The Last Western War

Ecuador and Peru have had a territorial dispute that lasted 178 years. The final 1995 conflict, still as of 2017, remains the most recent territorial war in the Western Hemisphere, explaining the military presence I observed during my previous slink between boarders. The contested land lies between the Cordellera del Cóndor (“Mountain range of the Condor”) and the Cenepa river, which is dense rainforest that holds little economic or strategic value. Unconnected to the dispute, the territory is one of the most – if not the most – diverse ecosystems for birds in the world. Being a war historian by education and a naturalist by curiosity, I decided to undertake a three day expedition to the area.

My three day trek from where I was based already in the Ecuadorian rainforest, would follow the old trail used 22 years ago to transport men and munition to Mirador (“Watchtower”). This outpost is in the centre of the Cóndor range, commands a view over the whole of the disputed area. The Cóndor are the last Andean mountains, running north-south, before the lowland Amazon basin to the east. They are a formidable barrier, so high that clouds have to crawl over them, and as I follow in the steps of the soldiers I try to imagine how imposing this would have been.

The Cordellera del Condor.

Some light bushwhacking enabled access to the trail that was once fit for mechanised transport, but would now no longer be accessible to even mules. This forty kilometre approach gave me time to ponder the war and review the facts in my hammock at night. To grasp the 1995 dispute, to appreciated howambiguous the boarder is, you need to go back to the history of the 19th century. The following is a brief timeline:

  • 1819: Independence of Gran Colombia (Colombia, Ecuador & Venezuela).
  • 1821: Independence of Peru. The King of Spain proclaimed the boarders would be defined as to where they were in 1810, putting the disputed territory in Ecuador’s realm. This was however unsatisfactory to not only Peru but to the inhabitants of the area who had after that date declared themselves Peruvian. Conjecture exists as the inhabitants were “converted” by “Patriotic Forces” of Peru, possibly under duress.
  • 1829: Peru occupied the territory with 8,000 men but were defeated by a force of 4,000 Gran Colombians.
  • 1830: A treaty was signed which emphasised river boarders to avoid future disputes but in that same year Ecuador secessioned from Gran Colombia. Peru believed the treaty was therefore now void and to slowly colonised the dense rainforest, mostly uncontested.
  • 1857: Ecuador gave the land to British creditors to settle a debt. The Peruvians immediately initiated a blockade of the major Ecuadorian city of Guayaquil in objection to selling land that they had settled in, which maintained for three years.
  • 1859: The 1859 Ecuadorian Civil War.
  • 1860: Guayaquil still suffering the blockade, agreed to a treaty that bequeathed sovereignty of the disputed territory on behalf of the whole of Ecuador. The civil war ended later this year.
  • 1932: The 1932 Ecuadorian Civil War.
  • 1941: The Ecuadorian-Peruvian War of 1941. This war was independent from World War Two as neither nation was affiliated with the Allies or the Axis. Peru states that the war was started by Ecuadorians invading whereas Ecuador’s version is that an incident between boarder patrols was used as a pretext for war by Peru. A force of 13,000 Peruvians invaded the south of Ecuador, defeating the 1,800 men defending. The Rio Protocol was a treaty devised, once again emphasising river boarders. The United States, Chile, Brazil and Argentina acted as guarantors, but the treaty was incomplete in defining the demarcation.
  • 1960: Ecuador claimed that The Rio Protocol was void for it was signed during military occupation, which is internationally illegal due to threat of force.
  • 1981: The Paquisha War (aka. Paquisha Incident, Cóndor War). Ecuador built three outposts (one named Paquisha) where a gentleman’s agreement existed not to militarise the area. Although Ecuador mobilised 25,000 men to prevent a repeat of 1941 the war was almost entirely air sorties by both sides.
  • 1995: THE CENEPA WAR.
  • 1998: The peace talks were still ensuing when war nearly rekindled but in the same year The Brasilia Presidential Act came to a “definitive” agreement. Peru is now officially recognised as sovereign of the disputed area.

Approximately 35 kilometres in, the trail abruptly ends at a river but a supply depot is visible to the right. This must be where the road ended and the supplies carried by mule and man the final distance – or so I thought. However, one does not simply walk to Mirador. For two hours I reopened an almost completely covered trail requiring moderate uphill bushwhacking, when I took a bearing at the first juncture. There had been no divergence of the old trail so I was amazed to find that I was travelling 180 degrees in the wrong direction. After much effort to spot summits as bearing points through the canopy, my maths told me I was two kilometres into Peru. The significance of this is chilling for I was now in the old war zone which was land mined at the time. With 22 years of jungle growth the rainforest would have moved with the fall and rise of trees. There could be land mines under the roots which my hacking about could alter the weight and cause the tree to explode, as if the forest itself was fighting back. I retraced my steps (literally step for step) but not before I took some pictures to illustrate the inhospitable battle theatre that this would have been.

Imagine a war in this terrain.

In this badland jungle both Ecuadorians and Peruvians have been patrolling for over a century. Small scale firefights were seen as business-as-usual until a rare incident in November 1994, where this story of war was actually started by an act of chivalry. Two patrols encountered but rather than fight, the Peruvians agreed to the Ecuadorian terms. The Ecuadorians were respectful of their counterparts, escorting them to their outpost and resupplied their enemy for them to be allowed to continue patrolling. It was however the outpost itself that was the catalyst, for it was built in the demilitarised area. Upon hearing of this Peru initiated “The Talk of the Colonels”, but no agreement was made regarding the outpost.

Tensions were rising and both sides began mobilising men to the area for over a month without open war, where each had deployed 5,000 soldiers. Ecuador was able to construct two more outposts in this period, enabled by the trail I was walking, whereas Peru had to helicopter all men and munitions into the theatre, often in low cloud and heavy rain.

On the 21st January, before open war had begun, Peru started helicopting troops behind the Ecuadorian outpost Base Sur. Ecuador responded the next day by sending Special Forces into the jungle to attack an outpost that would take three days to reach. On the 24th the Peruvian outpost was attacked successfully and any helicopter flying over Ecuadorian outposts were shot down.

Fighting focused on the towers.

Over the next week whilst air battles are waged, Peru launched multiple coordinated assaults and bombings with little success. You need to appreciate that the majority of the Ecuadorian’s were professional soldiers of special forces, paratroopers and Iwia (tribesmen trained in modern warfare, adept at jungle fighting, mostly of Shuar who inhabit the area). Whereas the Peruvian of equal numbers were only conscripts, forced into this battle to fill their quota of national service. Before either side began open war they had already been in that remote, humid place for a month, eating rations designed not to prevent hunger but as the minimum to keep fighting fit. The persistent clouds meant that aircraft strafing and even dog-fights were conducted in visibilities of meters. Pilots knew from maps where mountains were but could come under fire from any direction. The soldiers on the ground would become attuned to the sound of their respective aircraft, only able to rest easy when the percussive roar of their interceptor jets were in the fog. Repeatedly, the Peruvian conscripts were forced to attack the better trained soldiers in their dominating outposts but did have the advantage of air superiority.

It was not long before both sides mobilised further soldiers in case the battle spilt out of the area. Armoured vehicles too cumbersome to be used in jungle, were taking up positions on the roads and the cumulative of 140,000 men were prepared for action.

After ten days of fighting on the 1st February, a new sound was entering the fog. Peruvian artillery had taken up positions from within the rainforest and were now bombarding the outposts. The war continued with tropical storms downing aircraft and the fog lifting on occasions just enough for ground forces to launch multiple missiles at any single aircraft.

A Shuar soldier in the Iwias regiment.

On the 17th February you have been in that jungle for two months, bombed up to 16 times a day, on vigil from assaults by tribal warriors with guns and even wary of venomous creatures. On that day, when you hear a peace treaty had been signed in Brazil, try to imagine the relief that you would feel. The skin between your toes was raw but you would walk back to your loved ones if need be, to say everything you always meant to, to do everything you wished you had. Now imagine what you feel when you continue to hear gunfire in the coming days, continue to be attacked. How could the war ever end if fighting still happened during a ceasefire! Humanitarian soldiers from the four original guarantor countries arrive to try and help mediate the truce, but the fighting is still so intense they cannot approach. On the 22nd, a day known as “Black Wednesday” to Ecuadorian’s, Peru’s largest attack of the war happened killing more Ecuadorians in one day than any day before.

After a day of confusing skirmishes, on the late afternoon of the 28th February, both sides with renewed sincerity vouched to maintain the ceasefire. Minor incidents would persist for the next month but humanitarian forces were able to move in and ensure each side’s safe withdraw from the area.

I have no experience of being in war. I am shocked by what I hear in the news and sympathise for fictional characters in films. Even with this fraction of the intensity, I was in awe standing in that danger zone and looking upon the defensive positions tasked by ordinary civilians (probably much like you!) to attack. When smoke no longer lingered with the fog, 500 would not return alive. I was humbled by my 80 kilometre journey and grateful that a “definitive” agreement had been reached. Both countries are spectacular places, filled with abundant wildlife and generous people. I hope that this last western war is not just a chronological statement, but a definitive one as well.

A Red-Throated Wood Lizard found in the disputed area.

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