A Writer's Life in Medellin's Most Violent Neighborhood

The woes of Comuna 13, Medellin's most violent neighborhood, are emblematic of the urban violence that has plagued Colombia since the 1980s. Everyone wants to tell the story of Comuna 13 as the place that is making a comeback
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Soledad Rios, who's lived in Medellin's most violent neighborhood, Comuna 13, for 30 years, sells blood sausage and empanadas on a street corner for a living, frying them up fresh for customers. Sometimes when she had to run for shelter during a gun battle, she would have to leave the empanadas sizzling in the deep fryer, and they would be black, hard crusts by the time it was safe to venture outside again.

In the mornings she used to run a day care center for little kids whose mothers either washed clothes or cleaned houses for a living. Some of the kids didn't have anyone looking after them, period. "We lost a lot of boys to Sacol," she observes, which is a cheap glue sold in plastic bags and favored by those who can't afford crack.

In the evenings she concentrates on her hobby: writing. She says she has never taken a writing class, nor has she finished a university degree. But in her section of Comuna 13, she has gained a reputation for being the neighborhood's unofficial historian. "I like urban histories," she says. "Usually I pick a personality from the neighborhood or an event that happened and I just start writing it down." She writes on loose leaf paper or cheap notebooks with cartoon characters on them. Usually the stories end up being two or three pages long -- others are 20, 30, 40 pages.

There have probably been thousands of pages -- newspaper editorials, human rights reports, police memos -- written about Medellin's Comuna 13 in the past decade. The neighborhood's woes are emblematic of the urban violence that has plagued Colombia since the 1980s. Once ruled by leftist guerrilla groups, it was taken over by paramilitaries who would "disappear" boys for wearing their hair too long or for smoking pot. Soledad says she lost her brother during the conflict: he was pulled off a bus by guerrillas who accused him of being an off-duty soldier because of his military-style haircut. They broke all his fingers before they killed him and rolled the body into a ditch.

Comuna 13 is currently home to a vicious set of warring street gangs who think nothing of chopping up little kids with machetes in order to warn rivals off their turf. "They don't even know what they're fighting about now," says Soledad.

Nowadays, Medellin is supposed to be slipping into a new narrative. It was just voted the world's most innovative city. Comuna 13 is supposed to form part of that narrative: the city government just built a $7 million electric staircase just outside the metro station, which takes commuters on a 10-minute ride to "la parte alta" -- the poor part, the really violent part, the you-don't-want-to-go-there-as-a-tourist -- part of the neighborhood. Medellin has poured millions into hip hop and art workshops and after-school programs in Comuna 13. In some ways, Comuna 13 is to Medellin what Ciudad Juarez was to Mexico: authorities know that if they can cut down violence rates here, of all places, they can tout it as a huge success in security policy -- even if the rest of the country is even more screwed up.

Everyone is just dying to tell the story of Comuna 13 as the place where things were really bad, but now it's making a comeback. Or else there's the story of Comuna 13, the place where things were really bad, and things are still bad, if not worse. What happens to Comuna 13 in the next few years will be central to Medellin's changing narrative of itself. Is it a city that deserves to reminded of its Pablo Escobar past in every New York Times travel write-up, or is it the City of Eternal Spring where investors, hipsters and backpackers are all eagerly jostling for space?

Soledad has her own stories of Comuna 13 to tell, although she has never published them. She takes notes on the changes in "la parte alta" over the past years. Back when the guerrillas were in charge, block parties were still allowed, when residents would shut down the street and cook up giant vats of chicken stew on Sunday afternoons. "Now mothers are too scared to send their kids out to buy milk in the mornings," she says. "If you're going to celebrate something, you do it shut inside the house."

Due to the current tensions between Comuna 13's gangs, no one dares cross the invisible barriers that divide one gang's territory from another's. Soledad listens to the neighbors gossip about the latest twists and turns in the gang war, and writes down what she remembers. Boys don't bother looking for construction jobs in the Comuna 13 sectors anymore -- everyone heads down to the center of the city to hustle for work. Mothers who are bored and stuck in the neighborhood -- unable to visit relatives just a few blocks over -- get together at night and booze it up. The drink of choice? An 88-cent knockoff of a sugarcane spirit.

In her own way, Soledad represents the typical narrative of a long-time Comuna 13 resident all too well. In 2011, she had to leave her neighborhood, and her school, and move down to an apartment building next to the metro station, after a local gang told her that her teenage son had to either join up, or get out. She is one of Medellin's internally displaced -- thought to number in the hundreds of thousands. She still fries empanadas in the morning and jots things down in her notebooks at night. People come up to her and tell her things. There are rumors of a mass grave in a compost heap in one part of Comuna 13 where many of the city's disappeared -- beheaded or chopped up into pieces -- have supposedly ended up.

Soledad says she hopes to get her urban histories published one day, although her hopes aren't very high. "Nobody makes a living off of art around here," she says.

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