Ecuador’s 500-year War

Ecuador is one of South America’s smaller countries but that doesn’t mean its territorial ambitions are small – quite the opposite. In fact, a simmering border dispute with southern neighbor Peru that has lasted for over half a millennium was only recently settled to the satisfaction of both sides.

Thousands of soldiers have been killed and wounded over the centuries in armed clashes between Ecuadorian and Peruvian forces, with the most recent conflict (the Cenepa War of 1995) estimated to have cost over 500 lives. What is perhaps most regrettable is that the actual land these nations are fighting over is virtually uninhabited jungle that is virtually useless for any profitable human endeavor.

The roots of the conflict stretch back into pre-colonial times when one of the last Inca emperors divided his realm between his two sons just before he died. Of course, the rival emperors turned on each other, fighting a costly civil war that had the effect of severely weakening the Inca Empire on the eve of the Spanish conquest. The conquistadors, newly triumphant over the Incas and the other indigenous South American native people, divided the continent into various administrative regions. The region later known as Ecuador found itself caught between two of these Viceroyalties and its borders were never precisely determined, even after the nations of South America achieved their independence from Spain in the 1820s and 1830s.

Although many small wars were fought among the new nations of South America as they grew into their borders, those fought between Ecuador and Peru never succeeded in resolving their border issues. Armed clashes occurred in 1829, 1859, 1903, 1941, 1981 and finally 1995. The 1995 war was notable in that both countries used airplanes like fighter jets, helicopters and also used surface-to-air missiles to deadly effect. Following a ceasefire and several years of intense negotiations, Ecuador and Peru, guided by American mediation, were at last able to agree to abide by the results of a border demarcation commission that began its work in May of 1999. Although both countries claimed victory, the net result is, in the words of US President Bill Clinton, aid: “… the end of the last and longest running source of armed international conflict in the Western hemisphere.”