Andrew Clem home

Latin American wars


Updated: March 9, 2005 (Caveat: "work in progress")


Major International Wars

Compared to other major regions of the world, Latin America has suffered very few large-scale international conflicts. (Civil wars and guerrilla insurgencies are another matter.) There is a considerable body of social science literature suggesting that warfare has a "make or break" effect on the political cohesion of nation-states. That is, as Charles Tilly (1975, p. 42) put it, "War made the state and the state made war." Thus, one might infer that the low occurrence of warfare in Latin American history might explain the relative weakness of state authority in most of those countries. Below are listed the major international armed conflicts that took place in Latin America after independence from Spain, which in nearly all cases was between 1816 and 1826. Minor border conflicts are not listed. The first country listed under the "combatants" column is the aggressor or instigator of the conflict.

War Years Combatants Outcome
Texas War 1835-1836 Texas vs. Mexico Texas became an independent republic.
Chilean War 1838 Chile vs. Peru-Bolivia Confederation Peru and Bolivia were forced to split apart.
Mexican-American War 1846-1848 United States vs. Mexico U.S. annexed Texas, California, New Mexico, Arizona, etc.
War of the Triple Alliance 1864-1870 Paraguay vs. Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil Paraguay lost land to Argentina and Brazil.
War of the Pacific 1879-1883 Chile vs. Peru & Bolivia Chile annexed Bolivia's sea coast and much Peruvian land.
Chaco War 1932-1935 Bolivia vs. Paraguay Bolivia was forced to cede much land to Paraguay.
Peru-Ecuador War 1941 Peru vs. Ecuador Ecuador was forced to recognize Peru's territorial claims.
Soccer War 1969 El Salvador vs. Honduras OAS mediation; no major gains for either country.
Falklands/Malvinas War 1982 Argentina vs. Great Britain Argentine occupation forces were forced to withdrew.

Civil Wars and major insurgencies

(Planned for the future)

Country Years Issues Outcome
Mexico 1910-1920 Peasant rights; nationalism Some land reform, economic statism under PRI
Nicaragua 1977-1990 Peasant & worker rights; nationalism .
etc. . . .

The War of the Pacific: 1879-1883

An excerpt from Chapter 3 of:

by Andrew G. Clem
Ph.D. dissertation, University of Virginia, January 2002
copyright by the author


Geopolitical rivalry afflicted much of Latin America during the early decades after independence from Spain in the early 1820s. Taking advantage of Peru's internal strife, Bolivian General Andres Santa Cruz led an army that conquered Peru in 1835. The formal union of these two countries in 1836 was regarded as a dire threat to the South American balance of power by Argentina's President Rosas, who declared war on the Peru-Bolivia Confederation in 1837. Under the de facto leadership of ambitious Minister of War Diego Portales, Chile followed suit and its forces occupied Lima from August to November 1838. Portales was later assassinated during an antiwar revolt that was fomented by Peru.

. . .

Suffering acutely from the cutoff of foreign credits, in 1877 Bolivia unilaterally levied a special tax on the nitrate mines in the economic zone it shared with Chile, which retaliated by seizing Antofagasta and nearby nitrate mines in February 1879. President Prado sent an emissary to seek peace with Santiago, but Bolivia declared war on Chile and made known its “secret” alliance with Peru in March, provoking Chile into declaring war against Peru in April. Peru thus became involved willy-nilly in the War of the Pacific, against its own interests. Most Chileans blame the outbreak of the war on the secret treaty, but Davis wrote that the decisive factor in the war's outbreak were the dispossessed nitrate certificate holders (mostly Europeans and Chileans) who hated Peru for having nationalized the mineral deposits in 1875.

Major campaigns

The early stages of the war involved a see-saw naval campaign. Peru lost one of its two ironclad ships in May 1879 and the second one, the Huascar, was captured after its engine broke down during the Battle of Angamos in October. Admiral Miguel Grau died while defending his ship, thus creating a legend that has inspired martial valor in Peru ever since. Having gained complete control of the sea, Chile was able to stage a series of troop landings on the coast behind Peruvian frontlines, cutting off the vital supply lines to the troops deployed in the extremely arid Atacama Desert. The failure of the Bolivian army to relieve their isolated Peruvian allies at Iquique enabled the Chilean army to win a major victory there in November. This crucial turning point in the war gave rise to bitter recriminations between the two allies and has been a sore point in Peru's relations with Bolivia ever since.

Peru's ability to recover from these military defeats was crippled by the continued economic chaos which revealed the extreme fragility of the Peruvian state and made it very difficult to purchase new armaments. After President Prado traveled to Europe in a desperate attempt to buy new ships, former Treasury Minister Nicolas Piérola accused him of desertion and seized power in December 1879. Peru's abysmal credit record in Europe tended to favor Chile in the court of world opinion, and Pierola's issuance of worthless “inca” currency notes eroded investor confidence even further.

In part because of Pierola's distrust of Admiral Montero (who was commanding Army forces), Peruvian forces were dispersed, immobile, and lacked artillery where it was needed on the battle front. For this reason, the isolated Peruvian garrison at Tacna had no choice but to surrender in May 1880, leaving Chile in control of the south coast. After the Conference of Arica (October 1880) failed to achieve a compromise peace — in part due to inept U.S. diplomacy — Chilean landed troops near Lima and conquered the capital city in January 1881. Piérola fled Lima, after which a puppet regime governed at Chile's behest for several months, without exercising any real authority. For the next two years, General Andres Cáceres led a prolonged guerrilla war of resistance in the bush country of the mountains, frustrating Chile's attempt to vanquish the Peruvian nation.

Mediation, aftermath

Peru's thin hopes were raised briefly in March 1881, when the new Secretary of State James G. Blaine reversed the aloof policy of his predecessor William Evarts and set out to settle disputes in the Americas. This ambitious "enfant terrible of the Republican Party" envisioned the establishment of a U.S. naval base in Chimbote, Peru's finest natural harbor. Blaine sided with Peru and blamed Chilean aggression on British economic interests, but he resigned after President James Garfield died from an assassin's bullet in September. After it became clear that no U.S. support was forthcoming and as Chilean forces threatened to occupy the mountain city of Arequipa, Peruvian leaders ended their struggle. Under the terms of the Treaty of Ancon signed in October 1883, the nitrate-laden province of Tarapacá was permanently ceded to Chile, and the provinces of Arica and Tacna were to remain occupied for ten years, pending a plebiscite. As Mercado Jarrín concluded, "It was the lack of a strategic vision and inablity to foresee and politically direct the conflict that led us to inevitable defeat."

Losing the vast mineral deposits severely hampered Peruvian political and economic development, and it took years to overcome the burden of war reparations that were owed to Chile. The decade of the 1880s were a time of bitter disillusion in Peru, which developed an inferiority complex that became, in St. John's words, a vital part of its "myth-fantasy of nationalism." On the plus side, the agonizing self-criticism eventually gave rise to a new social reform movement led by Manuel Gonzalez Prada, the aristocratic "social conscience of Peru"; who defended Indian rights.

. . .

Peru’s overall foreign policy stance around the turn of the century could be described as assertive and prestige-focused, neither too aggressive nor submissive. In an attempt to achieve a final disposition of Arica and Tacna (which had been occupied by Chile since the War of the Pacific), Peru and Chile agreed to hold a plebiscite in those provinces in 1898. In 1900, however, Peru protested Chile's deliberate resettlement of the area as a blatant attempt to stack the vote outcome in Chile's favor.

. . .

Legu¬ía initially counted on U.S. help in resolving disputes with its neighbors, but the terms of a settlement with Chile proposed by the United States in 1925 caused outrage in Lima. After a U.S. commission found that Chileˆïs resettlement policies had made it impossible to hold a fair plebiscite, and after a U.S. loan enabled Peru to purchase American-made submarines in 1926, Peru returned to the bargaining table. Under the terms of the Tacna and Arica Treaty signed in June 1929, Peru regained sovereign control over the city and province of Tacna, and was granted the use of port facilities at Arica, plus an indemnity of $6 million from Chile. The two neighbors were largely satisfied, but Bolivia was dismayed by the treaty's "Additional Protocol" declaring that there would be no transfer of the land in question to any third country without the other's agreement.

. . .

In order to dissuade Bolivia from accepting an offer from Chile of a strip of land near the former Peruvian port of Arica, in July 1955 Peru signed a treaty with Bolivia that provided for building railroads and improving transportation across Lake Titicaca.


Percy Cayo Córdova and Raúl Palacios Rodríguez, El Mar de Grau y La Marina de Guerra del Perú. (Boulogne, France: Editions Delroisse, 1987)

William Jefferson Davis, Tacna and Arica: An Account of the Chile–Peru Boundary Dispute and of the Arbitrations by the United States (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1931)

Edgardo Mercado Jarrín, Política y Estrategia en la Guerra de Chile. (Lima: n.p., 1974)

Ronald Bruce St. John, The Foreign Policy of Peru. (Boulder, CO: Lynn Rienner, 1992)

The Chaco War, 1932-1935


During the 1930's, a bloody war was fought in the interior of South America, over a forbidding stretch of land known as the Chaco Desert. The two protagonists, Bolivia and Paraguay, are both landlocked nations surrounded by larger neighbors that had taken substantial land from them in the previous century. Bolivia had lost its seacoast to Chile in the 1879 War of the Pacific. In order to secure an exit by sea for its export goods, it claimed all of the land west of the Paraguay River. Bolivia had a professional army, assisted by German officers. Paraguay's population and land area had been decimated by Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay in the War of the Triple Alliance, and was considered almost helpless. However, the Paraguayans did begin covert procurement of weapons during the late 1920's, and received military advice from officers of the French Army.


Bolivia: President Salamanca, Generals Peñaranda (inept, couldn't control subordinates), Kundt (German), and Toro (politically ambitious).

Paraguay: Presidents Guggiari and Eusebio Ayala, Generals Estigarribia, Manuel Rojas (a cautious Commander in Chief), Lieutenant Colonel Juan B. Ayala.

Pre-war actions:

1927 (February 25) Paraguayan 2nd Lieutenant Rojas Silva is killed near the disputed border. This incident was discussed in the Buenos Aires Conference, which lasted through 1928.

1928 (December 14) Bolivia captures fortín Boquerón.

1930 (January) Paraguay exposes plans of Bolivian offensive, which is then cancelled.
(April) Pres. Siles of Bolivia is expelled from office after trying to extend his term of office.

1931 (March 4) A compromise candidate, Dr. Daniel Salamanca accedes to power in Bolivia, following a factional dispute.

1932 (June 15) Bolivia captures fortín Carlos Antonio López, near Lago Pitiantuta.

Major Offensive Campaigns:

1) Boquerón (Sept. 9 - 29, 1932)

Paraguayan forces launch a pre-emptive attack, isolating substantial Bolivian forces. Lack of water forces defenders to surrender, with 2,000 losses. Toledo taken Sept. 27, Platanillos Nov. 6.

2) Nanawa (Jan.-July 1933)

Bolivia masses forces and initially succeeds in pushing back Paraguayans, but later frontal assaults fail.

3) Campo Vía (Oct.-Dec. 1933)

After constructing an elaborate system of roads through the dense Chaco bush, the Paraguayans infiltrate troops and attack on Oct. 23. General Kundt (a German advisor to the Bolivians) holds to static positions, and large forces are surrounded. The Bolivian 4th and 9th Divisions surrender on Dec. 11, and the Paraguayans begin a broad advance toward the west. A temporary truce is signed Dec. 19. Thereafter, Bolivia institutes a draft to rebuild its ranks. However, a counterattack May 19, 1934 at Cañada Strongest is contained.

4) El Carmen- Irendagüe (Aug.-Dec. 1934)

After Pres. Salamanca refuses to abandon the town of Ballivián (on the Pilcomayo River) in order to shorten the front, the Paraguayan 6th Division under Franco attacks toward the northwest on Aug. 14, taking Irendagüe and other towns to the west near the foothills of the Andes Mountains, thereby outflanking the Bolivian front. Bolivia redeployed its forces to the north and began to push Franco back, and Paraguay then attacked at El Carmen Nov. 11. Two more Bolivian divisions surrender after being cut off, and President. Salamanca is forced out of office. After the Battle of El Carmen, Franco returns to the offensive, infiltrating Irendagüe and pushing back the Bolivian cavalry to the Andes by Dec. 10. Then another Paraguayan offensive along the Pilcomayo captures the town of Ibodobo, and pushes back the Bolivians to Villa Montes.

5) Andes (April-May, 1935)

A Bolivian counteroffensive through the mountain passes begun on April 16 has only partial success, due to the unpreparedness and unwillingness of the troops; high casualties result. The difficulty of fighting in mountain terrain precludes further Paraguayan attacks, and a stalemate ensues. Both sides are financially and morally exhausted, and armistice talks begin. The cease-fire goes into effect June 14, 1935. The Peace Conference finished its work and was dissolved January 23, 1939.

Outcome of the War:

Paraguay gained a substantial amount of land in the Chaco Desert area, which was thought to contain a large reserve of petroleum. Deaths from combat: 36,000. Bolivia was granted a token stretch of river bank along the Paraguay River, but this was never developed into a port. Deaths from combat: 52,397. Desertions: 10,000. Captured: 21,000 (4,264 died in captivity).