Pitiantuta, Battles of
Pitiantuta, Battles of
An isolated freshwater lake in the north-central area of the Gran Chaco territory, Pitiantuta was site of two important battles during the Chaco War of 1932–1935 between Paraguay and Bolivia.
Located some 100 miles north of the Mennonite colonies at Filadelfia, Pitiantuta was only discovered in the early 1930s, when Indians led White Russian general Juan Belaieff to the lake, which was surrounded by thick vegetation. Belaieff, who was then in the Paraguayan service, immediately grasped the strategic significance of this body of water. For much of the year, the Gran Chaco is bone dry, and in such an arid environment, a military force with access to a permanent source of water would have a distinct advantage over any opponent. Belaieff swiftly set up a tiny military post (fortín) at a site on the edge of the lake that he grandiloquently christened Mariscal Carlos Antonio López.
This all occurred during a time of considerable tension with Bolivia. Sovereign control over the vast Chaco territory had never been determined, and during the 1920s and early 1930s the La Paz government had established a series of fortínes in the western Chaco to match the moves made by the Paraguayans in the east. A few violent incidents had taken place between the two sides before 1932, but the establishment of the Paraguayan camp at Pitiantuta upset the rough balance that had previously developed in the region.
Bolivian major Oscar Moscoso had been almost as active as Belaieff in exploring the Chaco and had caught sight of what was probably Lake Pitiantuta in April 1932. He noticed several mud huts that marked the rudimentary Paraguayan fortín and returned west with news of his discovery. The Bolivian high command then determined to evict the Paraguayans, making the assumption that this could be accomplished without too much bother. Because of uncertainties as to the location of the lake amidst the thorn forests, however, it was not until June 15 that the Bolivians launched an attack and cut up the tiny Paraguayan garrison. Only two men escaped to tell the tale.
In La Paz, President Daniel Salamanca tried to play down the incident. He claimed that he had done everything possible to avoid the spilling of blood. In retrospect, however, it seems obvious that his officers had misled him as to the state of affairs at Pitiantuta, where the Bolivian army was then busily engaged in the building of trench works, gun emplacements, and a small airstrip.
The Asunción government decided to act without delay, having concluded that all-out war was no longer avoidable. Thus, on June 29 a unit of fifty infantry and thirty horsemen under Paraguayan lieutenant Ernesto Scarone seized a small Bolivian outpost at the south end of the lake but was driven back by Moscoso, who made ample use of automatic weapons. Fifteen days later the Paraguayan commander, Colonel José Félix Estigarribia, dispatched a much larger force to Pitiantuta that included a full battalion of infantry, a cavalry platoon, and a mortar unit, for a total of 350 men under Captain Abdón Palacios. Joining with the forces of Scarone, the Paraguayans attacked and quickly formed a long semicircle around the Bolivian position. Moscoso had prepared ample fieldworks and was well armed with machine guns, but his 200 defenders were unseasoned recruits from the Altiplano with little sense of why they were in the Chaco in the first place.
At noon on July 15, the Paraguayans seized the uncompleted airstrip west of the lake. The next morning, as they started to close the circle, Palacios's mortar crew began to lay down heavy fire on the enemy fortín. The Bolivians responded by abandoning their slit trenches and falling back through the thorn forest. Major Moscoso was the last man to leave, following the stragglers all the way to Fortín Camacho. Unaware that he had gone, the Paraguayans kept firing mortar rounds for another hour before they realized that Pitiantuta had fallen entirely into their hands. They had just won the first battle in what promised to be a very bloody war.
Farcau, Bruce. The Chaco War: Bolivia and Paraguay, 1932–1935. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1996.
Olmedo, Natalicio. Acciones de Pitiantuta. Asunción, Paraguay: Casa Editorial Toledo, 1959.
Thomas L. Whigham