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ECUADOR AND PERU 1941Peru army: Soldiers in French uniforms, supported by Czech tanks, Italian artillery and American fighter planes doing battle against an enemy armed with German rifles and 19th Century European field guns.

Fighting broke out between Ecuador and Peru on July 5, 1941, at outposts near the Ecuadorian towns of Huaquillas and Chacras along the Zarumilla River. On the sixth, Peru began large-scale operations which bogged down in a few days. Both contestants accused the other of aggression.


No Latin American border dispute is more complex and no two disputants further apart in their interpretation of the historical events than Peru and Ecuador. The components that made up colonial Ecuador—particularly the provinces of Quito, Maynas, Santa Fe, Jaén, and Guayaquil—were transferred more than once between the Viceroyalties of Nueva Granada and Peru. In 1534 Sebastián de Benalcázar, a lieutenant of Francisco Pizarro, founded the town of Quito or San Francisco de Quito which became the seat of a governorship (gobernación). In 1562 the Spanish King Carlos I elevated Peru to the status of viceroyalty, and a year later Quito was made an audiencia, subordinate to Peru. In 1717 Quito, along with the audiencias of Santa Fe de Bogotá, Caracas, and Panama, became the new Viceroyalty of Nueva Granada. Six years later this viceroyalty was dissolved, and Quito once again returned to the jurisdiction of Peru. In 1739 the Viceroyalty of Nueva Granada was reinstated, and Quito was once again removed from Peru. Ecuadorians argue that the Cedula of 1740 (only part of which has been found) designated the Tumbes River as the boundary between the Viceroyalties of Nueva Granada and Peru.

While Spain was administratively realigning its empire, the Portuguese were expanding westward from the Atlantic Ocean. In an attempt to halt this incursion into what it perceived to be its territory, Spain recognized that Portugal occupied substantial amounts of the Amazon Basin by the Treaties of Madrid (1750) and San Ildefonso (1777) in hopes of protecting that which remained.

This strategy was not successful, and the Portuguese continued to penetrate up the Amazon River. In an attempt to militarily strengthen the Spanish hold in the selva, Col. Francisco de Requena, the Spanish Commissioner of the Fourth Border Commission, recommended to the Crown that the provinces of Maynas and Quijos be transferred from the Viceroyalty of Nueva Granada to that of Peru. According to Peruvians, this was accomplished by the Real Cédula (Royal Order) of 1802. Ecuadorian authors argue that this cédula only gave Peru administrative authority over the religious missions and the responsibility for defense, but no territorial rights. In 1803 another royal cédula separated the province of Guayaquil from Nueva Granada and placed it under the jurisdiction of Lima, in part to improve the seaward defenses of the west coast of South America.

The Audiencia of Quito unsuccessfully rebelled against Spain in 1809 and again in 1810 (see companion volume). In December 1819 the revolutionary Colombian Congress of Angostura unilaterally declared Quito (the future Ecuador) a part of Gran Colombia (the union of Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador). On October 9, 1820, the province of Guayaquil declared its independence from Spain and declared itself at liberty to unite with any nation of its choice. Gen. José de San Martín, then in Peru, dispatched Gen. Tomás Guido to persuade the Guayaquilans to join with Peru. They only conceded to place themselves under San Martín’s protection. Simón Bolívar sent Gen. José Mires on a similar mission, and he received a similar answer.

On May 21, 1821, revolutionary Gen. Antonio José de Sucre, a lieutenant of Simón Bolívar, disembarked at the port of Guayaquil with 650 Gran Colombian soldiers in order to aid the Ecuadorian Revolutionaries and to prepare Guayaquil for incorporation into Colombia. Ultimately, Sucre, aided by soldiers from San Martin’s army, defeated the Royalists at the Battle of Pichincha on May 24, 1822, winning independence for Ecuador.

While Sucre and Santa Cruz were advancing from the southwest into the highlands of Ecuador, Bolívar was advancing overland from the northeast through Colombia. Bolívar entered Quito on June 16, 1822. There he wrote to San Martin explaining his decision to incorporate Ecuador into Gran Colombia. Bolívar then marched to Guayaquil, arriving on July 2. Two days later he declared the province in a state of anarchy and under the protection of Colombia. On July 26, 1822, Simón Bolívar and José de San Martín met in the port of Guayaquil. Their personalties and political philosophies were sufficiently different to cause San Martin to retire from public life and leave the final destruction of the Spanish Empire in South America to Simón Bolívar unchallenged by his presence.

Events in the province of Jaén paralleled those along the coast. This province had been made part of the Audiencia of Quito by the Cédula Real of 1563. On June 4, 1821, the province of Jaén, following a plebiscite among the influential criollos, declared its independence from Spain and sought to become part of Peru. Although Bolívar privately recognized the probable de facto loss of the province of Jaén to his confidants, he hoped to retain parts of Jaén—the territory of Quijos and parts of Maynas—for Gran Colombia.

Publicly, Bolívar refused to recognize the de facto incorporation of the province of Jaén into Peru since the province had been part of the Viceroyalty of Nueva Granada to which Gran Colombia claimed to be heir. Following Bolivar’s successful military campaign in Peru, the wars for independence, and his return to Gran Colombia, he sent Joaquín Mosquera to Peru in October 1825 as Gran Colombia’s Minister Plenipotentiary with orders to negotiate boundaries based upon those that existed between the Viceroyalties of Nueva Granada and Peru in 1810, the principle of Uti Possidetis (“as ye possess, continue to possess”). If this were agreed to, the province of Quijos would revert to Gran Colombia. No agreement was reached. Peruvian politicians chaffed under the presence of the Gran Colombian garrison left behind in Peru following the wars for independence by Bolívar. They successfully intrigued for its peaceful removal, along with another Gran Colombian garrison stationed in Bolivia (see companion volume).

A war ensued in 1828 between Gran Colombia and Peru, in which the latter was defeated. Peruvian President La Mar signed the Treaty of Girón (February 2, 1829) which agreed to the boundaries that existed between the Viceroyalties of Nueva Granada and Peru in 1809, and it established a commission to work out the details. Back in Lima, the new Peruvian President, Agustín Gamarra, rejected the terms, arguing that La Mar had signed the document under duress. However, on September 29, 1829, both nations signed the Treaty of Guayaquil in which Peru conceded much of the disputed territory, although the boundaries were not precisely defined. On August 11, 1830, the Protocol of Pedemonte-Mosquera delineated the boundaries in the selva between Gran Colombia and Peru as the banks of the Marañón or Amazon, the Macará, and the Tumbes Rivers. Gran Colombia would govern the territory on the left bank of the Marañón River and Peru on the right. However, Peruvians questioned the authenticity of the document. On the date it was supposedly signed (August 11, 1830), Mosquera was at sea on his way home and Pedemonte was ill. The original document has never been found—only a copy—and no reference was made to the document prior to 1892. Additionally, Gran Colombia had already dissolved when Venezuela withdrew in April and Ecuador in May; the Gran Colombian negotiator, Mosquera, knew this. Also, the Peruvian Congress never ratified the agreement. Peru therefore, claimed that the agreement, if it ever existed, was invalid.

The dispute continued to simmer. In 1840 Ecuador unsuccessfully raised the border dispute with Peru, attempting to take advantage of Peru’s recent defeat at the hands of Chile in the War of the Confederation (see companion volume). On September 21, 1857, Ecuador attempted to use the disputed territory to pay a debt to British creditors. Peru protested and on October 26, 1858, blockaded Ecuadorian ports, which continued for more than a year. This contributed to the disintegration of the Ecuadorian political system which devolved into a state of near anarchy. A Peruvian 4,000-man expeditionary force carried in thirteen ships captured Guayaquil on November 21, 1859, without resistance. There, Peru signed the Treaty of Mapasingue on November 25, 1860, with the local caudillo Gen. Guillermo Franco. This document annulled the use of the disputed territory as payment to Ecuadorian creditors and restated the borders as established by the disputed Real Cédula of 1802. Once the Ecuadorian central government was reestablished, it denounced the treaty as illegal on the basis that General Franco possessed no authority to act for the central government.

During the mid-1880s, both Peru and Ecuador attempted unsuccessfully to use disputed land in the selva to pay international debts, generating complaints from the injured party. In 1887 Ecuador and Peru asked the King of Spain to arbitrate the dispute; he never rendered a verdict. At the same time, the two nations began direct negotiations which resulted in the proposed García-Herrera Treaty. This was ratified by the Ecuadorian Congress but rejected by that of Peru.

In 1901 Ecuador established outposts on the Napo and Aguarico Rivers in the disputed area, in part attempting to replace Jesuit missionaries who had been expelled from the country in 1896. When Peruvian troops, ravaged by illness, were withdrawn from the vicinity, Ecuadorian soldiers advanced down the Napo River as far as the trading post at Angosteros. In reaction, the Peruvian launch Cahuapanas, commanded by Midshipman Oscar Mavila, transported twenty soldiers commanded by Maj. Chávez Valdivia from the river port of Iquitos (612 mi NE of Lima) to the vicinity of Angosteros (172 mi NW of Iquitos). The soldiers were secretly landed below the Ecuadorian position. The launch then moved upriver opposite Angosteros. On July 26, 1903, shots were exchanged between the launch and the Ecuadorians. The Peruvians soldiers ashore surprised the Ecuadorians and drove them from Angosteros. The Ecuadorians’ losses were two dead, three wounded, and five captured. One year later, on July 28, 1904, a 180-man Ecuadorian force, led by Lt. Col. Carlos A. Rivadeneira, surprised a Peruvian detachment commanded by Maj. Chávez Valdivia at Torres Causana, a trading post. In spite of the Ecuadorians’ stealth, they were defeated, sustaining twenty deaths and numerous captives, including Rivadeneira.

Once again the King of Spain was asked to arbitrate the dispute. The Spanish Consul of State recommended to the King that with minor exceptions the decision be based upon the Royal Cédula of 1802. This would give almost the entire disputed territory to Peru. When this secret leaked out, both sides prepared for war. At this point, the United States, Brazil, and Argentina offered to mediate, and this was accepted by both disputants. In November 1910 the King of Spain declared that he had insufficient information to make a decision. For the next three decades, Washington attempted to negotiate a solution. Finally, on September 28, 1938, Peru withdrew from the negotiations.

An uneasy truce was maintained throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Then, in spite of their military inferiority, Ecuadorian field commanders pushed their positions forward. They argued that this was necessary to improve their defensive positions. In July 1939 Lt. Col. Segundo Ortíz occupied Noblecilla Island in the Zarumilla River without orders. When ordered to withdraw by the Ecuadorian General Staff, he initially refused. In May 1940 Ecuadorian troops occupied a forward position at Casitas and yet another at Meseta (also called Cerro del Caucho). These activities disrupted the status quo under a 1936 agreement as defined by Peru. As tensions continued to build, Ecuadorian officials attempted to mobilize the public, ordering all men between 18 and 35 years of age to report for training on January 12, 1941. Rather than a display of patriotism, the 20,000 citizens who gathered at Quito’s football stadium errupted into an antigovernment riot. As a consequence of these events, Peruvian President Manuel Prado ordered the creation of the Northern Army Group (Agrupamiento del Norte—AN) and reinforced the Peruvian forces in the selva in January 1941.


Following the Leticia Conflict in 1932, Peru began a significant increase in the size of its army. The army grew from 8,000 men in 1933 to 9,318 in 1934; to 10,233 in 1936; to 13,452 in 1939; to 16,705 in 1940; and to 25,864 by 1941. By contrast, the Ecuadorian army numbered 4,000 men on July 20, 1941. Ecuadorian President Carlos Alberto Arroyo del Río, who had won a hotly disputed election on September 1, 1940, retained a significant portion of the army in Quito and other major towns in order to deal with potential unrest. At the same time, he strengthened the Federal Police (the Carabineros) at the expense of the army.

Due to its improving economy, Peru was also able to both improve training and infrastructure and buy new weapons. Peru had had a French army mission in the country since 1896 with but brief interruption. Practically all Peruvian generals during their younger days had spent some time training in France. In 1937 President Oscar Benavides contracted Italian air force and police missions. Peru sent aviation cadets to train at the aviation academy at Caserta, Italy. The Italian air mission was ended in March 1940 and replaced by a U.S. naval air mission on July 31. In 1938 the President renewed the contract with a U.S. naval mission which had expired in 1933.

In spite of the gathering of war clouds throughout the industrial world during the 1930s, Peru successfully purchased a small quantity of modern military hardware. Among the most important acquisitions were 24 LTP Czech-made light tanks and 26 Italian Caproni Ca 135 bombers. Additionally, Peru improved its roads, barracks, and airfields along its norther border with Ecuador during the 1930s. Although Ecuador made some post-World War I purchases following the advice of its Italian mission, these were not particularly useful. Also, Ecuador reduced its military budget by ten percent in 1941.

The Ecuadorians were clearly aware of their material shortcomings. On December 23, 1940, Chancellor Julio Tobar Donoso reported to the Council of State:

Peru, over the last few days, has accumulated on the southern border the following elements…: sixty planes at the Talara base and a cruiser, and destroyer, and several smaller vessels at Puerto Pizarro. Peru also has motorized forces and even parachutists.…In contrast… in material aspects there is absolute and humiliating inequality.


The international situation precluded that the United States would endeavor to end any conflict as soon as possible through diplomatic means only. In July of 1941, the Third Reich’s Panzer divisions were rolling toward Moscow, the Japanese were defeating the Chinese in Asia, and the neutral United States was frantically rearming. A conflict in the Americas would be a most unwelcome distraction for the United States. Peru accurately perceived this and knew that their best opportunity consisted of striking decisively, occupying the disputed territory, seizing undisputed lands as a negotiating tool, and then waiting for the pressure from Washington to freeze the situation.

On March 7, 1941, the War Staff (Estado Mayor de Guerra) of the Peruvian army ordered the Northern Army Group to expel the Ecuadorians from Casitas, Cerro del Caucho, and other sites; plus the Division of the Selva (V Division) was charged to defend Peru’s claims in Amazonia. Brig. Gen. Eloy Ureta, who commanded the Northern Army Group, did not confine himself to the objectives in the orders. He wrote:

In case of an offensive reaction by the enemy [to his capturing Casitas and other sites as ordered] he [the Ecuadorians] should be pushed out of Peruvian territory and, if circumstances are favorable, he [the Ecuadorians] should be pursued into his own territory, in order to reach and hold bases of strategic value which would facilitate future operations.

Given the fact that the Peruvian President was the son of President Mariano Ignacio Prado, who had fled the country during the War of the Pacific in 1879-83 (see companion volume), it should not be surprising that Manuel Prado did not restrain Ureta’s liberal interpretation of his orders. Also, Ureta threatened to march south against his own government if not allowed to march north.

Figure 19. The Ecuador-Peru War (1941). Mariscal del Peru Eloy Ureta, a Peruvian leader (general). Ureta planned and executed Peru’s successful campaign. He graduated from the Chorrillos Military School for Officers in 1913 and received additional training in France and Italy during the 1920s and 1930s. The sword and marshal’s baton shown in the painting are in the Collection of Arms in the Museum of Gold in Lima. Courtesy Eloy A. Ureta y Ureta, Spain.

By mid-1941 the Northern Army Group was composed of two light divisions (each possessing three infantry battalions and some artillery), four independent infantry battalions, two groups of artillery (one equipped with 75mm mountain guns and the other with one 105mm gun), two cavalry regiments, a parachute company, a detachment of twelve LTP light tanks, and a signal company. The Northern Army Group also directly controlled five English Fairey fighters, a squadron of Caproni bombers, and a squadron of single-engine Caproni transports plus a small fleet of patrol launches. This force totaled 9,827 men.

Col. Octavio Ochoa commanded the Ecuadorian forces along the Zarumilla frontier while Col. Luis Rodríguez commanded the troops behind the frontier in El Oro Province. These two commands were designated the Fifth Military Zone with its headquarters located in Zaruma. Ochoa’s and Rodríguez’ forces were composed of two battalions of infantry, a police battalion, an artillery group, a squadron of cavalry, an anti-aircraft battery, and a battalion of engineers. These units totaled only some 2,000 men. In addition, two reserve infantry battalions were assigned to Loja; both units were merely skeleton forces. Most of these soldiers were used to garrison towns. The commanders within the Fifth Military Zone had no aviation or riverine forces at their disposal.

The Amazonian or selva front spanned a distance of some 312 miles, from the Putumayo River in the east to the Cenepa River in the west. When fighting began, the Peruvian Division of the Selva was composed of 64 officers and 1,755 soldiers; by November it had increased to 189 officers and 3,722 soldiers. The Division was under the command of Brig. Gen. Antonio Silva Santisteban. The troops manned 32 garrisons and 5 lookout posts. General Silva controlled five riverine gunboats and could call for air support. The 1,800-man Ecuadorian force in the selva manned 35 garrisons but had neither aviation support nor armed riverine craft.


The Zarumilla River separated the Peruvians from the Ecuadorians; the river flows almost due north as it approaches the Pacific Ocean. During July 1941 it was three feet deep and ford-able. East of the river (the Ecuadorian side), the land was flat and covered with forests, which became more dense to the south and east, and ultimately became jungle. Few roads penetrated the region. Ecuador could supply the Zarumilla front via two routes. The most convenient was to carry supplies by sea to Puerto Bolívar. A rail line began at the port and ran a few miles westward to Machala, then twelve miles to Santa Rosa, and then six miles southwest to Arenillas, where it ended. Alternatively, supplies could be brought by dirt road from Cuenca to the eastern spur of the rail line at Pasaje. From there it could be carried through Machala to Arenillas.

Fighting began with serious skirmishes in early July during which the Peruvians employed both artillery and fighter-bombers. On July 22 the Peruvian 1st Light Division seized Noblecilla Island and crossed the Zarumilla River, attacking across a 19-mile-wide front. Apparently, the force included twelve LTP light tanks. The Peruvian navy blockaded the Jambeli Channel which gave Puerto Bolívar access to the Pacific Ocean. On the twenty-third the Peruvian air force lost a Northrop NA-50A fighter-bomber to ground fire due to the low operating ceiling caused by poor flying weather. The tanks were employed in support of the infantry in World War I fashion. Within two days the Peruvians overran the Ecuadorian outposts at Huaquillas, Chacras, Quebrada Seca, and Rancho Chico. In large measure this success was due to the coordination of aerial bombardment and ground attacks. General Ureta wanted to isolate the Ecuadorian railhead at Arenillas which supplied the Zarumilla sector; this lay at the southern end of his advance. At the northern end of the advance, Peruvian troops penetrated seven miles eastward to the vicinity of Cayancas by the twenty-eighth. Colonel Rodríguez, in charge of Ecuadorian defenses in the Zarumilla sector, was unable to form a defensive line.


In the early morning of July 31, the Northern Army Group, using trucks to transport infantry, attacked the railhead at Arenillas. The Ecuadorian defenders, after a stout defense, retreated into the jungle. The Peruvians endeavored to follow them but they fell victim to ambush. At 11:45 A.M. Northrop fighter-bombers strafed and bombed the town of Santa Rosa as five Caproni Ca 111 transports landed at the town’s airport and discharged Peruvian infantry. There was little resistance. Santa Rosa lay 32 miles northeast of the site where the Peruvian forces had crossed the Zarumilla River. At 3 P.M. Caproni transports landed on a dry lake bed and discharged infantry which captured Machala. The Peruvians sustained only one casualty in these operations.

Next, three paratroopers dropped on Puerto Bolívar a few miles west of Machala at about 5:30 P.M., marking the first time in Latin America that paratroopers were employed in combat. This success permitted naval troops to come ashore at that Pacific Ocean port unopposed. The capture of Machala closed Ecuadorian road and rail access to El Oro Province and the capture of Puerto Bolívar closed access by sea. The Ecuadorian defenders were stunned by the rapidity of the attacks, and Peru conquered almost the entire El Oro Province in only one day through the coordinated use of air, land, and sea power.


A week after Peruvian forces crossed the Zarumilla River, General Silva launched attacks from Peruvian garrisons in the selva on August 1 against Ecuadorian garrisons. The rivers penetrated through Peru and into Ecuador like parallel fingers; they provided the most accessible avenues of advance. Land communications required cutting narrow paths which took enormous effort to keep clear. During the first week the Peruvians captured the settlements of Corrientes, Cuyaray, and Tarqui. For the most part the garrisons on both sides were left to their own devices to sustain themselves.

On August 11, the most important fighting in the selva took place at the Ecuadorian post of Rocafuerte (243 mi NW of Iquitos) which the Peruvians captured. Only here did the numbers engaged by both belligerents reach company strength. The Peruvians continued to advance unopposed up the Pastaza River and captured Sihuín on August 16 and up the Morona River and captured Cashuime on September 6. By early September the Peruvians had occupied some 15,385 square miles of territory.

By mid-August the Ecuadorian army had disintegrated. Both officers and men were deserting their posts in Guayaquil and elsewhere. Sporadic fighting continued throughout August and September. On October 2, 1941, the two nations signed a cease-fire in the Peruvian port of Talara which left Peru in control of the disputed lands plus the Ecuadorian province of El Oro but halted its advance against Guayaquil. By November the Ecuadorian army had increased on paper to 12,013 men, though it was hardly an effective fighting force.


Peru was victorious and Ecuador lost most of the disputed territory. The land lost equaled the size of Ecuador that remained. In addition, Ecuador lost access of the headwaters of the Amazon when it lost the land bordering the navigable part of the Marañón River.

In January 1942 the third meeting of the foreign ministers of the American republics took place in Rio de Janeiro. On the twenty-ninth, the last day of the meeting, the Peruvian and Ecuadorian Chancellors, Dr. Alfredo Solf y Muro and Dr. Julio Tobar Donoso, respectively, plus the representatives of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and the United States, signed the Peruvian-Ecuadorian Protocol of Peace, Friendship, and Limits. The Protocol of Rio de Janeiro confirmed Peruvian rights to the provinces of Tumbes, Jaén, and Maynas. Peru evacuated El Oro Province and recognized Ecuador’s sovereignty to Quijos and its access to the Putumayo River.

Blitzkrieg had come to Latin America, admittedly on a miniscule scale. Ecuador had been completely defeated in one lightning blow. And although the great powers of the Western Hemisphere had interceded, they came too late to save Ecuador from a disastrous defeat.

A factor contributing to Ecuador’s defeat was its underestimation of Peru’s soldiers. Ecuadorian Col. Francisco Urrutia reported to the nation’s leaders just before the war:

With all this [Peru’s significant numerical superiority], I should affirm that Ecuador is superior to Peru in terms of race; the Ecuadorians have a warring nature, while the Peruvians are pacifists. Peruvian officers are good because regular contingents of young men study in military schools abroad. Consequently, the Peruvian General Staff is efficient and well-trained, but the troops are inferior to those of Ecuador.

Peru’s Northern Army Group sustained 84 dead (which included four aviators) and 72 wounded in combat. To this must be added Peruvian losses in the selva plus Ecuadorian loses in the two areas of operations.

Eloy Ureta, then Peru’s youngest general, became a national hero. He was promoted to division general and appointed inspector general of the army. Eighty officers who served under Ureta were also promoted.

Ecuadorian-Peruvian War 1941

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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