130-Year-Old War Scars Heighten Border Dispute Between Chile and Peru
Bloodless frontier conflict lingers over the terrestrial triangle
Disagreement over a tiny piece of land known as the triangulo terrestre — or terrestrial triangle — has reopened historical wounds Peru and Chile have spent 132 years trying to heal.
On Nov. 7, Peruvian president Ollanta Humala signed into law a bill creating the La Yarada-Los Palos district, which includes the disputed triangle within the district’s boundaries. The district is located at the southernmost tip of Peru within the department of Tacna.
The territorial dispute dates back to the ending of the War of the Pacific in 1883. Peru lost its southernmost provinces, and though the Treaty of 1929 supposedly stated where the border stood, Chile claims the triangulo terreste is still … Chilean.
And it doesn’t help that both Chile and Peru recently held military exercises near the border.
“Chile does not recognize the so-called ‘terrestrial triangle.’ That land is national territory,” a statement from Chile’s foreign affairs ministry stated on Oct. 21. The statement further explained Chile’s stance on its borders. Chile argues Peru agreed to two points — Landmark No. 1, which Chile recognizes as the land boundary, and a point 323.54 meters parallel from Landmark No. 1 to the sea.
The Treaty of 1929, however, established Point Concordia as “the frontier between the territories of Peru and Chile.” It established the point at 10 kilometers north of the Lluta River.
In between the two points lies the terrestrial triangle, a tiny piece of arid, rocky land measured at 37,610 square meters. It is this piece of land — and the creation of the aforementioned district — which have plunged Peru and Chile into the current diplomatic situation.
Above — the Peruvian cruiser Almirante Grau during a military exercise. U.S. Navy photo. At top — Chilean soldiers. Marcelo Gonzalez / Flickr photo
The International Court of Justice ruled in January 2014 that the Peru-Chile maritime border was located at the point parallel from Landmark No.1, and Chile also deems it as the land boundary. However, Peru states Point Concordia, located on the coast some 264 meters from Landmark No. 1, delineates the border.
La Yarada-Los Palos’ creation resurfaced a dispute that is still unresolved even after the ICJ ruling. Peru argues the ICJ ruled only on the maritime border, as stated on paragraph 175 of the ruling:
The court is not called upon to take a position as to the location of Point Concordia, where the land frontier between the parties starts. It notes that it could be possible for the aforementioned point not to coincide with the starting-point of the maritime boundary, as it was just defined. The court observes, however, that such a situation would be the consequence of the agreements reached between the parties.
The court did note that Peru submitted maps, including some published by the Military Geographic Institute of Chile, which depict Point Concordia.
During the bill signing ceremony, Humala said the law is part of an effort to prioritize “development in the border areas and spaces of our country, as we know, [that] have historically been left behind.” Chilean foreign minister Heraldo Muñoz told the newspaper La Tercera the bill’s passing was an “unfriendly, inopportune and imprudent act” a week after its signing.
In a statement to War Is Boring, a spokesman for Peru’s Ministry of Foreign Relations reasserted Peru’s claim. “The 1929 treaty does set Point Concordia as the boundary’s starting point at the sea. Hence, there isn’t much legal discussion on that issue,” the spokesman stated in an email.
“The law creating the new district, La Yarada-Los Palos, adjacent to Chile is now fully in force, once approved by congress and published by the executive branch. The law simply states that the new district’s southern limit follows the international boundary with Chile up to Point Concordia at sea, in full compliance with the 1929 Treaty.”
The Chilean government did not answer any request for comments.
Professor Oscar Vidarte of the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru has criticized the Peruvian government’s decision to create the new district, writing various opinion pieces on the matter. Speaking with War Is Boring, he explains it was not the appropriate time, because the maritime border dispute has not been fully resolved, in spite of the ICJ ruling.
However, he also disagreed with the government’s approach to the district’s creation. “It could have been handled in a different manner,” he said, adding that holding the signing ceremony in the presidential palace with the governor of Tacna present “gave too much importance to an administrative issue.”
“There was no need to reaffirm our borders at the south of the country,” Vidarte continued. “Documents exist from earlier years that clearly demarcate the border.”
The documents, apart from the Treaty of 1929, include two laws that define the department of Tacna, which borders Chile. He argued instead that Peru should emphasize dialogue and sit down with Chile to resolve the border dispute.
Both nations have bolstered their military presence at the border. Chile accused Peru in the days leading up to the signing of the bill of sending troops to the border unannounced. An agreement between both militaries dating to the 1970s states one nation must inform the other when sending troops to the border.
Though the number was not significant and the troops allegedly only photographed the area without crossing the border, according to Chile’s interior minister, the incident did not ease tensions.
Peruvian infantry disembark from M113 armored vehicles during a 2007 exercise. Cloudaoc / Wikimedia photo
Two other events in the following weeks continued to exacerbate the situation between the two neighbors. Chile held its annual military exercises, called “Huracán 2015,” in mid-November in the northern parts of the country. The exercise involved around 5,500 personnel from Chile’s three military branches, and included tank maneuvers and assaults from the landing ship Sargento Aldea.
The show of strength, while planned and routine, may have prompted Peru to conduct its own military exercises along its southern frontier in early December. Called Cáceres 2015, the military exercise involved similar units from Peru’s navy, army and air force. However, a press release from the Armed Forces Joint Command of Peru explained that, aside from assessing the military’s capabilities, it would determine “the state of readiness of equipment and military equipment recently acquired.”
The equipment, acquired from Russia, meant Russian officials were among those observing the exercises.
Peru tinged its show of strength with history in naming it “Cáceres.” Gen. Andrés Avelino Cáceres led Peru’s Southern Army during the War of the Pacific and led the resistance from the Andes after Chile’s invasion. The Peruvian government has not responded to questions from War Is Boring concerning the exercise’s name, which arguably links the hero general and the current tense situation.
Vidarte told War Is Boring that Peru has the right to conduct military exercises within its territory. However, the timing of Cáceres 2015 has not helped the situation. “Politically, this has been understood as a reaction to Chile,” he explained. “It’s like saying that, if Chile is capable of demonstrating its military prowess to the north of their country, Peru can do the same to the south.”
The War of the Pacific pitted Peru and Bolivia against Chile. The allies, bound together by a secret 1873 treaty, fought Chile, which ultimately won the war. Bolivia lost its outlet to the Pacific and Peru lost three provinces — Tarapaca, Arica and Tacna. Though Tacna was returned in the Treaty of 1929, Arica remained under Chilean control.
Though military action — like that taken more than a century ago — seems far-fetched because of the deep economic links between the two nations, the disagreement continues. As 2015 came to a close, Humala stated the creation of the district “is an irreversible act” and that “any comment from a fellow nation will be channeled through the Foreign Ministry.”
Across the border, Chile’s foreign minister called the situation “serious,” but his colleague in the Ministry of Defense took a firmer stance stating the district’s territory belongs to Chile. Neither country has publicly attempted to start formal talks over the dispute.