Santiago is 17 years old and taking me on a tour of his neighbourhood in Medellin. St Javier or Comuna 13 was once the most dangerous district in Medellin where violence was the norm and no tourist in their right mind would visit. 10 per cent of all murders took place here and the area was a haven for drug cartels and gangsters. Today the locals welcome visitors to tell their story.
We walk past apartment blocks where walls have been transformed by graffiti artists. The Colombian government has wporked to transform this part of the city making it more accessible and pleasant to live. The houses are a riot of colour thanks to the donation of free house paint from the government. Escalators join streets on this steep hillside so people can get to and from work easily. In the past they were stuck in a ghetto like existence. Today that investment has seen a dramatic reduction in crime.
We stop by some steps leading to apartments. A slide has been built adjacent to the stairwell for kids to enjoy. Santiago tells me that Operation Orion took place here in 2003 when the government and guerillas allied to drive out criminals from their neighbourhood. There was three days of fighting which left 75 people dead. 250 people disappeared. The slide had been installed to bring fun to the streets instead of gun crime. Although Santiago was very young when the violence was at his peak he recalls a man coming into the kids playground with a gun. “But for us at that time it was normal,” he said.
We walk on to where a group of guys are break dancing in the street. I stop to listen to the lyrics and can pick the F word out from the Spanish in an instant. But it is fun to watch and people are leaning over the balconies to laugh and chat to neighbours whilst the boys go through their moves.
The graffiti has allowed young artists to express their passion for art and has brightened the neighborhood. The art has helped reduce crime too. Santiago shows me one mural painted by his brother Chota. It is in the shape of a heart and looks like two entwined birds. Each day a local couple with learning difficulties came to this spot to sit together and so they were captured in paint. other murals depict struggle in the area against crime and poverty but also bring hope for the future. There’s a sense of humour too with old toilets being used as plant pots.
For me, this was a highlight of my journey to Colombia. To see how an area has transformed itself and how the younger generation is changing was worth the journey in itself. It was here that Medellin became one of my favourite cities in the world and captured a place in my heart.