism
As tourism in Comuna 13 has exploded in popularity, new players have sought to cash in on the progress, bringing ever-growing numbers of foreign tourists into the community.
In Medellín’s poshest neighborhood, El Poblado, the vivid turquoise coffee shop and Spanish language school known as Toucan Café and Tours has become the main hub for foreign tourists hoping to get a glimpse of Comuna 13’s transformation.
“Tourism helps change people’s perceptions of the city as a dangerous place,” Carmen Villegas, a manager for Toucan, told InSight Crime.
Villegas explained that many foreign tourists initially seeking out attractions related to Pablo Escobar have instead learned about social resistance to violence and crime through the company’s tours.
Toucan is the largest and most commercial tourism company operating bilingual English-Spanish tours in Comuna 13, and boasts to be the “original” graffiti tour. The company works with a local hip hop community center called Casa Kolacho, pairing their marketing experience and online savvy with residents’ knowledge of their neighborhood.
According to employee Markus Jobi, Toucan estimates that 70 to 80 percent of tourists visiting Comuna 13 do so with their company. Villegas said the Comuna 13 tours are by far Toucan’s most popular.
Most foreign tourists are drawn to Toucan’s tour through online promotions, reviews and travel blogs touting the company’s presentation of emotionally-stirring stories and Instagram-worthy art as the best way to learn about and support the community’s hip hop-fueled change.
Rapper and community leader Kbala shows tourists how to enjoy a local fruit popsicle in February 2017 when he worked for Toucan before forming his own tourism company.
Toucan’s director Rob Danks told InSight Crime that the company’s vision is to engage in “sustainable community tourism with a positive impact in the short, medium and long term.”
In 2017 alone, Danks said that Toucan’s Comuna 13 tours brought in nearly $15,000 (40,000,000 Colombian pesos). A portion of these profits go towards helping support Casa Kolacho’s hip hop classes for nearly 600 local children, and provide a steady income for local artists who paint graffiti murals.
But this “massive tourism” brings complications, some Comuna 13 locals say.
There are currently at least six smaller local tour businesses run by young people from the community -- including Ruta 13, Perrograff and Kbala’s La Cuatro Trece -- that say that they have no way of competing with “gigantic tourism companies” like Toucan.
Kbala told InSight Crime that the economic benefits of large-scale tourism can help fund social projects and pull some residents out of poverty, but the growing industry has also contributed to children dropping out of school to collect tips from tourists and a rupturing of the community’s privacy. And while nearly all Comuna 13 residents are experiencing a significant reduction in violence, aesthetic improvements and the influx of tourism dollars are currently only benefiting a handful of neighborhoods.
Challenges of Ongoing Organized Crime Presence
Although increased interest in Comuna 13’s anti-violence and crime projects is providing new support for local community groups, the tourism boom may also be contributing to ongoing organized crime activities in these neighborhoods.
As Comuna 13’s tourism industry rapidly grows, the local Medellín government has done little so far to regulate it. As a result, Kbala said that “harmful tourism” is penetrating the area.
With thousands of foreigners flooding into the city each month, tourism has generated lucrative opportunities for crime groups peddling cocaine, prostitution and the sexual exploitation of children.
The high profit margins of the tourism industry also make it ripe for exploitation by local gangs. Comuna 13 crime groups in control of neighborhoods frequented by tourists recently announced that they will begin levying a higher “tax” on tour companies, according to locals involved in the industry.
“Wherever you are in this country, [extortion] will be there … As a tourism company, I know that certain rules exist in the neighborhood that I need to respect in order to work,” Kbala said.
Nonetheless, Kbala believes that in spite of complications, tourism companies "have to learn how to navigate.”
“The world needs to know that it can be done. It isn’t easy, but it’s possible,” he said.
* All photos courtesy of Angelika Albaladejo.