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The Colombia-Peru War of 1932

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The Colombia-Peru War of 1932

Luís Sánchez Cerro

Photographer Unknown

The Colombia-Peru War of 1932:

For several months in 1932-1933, Peru and Colombia went to war over disputed territory deep in the Amazon basin. Also known as “the Leticia Dispute,” the war was fought with men, river gunboats and airplanes in the steamy jungles on the banks of the Amazon River. The war began with an unruly raid and ended with a stalemate and a peace deal brokered by the League of Nations.

The Jungle Opens Up:

In the years just before World War One, the various republics of South America began expanding inland, exploring jungles that had previously only been home to ageless tribes or unexplored by man. Not surprisingly, it was soon determined that the different nations of South America all had different claims, many of which overlapped. One of the most contentious areas was the region around the Amazon, Napo, Putumayo and Araporis Rivers, where overlapping claims by Ecuador, Peru and Colombia seemed to predict an eventual conflict.

The Salomón-Lozano Treaty:

As early as 1911, Colombian and Peruvian forces had skirmished over prime lands along the Amazon River. After over a decade of fighting, the two nations signed the Salomón-Lozano Treaty on March 24, 1922. Both countries came out winners: Colombia gained the valuable river port of Leticia, located where the Javary River meets the Amazon. In return, Colombia relinquished its claim to a stretch of land south of the Putumayo River. This land was also claimed by Ecuador, which at the time was very weak militarily. The Peruvians felt confident that they could push Ecuador off of the disputed territory. Many Peruvians were unhappy with the treaty, however, as they felt Leticia was rightly theirs.

The Leticia Dispute:

On September 1, 1932 two hundred armed Peruvians attacked and captured Leticia. Of these men, only 35 were actual soldiers: the rest were civilians mostly armed with hunting rifles. The shocked Colombians did not put up a fight, and the 18 Colombian national policemen were told to leave. The expedition was supported from the Peruvian river port of Iquitos. It’s unclear whether or not the Peruvian government ordered the action: Peruvian leaders initially disavowed the attack, but later went to war without hesitation.

War in the Amazon:

After this initial attack, both nations scrambled to get their troops into place. Although Colombia and Peru had comparable military strength at the time, they both had the same problem: the area in dispute was extremely remote and getting any sort of troops, ships or airplanes there would be a problem. Sending troops from Lima to the contested zone took over two weeks and involved trains, trucks, mules, canoes and riverboats. From Bogota, troops would have to travel 620 miles across grasslands, over mountains and through dense jungles. Colombia did have the advantage of being much closer to Leticia by sea: Colombian ships could steam to Brazil and head up the Amazon from there. Both nations had amphibious airplanes that could bring in soldiers and arms a little at a time.

The Fight for Tarapacá:

Peru acted first, sending troops from Lima. These men captured the Colombian port town of Tarapacá in late 1932. Meanwhile, Colombia was preparing a large expedition. The Colombians had bought two warships in France: the Mosquera and Córdoba. These sailed for the Amazon, where they met up with a small Colombian fleet including the river gunship Barranquilla. There were also transports with 800 soldiers on board. The fleet sailed up the river and arrived at the war zone in February of 1933. There they met up with a handful of Colombian float planes, rigged out for war. They attacked the town of Tarapacá on February 14-15. Hugely outgunned, the 100 or so Peruvian soldiers there quickly surrendered.

The Attack on Güeppi:

The Colombians next decided to take the town of Güeppi. Again, a handful of Peruvian airplanes based out of Iquitos tried to stop them, but the bombs they dropped missed. The Colombian river gunboats were able to get into position and bombard the town on the might of March 25, 1933, and the amphibious aircraft dropped some bombs on the town as well. The Colombian soldiers went ashore and took the town: the Peruvians retreated. Güeppi was the most intense battle of the war so far: 10 Peruvians were killed, two more were injured and 24 were captured: the Colombians lost five men killed and nine wounded.

Politics Intervenes:

On April 30, 1933, Peruvian President Luís Sánchez Cerro was assassinated. His replacement, General Oscar Benavides, was less keen to continue the war with Colombia. He was, in fact, personal friends with Alfonso López, President-elect of Colombia. Meanwhile, the League of Nations had gotten involved and was working hard to work out a peace agreement. Just as the forces in the Amazon were getting ready for a large battle - which would have pitted the 800 or so Colombian regulars moving along the river against the 650 or so Peruvians dug in at Puerto Arturo - the League brokered a cease-fire agreement. On May 24, the cease-fire went into effect, ending the hostilities in the region.

Aftermath of the Leticia Incident:

Peru found itself with the slightly weaker hand at the bargaining table: they had signed the 1922 treaty giving Leticia to Colombia, and although they now matched Colombia's strength in the area in terms of men and river gunboats, the Colombians had better air support. Peru backed off its claim to Leticia. A League of Nations presence was stationed in the town for a while, and they transferred ownership back to Colombia officially on June 19, 1934. Today, Leticia still belongs to Colombia: it is a sleepy little jungle town and an important port on the Amazon River. The Peruvian and Brazilian borders are not far away.

The Colombia-Peru war marked some important firsts. It was the first time that the League of Nations, a precursor to the United Nations, got so actively involved in brokering a peace between two nations in conflict. The League had never before taken control over any territory, which it did while details of a peace agreement were worked out. Also, this was the first conflict in South America in which air support played a vital role. Colombia's amphibious air force was instrumental in its successful attempt to reclaim its lost territory.

The Colombia-Peru War and the Leticia incident are not terribly important historically. Relations between the two countries normalized pretty quickly after the conflict. In Colombia, it had the effect of making the liberals and conservatives put aside their political differences for a little while and unite in the face of a common enemy, but it didn't last. Neither nation celebrates any dates associated with it: it's safe to say that most Colombians and Peruvians have forgotten that it ever happened.

Sources:

Santos Molano, Enrique. Colombia día a día: una cronología de 15,000 años. Bogotá: Editorial Planeta Colombiana S.A., 2009.

Scheina, Robert L. Latin America's Wars: the Age of the Professional Soldier, 1900-2001. Washington D.C.: Brassey, Inc., 2003.

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