Comuna 20, a suburb of Cali, is known for being a violent neighborhood. Until recently, the area was ravaged by gang wars. Tired of the violence, the residents took matters into their own hands. With tourist tours they managed to reduce violence and polish the image of their neighbourhood. During a trip through Colombia, world blogger Anneke Verbruggen took part in a walk through the neighbourhood.
Cali, a city in southwestern Colombia, is divided into 22 neighborhoods. Comuna 20 is located on a hill to the west of the city. The Comuna includes several neighborhoods, such as Siloe and Tierra Blanca, and is known as a deprived neighborhood. There is a lot of poverty, poor infrastructure, little employment, and surprise: a lot of crime. Its location on the hill also isolated the neighborhood from the rest of the city for a long time. But a funicular was installed in 2015, making the neighborhood easily accessible.
At the foot of the hill we meet Dario, our local guide. He was born and raised in the area and still lives there with his son. ‘About ten years ago we started thinking about our future with a few people from the neighborhood, but especially about the future of our children. We didn’t want them to grow up in the conditions we grew up in. We have seen corpses in the streets and when we played outside we sometimes had to flee from flying bullets. I don’t want that for my son.’
Initially they were few, they received no support from the government and the rest of the population therefore did not have much support.
That support only came during the corona crisis, when it turned out that the situation was no longer tenable. In 2021 there were protests all over Colombia against the government, when it wanted to raise taxes. In Comuna 20, the protests were very fierce and people were killed. The residents felt that this could no longer continue and gathered on the football field. It was time for a change.
Dario: ‘We started to dig a swimming pool together. Local people heard about it and came to visit. In this way contacts were made between the various neighborhoods of the Comuna.’
Following the example of Comuna 13 in Medelllin, where a similar project had already been started, they wanted to invite tourists into their neighbourhood. Because tourism brings work. They also wanted to show children and young people an alternative to violence.
We take the cable lift and immediately get a spectacular view of the neighborhood with its many dilapidated houses. The elevator has several stations, and in each station there is an exhibition with a specific theme: salsa, local myths and legends, transportation in Cali or local fauna and flora.
We visit every station and Dario tells us that the first tourists who came to Comuna 20 did not go outside the stations, that was too dangerous. We are lucky enough to get out and on arrival we are met by Dario’s son and nephew, two teenagers who will accompany us on our walk in the neighborhood.
The first place where we stop is a mural on the edge of the neighborhood on which the rules of the neighborhood are written. There are five:
- Respect children and the elderly
- Ensure general safety
- Take care of the environment
- Contribute to education
- love the neighborhood
The streets we walk through are narrow and steep. Some houses have corrugated iron roofs and walls, or sagging roof tiles, broken windows and so on. Local residents greet us and welcome us. We meet a group of retired men who play bingo and a little further on children play a game of football. We arrive at the ‘street of poetry’, where we view several murals. During the whole trip we are followed by a pack of street dogs.
After a short climb we arrive at ‘the ruins’. On top of the abandoned and dilapidated building we have a beautiful view over the city. Dario says that this building was constructed in the late 1970s by a wealthy real estate agent who wanted to turn it into tourist luxury apartments.
Even before the apartments were put into use, the M19 guerrillas came by and destroyed the building. Everything that had value, they took out and gave to the locals. They were grateful, because the government had never given the people in this neighborhood anything, and now they were getting material from the guerrillas. But they were not only given equipment, they were also given weapons, military training and military instructions.
The government “finally” caught sight of this forgotten corner of the city, and the police tried to evict the guerrillas, who had meanwhile settled in the abandoned apartment building. Without success. The army was then called in and decided to attack the guerrillas from the other side, from the mountains.
The guerrillas had no answer to this and they fled to the Comuna 20, where they hid in the houses of the residents. The army opened fire and many innocents were killed. Young people were randomly murdered, after which a weapon was placed next to their corpses, so that they could be labeled as guerilleros. false positives, as it is popularly called here. It is therefore not incomprehensible that the population of this neighborhood had no confidence in the government.
The combination of guerillas mixing among the people and distributing weapons, and resistance to the government proved to be a good breeding ground for violence.
Unlike in the past, it is no longer a matter of course to join a criminal gang as a young person.
We continue our walk to another vantage point, where we get another view of the neighborhood and the rest of the city. Dario says that a lot has changed in recent years. In addition to the tourist project, Dario and his collective try to focus on youth. They organize activities and have set up a theater class. They also have a recycling project and a communal vegetable garden.
According to Dario, they are already 70 percent successful in their goal. There is still a lot of poverty, and it is still a deprived area. There is still violence, but much less. Children can play safely on the street and come into contact with alternatives to violence. Unlike in the past, it is no longer a matter of course to join a criminal gang as a young person.
Along the way we buy drinks and empanadas. A good thing, according to Dario, because in this way tourism creates more employment. He tells me he’s not doing this for the money though. He earns some money because he is paid by the tourists to guide, but he does not receive financial support for the project from the government. He’s doing it for his son, he says, and he hopes that one day he will be able to go to university, which was not possible for Dario himself.
The neighborhood may have been infamous, but we never felt unsafe during the exciting tour. Dario said they haven’t had any problems with tourists so far. That’s quite an achievement, given that stories of robbed tourists in Cali are not rare.
What happens in the neighborhood when the tourists go home in the evening remains a mystery to me, but this project seems to me to be a good step to improve the living conditions of the residents of Comuna 20 and to change the mentality. Definitely check it out if you’re in Cali.