Ecuador–Peru Boundary Disputes

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Ecuador–Peru Boundary Disputes

From their foundation the nations of Ecuador and Peru have disputed the demarcation of their common border. The chief point of contention is control over 120,000 square miles of mostly uninhabited Amazon jungle between the Marañón-Amazon and the Putumayo rivers. The nations appeared to have settled the issue as early as December 1823 in the Mosquera-Galdiano Agreement, a document that reaffirmed the 1809 colonial boundary between the viceroyalties of Peru and New Granada. However, in 1827 Peru attacked Ecuador, then part of the nation of Gran Colombia. In 1829 Gran Colombia defeated Peru at the battle of Tarqui, and Peru signed the Treaty of Girón. In September 1829 the two nations agreed to the Treaty of Guayaquil, also known as the Larrea-Gual Treaty, which again designated the boundary as that of the former viceroyalties. The Pedemonte-Mosquera Protocol of August 1830, designed to implement the prior treaties, granted Ecuador access to the Amazon River.

In 1857 Ecuador attempted to retire its debt to Great Britain by issuing bonds for Amazonian territory still under dispute. Peru objected, and war followed. In the Treaty of Mapasingue (January 1860), victorious Peru secured considerable Ecuadorian concessions. However, the treaty was ratified by neither nation. In August 1887 the two nations signed the Espinoza-Bonifaz Arbitration Convention, calling for the intercession of the king of Spain; his decision was to be binding and without appeal. The García-Herrera Treaty of May 1890 divided the disputed zone in half. Again, however, neither nation ratified the treaty. Finally, in 1924 Peru and Ecuador signed a protocol naming the United States as arbiter, and in 1933 both nations formally requested that President Franklin D. Roosevelt intercede. In 1936 the two nations agreed to a protocol resolving the matter. However, the ensuing talks broke off in 1938.

It fell to military power, not diplomacy, to determine the boundary. Of the two nations, Ecuador's position has historically been weakened by its failure to establish a physical presence in the disputed area. Peru, on the other hand, has been more effective in settling the region. In 1935 Colombia ceded to Peru territory that Ecuador continued to claim. After Ecuadorian efforts to provoke an incident, in 1940 Peruvian troops massed along the southern border. Argentina, Brazil, and the United States offered joint mediation, but border skirmishes flared in 1941 and rapidly escalated into a serious military engagement. Nevertheless, Ecuadorian president Carlos Alberto Arroyo Del Río maintained his troops in Quito, guarding his presidency against internal enemies. As a result, Ecuador was powerless to respond to Peru's July 1941 invasion of the rich, densely populated coastal province of El Oro. Ecuadorian forces lacked basic supplies; in all respects they were woefully unprepared for the conflict. Peru had an air force of 25 planes and troops numbering from 5,000 to 10,000; Ecuador had neither an air force nor anti-aircraft weapons, and its troops totaled only from 635 to 1,600.

Ecuador retreated headlong before the Peruvian advance. The civilian population of El Oro did almost nothing to oppose the invading army, and some 20,000 refugees streamed into Guayaquil. Ecuador suffered some 150 killed and wounded; Peru, about 400. Peru seized the province of El Oro and began to move on Guayaquil, Ecuador's most important port. As Peru bombed coastal towns and advanced, troops in Guayaquil designated as frontline reinforcements mutinied. Ecuador sought peace talks. Following negotiations, Ecuador and Peru agreed to a military pullback and in January 1942 signed the Rio Protocol. Both nations ratified the accord. During the discussions, the United States, Argentina, Brazil, and Chile—mediators and later guarantors of the agreement—were preoccupied with World War II. They made it plain to Ecuador that if it refused to sign, they would withdraw from the talks, leaving Ecuador to deal with the victorious and still menacing Peru. Ecuador surrendered two-thirds of the disputed Amazonian territory: some 80,000 square miles of uninhabited lands and an additional 5,000 square miles of settled territory. Ecuador also lost its outlet to the Amazon River. Still, if Ecuador had not signed, it stood to lose a great deal more. Following the agreement, Peru withdrew from El Oro.

In 1951 new problems arose when the discovery of the Cenepa River in the Amazon complicated the final demarcation of the border. In August 1960 populist Ecuadorian president José María Velasco Ibarra declared the Rio Protocol null and void and the Ecuadorian Supreme Court later followed suit. Ecuador has since continued to regard the settlement as invalid. Problems persisted along the frontier, with brief clashes in 1981 and 1995 leading to several deaths. In 1998 the United States, Brazil, Argentina, and Chile initiated an approach toward peaceful resolution of the conflict. On October 26, 1998, Peru and Ecuador signed an agreement that resolved their boundary disputes.

See alsoBoundary Disputes: Overview; Gran Colombia; New Granada, Viceroyalty of; Peru: From the Conquest Through Independence; Zarumilla, Battle of.


For the most evenhanded treatment of this disputatious matter, see David Hartzler Zook, Jr., Zarumilla-Marañón: The Ecuador-Peru Dispute (1964). Brief overviews of the issues are in John D. Martz, Ecuador: Conflicting Political Culture and the Quest for Progress (1972); and George I. Blanksten, Ecuador: Constitutions and Caudillos (1964).

Additional Bibliography

Denegri Luna, Félix. Perú y Ecuador: Apuntes para la historia de una frontera. Lima: Bolsa de Valores de Lima, Instituto Riva-Agüero, Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú, 1996.

Simmons, Beth A. Territorial Disputes and Their Resolution: The Case of Ecuador and Peru. Washington, DC: U.S. Institute of Peace, 1999.

                                           Ronn F. Pineo