Fighting Where the “Wango-Wango Bird Couldn’t Get”—U.S. Diplomats and the Ecuador-Peru Boundary Dispute
In 1895, the United States intervened in a long-standing border dispute between Great Britain and Venezuela, forcing its resolution—and forcing Great Britain to implicitly recognize the Monroe Doctrine’s legitimacy. In doing so, the United States inaugurated a more interventionist foreign policy in Latin America, one characterized by Teddy Roosevelt’s “big stick.”
Throughout the twentieth century, though, the United States has intervened in more than just the Anglo-Venezuelan boundary dispute in Latin America. As former Ambassador to Guyana George Jones put it in his oral history, “I spent a good chunk of my career working on border disputes because Latin America is full of them.” He named the boundary dispute between Ecuador and Peru as one of the most intractable; indeed, it flared up three times (in 1960, 1981, and 1995) after an initial settlement in 1942. The United States played an active diplomatic role in each of the three major disputes, stemming from its role as a guarantor of the status quo in the 1942 settlement.
In this “moment,” U.S. diplomats describe their experiences working with the border dispute in all three major conflicts. John Melby was the desk officer for Ecuador and Peru when the first major conflict sprung up, prompting the 1942 Rio Protocol. In 1960, Ambassador Maurice Bernbaum witnessed the U.S. Embassy in Quito getting stoned when it took the Peruvian side in the long-running dispute. In 1981, Andean Republics Desk Officer Samuel Hart described U.S. efforts to intervene in the Paquisha War, in which the U.S. lost a Huey helicopter and its five crewmen. Finally, James Mack (the Deputy Chief of Mission in Lima) and Peter Romero (the Ambassador in Quito) narrated the 1995 Cenepa War between Ecuador and Peru over the lost territory.
Read another moment about border negotiations in Latin America HERE.
Drafted by Kendrick Foster.
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Washington, D.C.—Desk Officer, Ecuador and Peru (1941–1943)
John Melby’s interview was conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy starting on June 16, 1989.
Read his full oral history HERE.
“‘John, you’ve heard the news?’ ‘Yes, sir.’ ‘Well, stop that war!’ and he slammed the phone down.”
The interest was not planned, believe me, but I still remember—my wife had not joined me in Washington at this point, I still had an apartment there before she came—I’d been out to dinner with some friends, on the evening of July 4. And when I got back to my apartment, I turned on the radio. There was an announcement that Peruvian forces had invaded the Ecuadoran province of El Oro and just wiped it off the map, pretty much. Not that there was anything there, because there wasn’t, not much. But it was all the people there had.
I figured the next morning I’d better get to the office early, which I did. And when I walked into my office, the phone was ringing, and Sumner Welles was on the phone. And he said, “John, you’ve heard the news?” “Yes, sir.” “Well, stop that war!” and he slammed the phone down. [Laughter] And that’s what I did for two years, was stop that war.
Q: You’re a relatively junior officer in the United States Department of State, and there’s a war between Ecuador and Peru. And you’re ordered to stop the war. May I ask the question: how does one go about this?
MELBY: Well, it would take all night to tell you that. It’s a question of getting the Peruvians to stop it. And buying off the Ecuadorans. Arranging for concessions to them. It was a very complicated problem, actually.
Q: But you took this seriously—
MELBY: Darn right. Welles wasn’t kidding. He meant do whatever had to be done to stop the hostilities.
Q: And you were able to contact our embassies and try to work out—I mean, we were playing the good neighbor in trying to stop two of our other neighbors from ripping the hell out of each other.
MELBY: And I worked with the Ecuadorian and Peruvian embassies in Washington.
Q: And you were involved in that rather famous boundary commission that came along and drew a line that kept—
MELBY: I set it up.
Q: Because I’ve interviewed other ambassadors who always had trouble with that thing.
MELBY: Of course it turned out it went on forever.
Q: Yes. We’re talking about up into the ‘60s, anyway.
MELBY: When I was on it, I was involved in the first one and we had the first aerial survey done of that boundary. Because nobody knew where the boundary was. And I had to arrange with the Pentagon to get the American Air Force to go down there. The men who were involved, actually, ended up in the long run being good friends of mine. Paul Cullen was in command of them. And they photographed the whole boundary. The argument on the thing went on for years after that.
Q: I wanted to concentrate on another aspect of your career, but this is really a solid example of a time when the United States got involved in something and at least stopped the fighting. Maybe there’s no final solution to something like this, but at least you found a way to stop the fighting.
MELBY: And there’s never been any fighting since. That one attack in 1941 was the last actual hostilities that have ever taken place.
Q: Every once in a while, I think Ecuadorans come up and throw stones at our embassy because of that. Other than that, I think that’s the major hostility.
MELBY: See, part of the settlement had to be that Peru wanted half of Ecuador’s territory, the Amazonian part of it. This is what Welles had to deal with at the Rio conference in 1942, was to con the President of Ecuador into agreeing to this, of giving up half of his territory. Because Peru had the support of Brazil, Argentina, and Chile. And the blackmail that Manuel Prado [y Ugarteche], the president of Peru, was pulling on us was that if we didn’t somehow force the president of Ecuador to agree to those terms, that Prado would keep Peru out of joining us in the war effort. And he would keep Brazil and Argentina out as well. So Welles just had to take the president of Ecuador aside at Rio and say, “Look, this is the terms. You’ve got to do it. This is your contribution to prosecution of the war against Germany.” And the president said, “Mr. Welles, you know you’re asking me to commit political suicide.” Mr. Welles said, “I know. And I’m still asking.” The president agreed, “All right, I’ll do it.” And that’s the way Peru got the additional part of the Ecuadorian Amazon. And they thought there was oil there, which, actually, there was, as it turned out. But even Ecuador has some oil now, too. Ecuador has lived on that oil.
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Quito, Ecuador—Ambassador (1960–1965)
Maurice Bernbaum’s interview was conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy starting on January 13, 1988. Read his full oral history HERE.
Read more about the United States’ relationship with Ecuador during the 1960s HERE.
“I said, ‘Well, why then wouldn’t you be ready to accept some kind of arbitration? You know, wouldn’t this settle the problem for you?’ And he said, ‘If I were to try that, the government would be overthrown.’”
Trying to Mediate Between Peru and Ecuador: Well, I felt that we were placed in a very difficult position, because when you get into boundary problems you have a tremendous amount of nationalism and emotionalism. And rational arguments don’t frequently prevail. My feeling was that the best way of trying to resolve the problem was to get the two parties to talk. And, if necessary, to go to arbitration, with the idea that if they agreed to an arbitration, perhaps the decision would settle the problem—take say the Ecuadorian government off the hook, or the Peruvian government off the hook. This was one of the main things I was trying to do while I was in charge of South American affairs, and I became very much involved in the Peru-Ecuador dispute. Made a number of trips to both countries. On a few occasions almost got them to talk to each other, and then things would fall apart.
But this was really the basis of our policy throughout the whole period. Not to take sides, but to get them to talk. And I remember two conversations. One when I was on my way from Buenos Aires to Quito when I stopped off at Lima. Had dinner at our embassy, where I stayed, and the Peruvian foreign minister had been invited, so that we could talk. I listened to him, and he said their legal position was absolutely impeccable. And I said, “Well, why then wouldn’t you be ready to accept some kind of arbitration? You know, wouldn’t this settle the problem for you?”
And he said, “If I were to try that, the government would be overthrown.” He said, “Because Peru has been in the position of having lost wars to Chile, having lost territory, and this is the first time we beat somebody. And we’re not going to let the spoils of that victory go, even take a chance of having that happen.” He said, “The military wouldn’t stand for it.”
Later, after I arrived in Ecuador, I made a point of seeing the various past presidents. I mentioned this problem to one of them. He said that he had learned that the only way you could solve a boundary dispute was to have two strong governments in power who could take the flak from a decision which might not be approved by everybody. He said you’ve never had a strong government in Peru, and one in Ecuador. They’ve never coincided, and you never could get a decision.
Q: Well, the situation was—Peru had fought a small war with Ecuador?
BERNBAUM: They’d invaded Ecuador, and got as far as Guayaquil. They were interested in annexing a large part of Ecuador, and that’s when we stepped and the other guarantor countries stepped in.
Q: This is the Rio Pact of 1942, is that it?
BERNBAUM: Not the Rio Pact. That’s just what it was called. But the war was on.
Q: We’re talking about World War II.
BERNBAUM: Yes, World War II was on. This happened in about ’42, and so we forced, well more or less coerced the Peruvians to withdraw and to accept far less than they had originally wanted, and in a sense we would coerce the Ecuadorians to accept some loss. The result was that the Ecuadorian president and foreign minister, who signed that treaty were killed politically.
But we and the Brazilians and the Chileans became guarantors of this treaty. And the demarcation, or the boundary, was proceeding when an aerial survey conducted by our Air Force revealed the existence of a watershed that had not been known before. And the Ecuadorians seized upon that as a basis for attempting to renegotiate the boundary.
Q: This was by the time you had arrived, or just before?
BERNBAUM: This happened before I arrived. And that was one of the problems. The Ecuadorians were interested in revising the boundary so that they would have direct access to the Amazon, whereas under the old agreement they would not have had access. The Peruvians claimed that the old agreement was theirs signed, sealed and delivered. The boundary markers were being established and there was no reason not to proceed. So they wouldn’t talk with the Ecuadorians about it. And our problem was to try to get them both to talk about it.
First to, perhaps, sign a commercial treaty, because they had no commercial relations across the border. And the idea was if we could get them talking on the basis of a commercial agreement, perhaps then there would be more of a basis for continuing the conversation politically. And when I was in Peru at one time I saw the Prime Minister and various people. I thought that he had become convinced that this was the thing to do, and I left feeling we were going to have a commercial agreement, but apparently the opponents prevailed on him and he cancelled the idea.
“But we did take a position against the Ecuadorians, and as a result, the embassy was stoned, attacked, and we had quite a messy situation.”
Taking a Position: The new president, [José María] Velasco Ibarra, made a statement saying that he would not honor the treaty. That the treaty was null and void. And that presented us with a problem. The Peruvians were pressuring the guarantors to denounce the Ecuadorian statement as a violation of the treaty, and my problem was to try to get our government to abstain and not take a position. But we did take a position against the Ecuadorians, and as a result, the embassy was stoned, attacked, and we had quite a messy situation.
Q: Yes, I notice on this the State Department spokesman, Lincoln White, came out regarding possible collective action if Ecuador maintained its position opposing the treaty.
BERNBAUM: I don’t remember that strong a statement.
Q: Anyway, I read this in a paper.
BERNBAUM: But I do remember that we made this statement supporting the Peruvian position. I remember speaking with our assistant secretary at the time. I said, “For goodness sakes, you know damn well it’s not going to solve the problem. By taking sides we’re going to be on the wrong side of a nationalist issue in Ecuador, and we’re going to have an awful lot of trouble.” And he said, “I know,” but he said, “the pressure here is too great.”
Q: Well, where was the pressure coming from in Washington?
BERNBAUM: The former ambassador to Peru had become Counselor of the State Department.
Q: Oh my.
BERNBAUM: And he was predisposed . . .
Q: Who was this?
BERNBAUM: Ted Achilles.
Q: Ah, yes. Yes. This is a case of localitis, you think?
BERNBAUM: Yes, this was localitis.
Q: But this was not coming from business interests, or from the president, it was really internal?
BERNBAUM: It was an internal matter, and one problem the Ecuadorians always had was that they were always outmaneuvered diplomatically by the Peruvians. The Peruvians would have an ambassador in Washington who had been there for 15 or 20 years, knew everybody. They did the same in Brazil. Same thing in Chile. The Ecuadorians were always changing their ambassadors. So they never really did have the kind of clout in these capitals that would permit them to get their viewpoints across effectively.
Q: Well how was this resolved?
BERNBAUM: It’s never been resolved.
Q: But I assume the stoning of the embassy stopped at a certain point.
BERNBAUM: Well, they had gotten it out of their system. We had a bill for broken windows and so forth, and as a result we instituted security measures. We built a fence around the chancery, which was very ugly and I always tried to get rid of it, but I think it’s still there. Other security precautions were taken. But we never did have another problem of that kind, because this one event demonstrated to me that we should always make every effort possible to stay on the right side of a nationalist issue, and certainly not to be on the wrong side, because the only thing that would get the crowds moving was nationalism. And we had other problems.
Q: Well, did the boundary question come up every time you had a conversation in Ecuador, or did it sort of die down after a while?
BERNBAUM: We were continuously making efforts to try to get them to negotiate a commercial agreement. The Ecuadorians were always very partial to that. We never had any problem with them. The problem was to get the Peruvians to do it. And after my effort had failed, the Brazilian foreign office tried it. The foreign minister made a trip to both countries—that failed. Then later apparently the Peruvians had a change of heart, and they sent an ambassador to Quito who had Ecuadorian relatives. I think one of his grandparents had been Ecuadorian, and the idea was that through his contacts in the place, he would be able to work out an acceptable agreement. And I, of course, worked with him for that. But that never went through.
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Washington, D.C.—Director, Office of Andean Affairs (1980–1982)
Samuel Hart’s interview was conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy starting on June 12, 1992.
Read his full oral history HERE.
“This was high up in the Andean Mountains, where the wango-wango bird couldn’t even get. The wango-wango bird said that was too tough up there.”
A Bubbling Crisis Erupts: Peru, drug problems and dealing with a very shaky democratic government, shaky in part because the president of Peru, [Fernando Belaúnde Terry], had been ousted by the military in a coup in 1968. And Belaúnde really had only one objective when he took office again in ‘80, and that was, to complete his term. He kept making compromises with the military, which were really very unwise, trying to buy them off. And the Soviets were selling a lot of military equipment to Peru. This upset the Pentagon; it upset certain people in the State Department. Personally, other than the fact that it was a diversion of much-needed resources into a nonproductive investment in military equipment, I couldn’t have cared less. But I was in the minority. I mean, all the Peruvians were doing was buying junk, and it was junk to keep the military happy, and Belaúnde felt that that was the price he had to pay.
Other than that, we didn’t have too much going with Peru, until suddenly, in early ‘81, there was a major border clash between Ecuador and Peru. There had been a long, long dispute over a sector of border between Ecuador and Peru. The Ecuadorian president, a fellow by the name of [Jaime Roldós Aguilera], had authorized the Ecuadorian military to establish an outpost on what the Peruvians considered their territory in the disputed zone. This was high up in the Andean Mountains, where the wango-wango bird couldn’t even get. The wango-wango bird said that was too tough up there. It was triple-canopy rainforest on vertical terrain; everything was up and down, nothing was side to side in that terrain. And it would take a patrol of trained people maybe a day to go a kilometer in that terrain; that’s how bad it was. The Ecuadorians had an outpost up there, and the Peruvians, by accident, discovered it, and it provoked a border war. And for about a month, things were touch and go. People were talking about an invasion of Ecuador by Peru, because Peru’s military was much stronger than Ecuador’s.
It fell to the Office of Andean Affairs and our ambassadors in the two countries, Ecuador and Peru, to try—
Q: Well, we had a treaty arrangement back in the Forties, didn’t we?
HART: You’re so smart, Stu, you amaze me. That is absolutely correct. Under the provisions of the Rio Protocol of 1945, we, the Chileans, and the Brazilians had agreed to be the guarantors of a treaty, which was called the Rio Protocol, which supposedly marked that boundary. But it didn’t really mark that boundary, because there was, I think, about a 50-mile stretch where the surveyors had made a mistake. They had used base points and what have you, having to do with where a watershed was, that were in error.
Now this terrain is absolutely worthless; it is not good for anything. And reasonable people could have found a way to deal with this. But we were not working with reasonable people. The Ecuadorians were sure that they had a right to it. The Peruvians were sure that if the Ecuadorians did anything like they did, which was to move a military outpost out there, it was a casus belli. So we had a situation where Ecuadorians and Peruvians were shooting at each other. Fortunately, neither one of them could shoot straight. There were strafings and all kinds of stuff going on.
“Here you have helicopters that were operating at 13,000 feet, 15,000 feet, and what do they send down? They send down a crappy, old, single-engine helicopter, the old Huey, instead of sending dual-engine, top-level helicopters that could operate in those altitudes, where you need a lot of extra power. We lost a helicopter because of it, and about five crewmen.”
The United States Gets Involved: In our role as the only one of the Rio guarantors who had assets to do much about this with, we worked with the Chileans and the Brazilians, and worked through the embassy in Brasília, which at that time was under the direction of Robert Sayre, to have meetings and to get everybody involved and try to calm the situation down. Eventually we were able to get both sides to quit running military operations. We tried to establish exactly what was happening on the ground. And we got two helicopters out of Southern Command Panama, with U.S. crews, to go down and to fly reconnaissance missions and to try to assure everybody that invasions weren’t about to happen, et cetera.
The Ecuadorians eventually withdrew back to their side of the border. Total killed and wounded was, I think, one or two Ecuadorians killed, and a couple wounded.
The biggest casualties were taken by the United States. We lost a helicopter with a whole crew. The helicopter was never found; lost up in the high part of the Andes. Which was another good example of incompetence of the U.S. military, because here you have helicopters that were operating at 13,000 feet, 15,000 feet, and what do they send down? They send down a crappy, old, single-engine helicopter, the old Huey, instead of sending dual-engine, top-level helicopters that could operate in those altitudes, where you need a lot of extra power. We lost a helicopter because of it, and about five crewmen. So we suffered the biggest casualties.
Both sides drew back, but rumblings continued. We were dealing, here in Washington, with the embassies of the two countries, trying to get them separated.
“No way, no how. If I ever gave, not one square kilometer, but one square centimeter of what my military believes is Peruvian territory, they would throw me out of office again before the cock crows the next morning. So I can’t do a thing on this.”
Attempting to Reopen Negotiations: I eventually went down to Ecuador and to Peru, to see if I couldn’t act on the ground as an honest broker, and to float something with Belaúnde. I must say, I had no authorization to do this at all. First, I went to Quito, and I sat down with the foreign minister there, and I said, “What could you live with in terms of a final settlement of this thing?”
And he said, “If the Peruvians will make even a symbolic gesture to us, I think this government” (which was now under the leadership of Oswaldo Hurtado, the vice president who succeeded Roldós who died in an airplane crash), “I believe Hurtado can accept and sell something that has even a small sweetening in it for the Ecuadorians, other than the line that the Peruvians claimed.”
And I said, “Well, how much is small?”
Well, he wouldn’t say, but I got it very much in my mind that a few hundred square kilometers of totally worthless terrain would be enough.
So I went to Peru and sat down with Belaúnde, and told him, “Architecto,” (which he liked to be called, architect) “they tell me in Ecuador, not for publication, just between us, they tell me in Ecuador that if you can move your country to compromise even the teeniest little bit on this, we could settle this thing once and for all. How about it?”
And he said, “No way, no how. If I ever gave, not one square kilometer, but one square centimeter of what my military believes is Peruvian territory, they would throw me out of office again before the cock crows the next morning. So I can’t do a thing on this.”
And he didn’t.
“Their military missions in each were to fight each other over this stupid damn piece of crap up in the Andes. The result was a diversion of resources and a coup-minded military, in both places.”
The Aftermath of the Crisis: But no big deal, we only had one or two other scuffles on the border after that. The Ecuadorians were to blame for the border war in the first place, because Roldós, who was a stupid guy, authorized the Ecuadorian military to put that observation post, or whatever it was, over on what the Peruvians considered their side of the line, and that triggered the whole thing. The Ecuadorians never did that again, but it convinced me of one thing, and that was, the U.S. would provide a real service to those two countries and the region if we could somehow divert their military mission away from each other and toward internal development. (More on that later.)
Here you had two militaries in very poor countries, who had histories of taking over power from civilian governments, who absorbed enormous amounts of the national budget to buy hardware as a means of fighting a war with each other should the necessity arise. Their military missions in each were to fight each other over this stupid damn piece of crap up in the Andes. The result was a diversion of resources and a coup-minded military, in both places.
Of course, this was not all just politics, either (if you want to say “just politics”). The large arms purchases were used by both the Peruvian military and the Ecuadorian military as the foundation of their retirement funds, because every major military purchase had an element in it of bribes to the general officers then on duty, so that they could retire in a style that they would like to get accustomed to. For every ten-million-dollar purchase of, let’s say, aircraft or whatever, ten to twenty percent of that was in kickbacks to the military. That’s the way the system worked.
So I thought it would be a nice thing if we could get them away from that. It might be a step forward for democracy.
The border war finally simmered down, not really to bubble up again (at least it hasn’t, meanwhile). Democracy survived in both places, obviously.
We got pretty good marks for being honest brokers. The reason I knew was because both sides screamed that we were favoring the other. We had two excellent people here in Washington working with us: Fernando Schwalb, the vice president of Peru and ambassador to Washington; and a guy by the name of Lalo Crespo, who was the Ecuadorian ambassador here and who was very closely wired to Oswaldo Hurtado, who was president. So we resolved that.
People in the Andean Office worked awfully hard over two or three months. I don’t think I got a full night’s sleep for about two months, because, usually in the middle of the night, I’d get a call from Ed Corr, who was our ambassador in Peru, who would be complaining about how we were being unfair to the Peruvians. Most nights I’d get a call from Ed about one o’clock in the morning. He’d just come from a dinner party or something, and he wanted to talk to me about it.
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Lima, Peru—Deputy Chief of Mission (1994–1997)
James Mack’s interview was conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy starting on March 20, 2004. Read his full oral history HERE.
Read more about Mack’s experience in the 1996 Japanese Embassy hostage crisis HERE.
“For years, every Ecuadorian school child was taught that this was Ecuadorian territory and that the Ecuadorian army was simply attempting to obtain what was rightfully Ecuador’s.”
A Mid-90s Flare-Up: But what happened in 1995 was that the Ecuadorians had much better and easier physical access to the disputed area in the Sierra del Condor than did the Peruvians. This area gets 200 inches of precipitation a year. The terrain is very rough, mountainous. The forest is dense. The area is very difficult to move through, extremely difficult, with no access roads except on the Ecuadorian side. The access by the Ecuadorian side is not as precipitous so they built roads up to the disputed area and constructed fortifications just inside. This was just a way for the Ecuadorians to demonstrate their sovereignty over the Amazon, because it was on the Amazon slope of the Andes. And at some point the Peruvians noticed what they perceived was an Ecuadorian encroachment. I can’t exactly remember what it was. But the Ecuadorians expanded a little bit farther than they had before, and the Peruvians caught on and told them to stop. The Ecuadorians would not leave so the Peruvian military was given the order to oust them.
And the Peruvians tried. They had to walk through fifty to one hundred miles of mountainous terrain even to get to these little forts the Ecuadorians had constructed, which were very close to Ecuadorian supply lines. It was very, very difficult for the Peruvians. They had some minimum success at first but the Ecuadorians held pretty fast. They had all the advantages of terrain and supply. And to add to the Peruvians misery, the Ecuadorian Air Force was flying cover over these areas and when the Peruvian Air Force attempted to attack the Ecuadorian positions. The Ecuadorians shot down, I think, a total of about four or six Peruvian aircraft. Once again the Ecuadorian air base was much closer to the front than the Peruvian base. The Peruvian pilots faced horrendous weather in getting to the front whereas the Ecuadorians didn’t because they didn’t have to fly over the rain forested mountains. So there was just a horrible fight that was very, very damaging and very difficult for the Peruvians. This was an extremely popular undertaking on the part of the Ecuadorian military. For years, every Ecuadorian school child was taught that this was Ecuadorian territory and that the Ecuadorian army was simply attempting to obtain what was rightfully Ecuador’s.
On the other hand, Fujimori was not going to let Ecuador get away with it. And therefore the war ensued. The war was really a series of skirmishes. I do not know what the total death toll was but I imagine it was in the hundreds, with many more wounded. There was a cease-fire. Luigi Einaudi, then I think U.S. Ambassador to the OAS [Organization of American States], and who later became Assistant Secretary General of the OAS, headed up a group to try to find a solution. It took over a year but they did. Ecuador and Peru signed a Peace Agreement. I can’t remember the date.
I have an interesting story about the war. Our military attachés from the embassy were prohibited from going up to anywhere near the war zone by their own commander because of “force protection” concerns. Instead we sent up our Political Counselor, not to the front line, but to Peru’s forward staging area. We had him there for two weeks. He would report back to us by satellite phone on what was going on. It was ironic that the military was not allowed to go so we had to send our political counselor, a civilian. Sometimes the U.S. military imposes tighter restrictions on its people that we civilians. They were very frustrated. It was a difficult time.
Q: Were we trying to prevent Peru, which got its nose bloodied at the Sierra del Condor, from attacking somewhere else? After all, Peru is a bigger country with greater military potential than Ecuador?
MACK: Correct, yes. We particularly feared that since the Peruvians were at a tactical disadvantage where the war was actually being fought, they might attack somewhere else where they would have an advantage. We worried that they would go up the Pacific coast and try to take Guayaquil. Fortunately, the war ended before that happened. But it was a pretty tense two weeks. And, of course Fujimori went up to the war zone and walked around the jungle with his troops. Those were the days when Fuji was riding very, very high. He was seen as personally leading the defense of Peruvian sovereignty.
Q: How was it playing in Peru at the time?
MACK: Well it, I think the overwhelming majority of the Peruvian populace supported what it saw as Peru’s effort to defend its natural territory. We could hardly really take sides. We just wanted the two sides to stop and work out an agreement. Remember we had military missions on both sides. And we were in contact with the military on both sides. Our desire was to foster some sort of cease-fire.
Q: I was having an interview with Les Alexander who was in Ecuador during the war. He was having a hard time with the Ecuadorian military. He kept telling them that they were poking at a much bigger tiger than they were and urging not to do it.
MACK: The Ecuadorians were pretty full of themselves, I am sure. They were able to successfully hold off the Peruvians in that particular part of the country. But that didn’t mean they could hold them off in the coastal area where it would be much easier to run tanks across.
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Peter Romero’s interview was conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy starting on June 15, 2011.
Read Peter Romero’s full oral history HERE.
“So at the end of the colonial period these borders had whipsawed all over the place and so nobody really knew where the borders were. And so that gave rise to 150 years of fighting to figure out where the border was and this was no different.”
A Blast from the Past: Well, [this conflict] was complicated. Brazil, the United States, Chile and Argentina were the four “Friends of the Protocol of Rio” establishing where the border should be.
Q: This is the 1940s.
ROMERO: Yeah, ’41. Peru had invaded this whole area of the Amazon that Ecuador claimed, right on the cusp of Pearl Harbor and the Ecuadorians were our allies, but Peru was not allied with but inclining towards the Axis powers, as Argentina did, as Uruguay did.
And they sent a delegation from the foreign ministry to the United States and they spoke with Cordell Hull, who at the time was Secretary of State, and they said to Hull, “Peru just invaded and took a third of our territory. We’re your friends. They’re not. Help us!”
And Cordell Hull said, “I’m sorry to say, but you’re on your own. We just had something happen called Pearl Harbor and we’ve got serious issues in the Pacific and we’re also fighting in Europe, can’t help you.”
And so the Ecuadorians threw their hands up and Peru basically took all this land. Now, on Peru’s side of the issue, they felt that this land was never, ever really solidly claimed by either country, so they just moved in and when I say invaded, maybe they had 1,200 troops for this humongous area of the Amazon, but the Ecuadorians had nobody there.
See, the problem in Latin America is that a lot of these countries were formed from the Spanish crown. The Spanish monarch appointed viceroys or governors or whatever it was who were given a certain territory to administer. If you did well, they would expand your jurisdiction. If you did poorly, they would shrink it. So at the end of the colonial period these borders had whipsawed all over the place and so nobody really knew where the borders were. And so that gave rise to 150 years of fighting to figure out where the border was and this was no different.
What made matters worse was that this piece of land that was under dispute between the two countries had never been mapped, we had promised as one of the four Friends to do an aerial reconnaissance and photography of the border, but because this area had always been covered under clouds, we could never get a picture of it. And so neither country had a good picture of what was going in this stretch called the Cordillera del Condor, the mountain range of the condor and we had lost two planes and a helicopter trying to map that area, U.S. military aircraft, because you had a permanent cloud cover and mountain peaks that went up 5,000 feet and so planes were lost all the time, so we gave up.
We tried to do it with satellite photography, but we could never find a time when there wasn’t cloud cover. So basically they went to war in this little unmapped pocket.
To answer your question, had the war spilled out into the plains closer to the Pacific coast, basically Ecuador would have disappeared, Peru had much more armor, their air power was so-so, but they had much more in the way of naval forces and armor, they could have cleaned Ecuador’s clock.
But nobody wanted that, because they knew that there would be horrific losses on both sides. The militaries didn’t want to fight that war, either.
“Every Ecuadorian school child learned, from the moment that they knew how to read, was that ‘Peru stole your land.’ And now it’s not the case, it’s like it never existed. It’s amazing.”
The Conflict, Summed Up: So it was confined to this little remote area in the Amazon that was triple canopy jungle, five to six to seven thousand feet up, temperatures ranging from and soaking humidity down at the Amazon basin. 28 degrees to 110 degrees.
It was formidable and the Ecuadorians got there first, they riddled the whole area with mines to defend themselves, they were closer to supply lines than the Peruvians were. The Peruvian soldiers had to schlep through the jungle, over a hundred miles through the jungle, carrying packs of food and ammunition. The Ecuadorians could drive within twenty miles of the conflict area. The Peruvians would get air drops, but, again, the cloud cover was really tough. And by the time the Peruvian troops had schlepped all of this equipment and food, stepped on land mines along the way, the Ecuadorians just basically picked them off, it was bad. There were five Peruvian casualties for every one Ecuadorian and it was a nasty fight.
What comes out of it is a lesson for everybody, it was really magnificently done by courageous leaders who seized the day and negotiated a deal that was a win-win. Every Ecuadorian school child learned, from the moment that they knew how to read, was that “Peru stole your land.” And now it’s not the case, it’s like it never existed. It’s amazing.
“So they would hunt and gather and move across the border very freely, without recognizing whether they were in Ecuador or in Peru.”
Nationalism and Stirring Up the Conflict: If you look at a grade school map of Ecuador, it’s probably about forty per cent larger than the reality of Ecuador is today. Same thing with Peru.
And so there was a lot of built up nationalism about this issue and who owned what and in fact not so much Peru’s, but Ecuador’s national security doctrine was always geared towards Peru as the biggest enemy, because of this conflict. Troops stationed at the border. And what happened was, I had been there for about maybe two months and the Ecuadorian Army had control of that area and there were no real land owners there, it was all indigenous peoples that never recognized the border, they would cross into Peru, Peruvians would cross into Ecuador, there was never a border there in the thousands and thousands of years of their indigenous tradition, nor did they ever recognize one. So they would hunt and gather and move across the border very freely, without recognizing whether they were in Ecuador or in Peru.
So the army had a business holding company, the Ecuadorian Army, and they contracted out to a Canadian prospecting firm to look into that area to see what minerals were there and the prospecting firm came back and said that there were billions and billions of dollars in reserves of gold, silver, and platinum.
The problem was that for whatever reason the summary of that study was made public in Ecuador and as soon as it was made public it aroused Peruvian interest, obviously and when that happened Peru and Ecuador started moving troops into that area.
The deal that had worked for years and years, decades, if you will, is that notwithstanding the fact that Peru and Ecuador didn’t really know where the border was in that remote area, that the commanders of the closest military brigades would talk to one another: if they were sending a patrol out, they would alert the other side and vice versa and things kind of worked okay.
In fact, they had had soccer games, where the troops would slog through the jungle and they would have these soccer games between Peru and Ecuador, their soldiers. So things were okay.
“A significant proportion of the Peruvians that were killed in this conflict died because of mines that were sown by Ecuadorians on the only path that they could use, legs blown off and that sort of thing. And because they were so deep in the jungle, with triple canopy tree cover that made it impossible for helicopters to evacuate them, most of them just died right there, bled to death. It was a terrible thing.”
The Conflict Ramps Up: What happened was a couple of things: one, the new commander that was sent from the capital in Lima was a general who had been disgraced in the Upper Huallaga Valley and who had fallen out of favor with the then president, Alberto Fujimori, in Peru and as punishment, if you will, he was sent to head up this very remote brigade.
And when his Ecuadorian counterpart called him and said that they were sending a patrol into that area, the Peruvian general said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, about any deal here or any alerts or anything like that. Don’t do it, because if you do, you’re violating Peruvian national territory.”
I think part of it was, anybody who would have been in the Peruvian military, in that headquarters, would know that there was a deal, because that was their whole reason for being there. But because he had been disgraced and perhaps he wanted to win back favor, he started to inflame the situation and skirmishes began between the two, both sides started moving troops closer to the area. The Ecuadorians had infrastructure that was closer to the disputed area than the Peruvians did. The Peruvians had to literally slog for days in swamp and 110 degree temperatures and a hundred percent humidity. After this war started rolling, the Ecuadorians sowed those trails with land mines. A significant proportion of the Peruvians that were killed in this conflict died because of mines that were sown by Ecuadorians on the only path that they could use, legs blown off and that sort of thing. And because they were so deep in the jungle, with triple canopy tree cover that made it impossible for helicopters to evacuate them, most of them just died right there, bled to death. It was a terrible thing. There were skirmishes, there was shooting.
And the second thing that changed on the Peruvian side was that as this situation was inflaming between the two countries, Peru was in a presidential election campaign, Fujimori was running for reelection and he made the whole border dispute a central plank of his electoral platform, so that he could say, “We Peruvians will not stand for Ecuadorian encroachment on our national territory.”
Q: Peter, what was your job at that point?
ROMERO: I was the U.S. ambassador in Ecuador. And so this thing started heating up and there were skirmishes and shooting and outright battles. As I said, the Ecuadorians had all the advantages and quite frankly they did very well. There was a gentleman who headed up the Ecuadorian armed forces, his name is Paco Moncayo, I just saw him last week, he was here in town, he’s now a deputy in their parliament, after having been mayor of Quito for eight years, good guy. He had turned the military doctrine around, had studied Israel, how they had basically defended their national territory and that was his model and for the first time in their history the Ecuadorians were beating the Peruvians.
Peru was a much larger country, bigger military budget and none of that really counted, because they were fighting in the jungle, so it was just a man and a rifle, basically. Tanks and artillery and planes didn’t matter. And the war never spilled over to the coastal plains. Had it opened up there, Ecuador would have been at a distinct disadvantage, but it never spread from that disputed area, which was lucky for Ecuador.
“At that point, the Peruvian high command notified the Ecuadorians that President Fujimori was in that group that they were shooting at and that they needed to stop immediately. The Ecuadorians said, ‘So what? We kill the president, it’s even better.’”
Fujimori Visits the Front: In the middle of all of this and after the Peruvian general who had provoked all of this telling Fujimori, “Don’t worry, we’re winning, we’re winning” and obviously they weren’t, they were taking heavy casualties on a daily basis, Fujimori had to answer a lot of campaign rhetoric from those running against him that his rosy reports weren’t true. And so to prove that he was telling the truth, which he wasn’t being fed the truth by his generals, he took about a dozen reporters to the jungle, they flew into the military base and then helicoptered in to an area that became the central focal point of the battle, called Tiwintza. It was an Indian word. There was really nothing there, except for a clearing. And the Ecuadorians held the high ground and when he helicoptered in their gunners focused in on him and they started lobbing mortar shells all around where his party was. At that point, the Peruvian high command notified the Ecuadorians that President Fujimori was in that group that they were shooting at and that they needed to stop immediately. The Ecuadorians said, “So what? We kill the president, it’s even better.” It was a mistake, because the Peruvian could have shifted the focus of this war to areas more military advantageous to themselves.
In the midst of this battle, I get a call from the then assistant secretary, Alec Watson, who’s in San Francisco giving a speech at the World Affairs Club in San Francisco. He tells me that he just got a call from the Peruvian ambassador in Washington, a guy by the name of Luna and that Luna was telling him that Fujimori and the journalists were being bombed by Ecuadorian gunners on the high ground and that if anything happened to Fujimori there would be total war. I had to get to the Ecuadorian high command and get them to stop shooting, because the local general, Moncayo, wouldn’t stop. If I did this, all the Peruvians would do would be to take Fujimori out of there, evacuate him out of harm’s way.
I got the call about eleven o’clock at night in my residence and spent the next three hours getting in touch with the minister of defense, Gallardo, to try to get him to stand down, in touch with the president, Ballén, and then ultimately to Moncayo. And I told them that if they would just stop, that would permit the Peruvians to evacuate Fujimori and get him out of there and out of harm’s way, that’s what I had been told to tell the Ecuadorians by Watson.
They didn’t like it, but they stopped the shelling. And instead of leaving, Fujimori stayed for two more days and reported to the accompanying press that now the Peruvian military was indeed in control of the area making me look like an absolute idiot. He’s evacuated out after the two days are up and nothing happens to him, luckily and he goes back on the campaign trail. But it leaves a very sour taste in the mouths of the Ecuadorians.
“Our policy was neutrality, complete neutrality. We were one of the guarantors of the Rio Protocol. That meant we were strictly neutral.”
Debates Within the Bureau: The Ecuadorians, for their part, were believing that we were tilting towards Peru and they didn’t understand it, at all. They would show me pictures of Assistant Secretary Watson with his arm around the Peruvian ambassador in Washington, statements that Watson had made that were very pro-Peru. And I just sloughed them off. Our policy was neutrality, complete neutrality. We were one of the guarantors of the Rio Protocol. That meant we were strictly neutral.
Q: Did you feel there was a tilt?
ROMERO: Absolutely. And things like backgrounders where the front office of the bureau then called ARA, now called WHA, was basically saying that the Ecuadorians had no claim, that this was Peru’s territory, everybody knew it. And it wasn’t that open and shut, it really wasn’t. And it became bad, the relationship between the embassy and the front office, but particularly my relationship with Watson.
Q: Did you get on the phone, or—
ROMERO: I came back, on my dime and I met with him and I said, “Look, there’s a disconnect here and I want to do everything I can to get to the bottom of it.” And Alec said, “Oh, no, there’s really no problem. You sent in this cable that I thought was over the top and too pro-Ecuador, but you’ve explained it and other than that there’s no problem.” I go back. There was a decision in Washington, signed off by Alec Watson, to allow the Israelis to supply the Ecuadorians with spare parts for their Mirage jets.
Q: Mirage jets being originally a French jet.
ROMERO: Originally a French jet, but of course we had leverage on the Israelis. We stopped all resupply, any spare parts or anything, to either side once this war broke out. It affected Ecuador more than it affected Peru, because the Peruvians were always buying either French or Italian or Russian military equipment. In fact, they had MiGs in their air force inventory and after the war ended they bought a slew of Sukhois that never got off the ground, spending millions of dollars for planes that never flew. But, anyway, they were in a far better resupply position and if you know anything about this sort of thing, countries, when they decide to buy military equipment, have to be careful about where they buy it from, because when a war breaks out you don’t want to be cut off from spare parts.
So the Ecuadorians had a very U.S.-oriented inventory, particularly for their air force, but also for their ground forces and we didn’t supply them with anything once the war broke out. I did get an okay from Washington to supply some spare parts for their Mirage jets and I mentioned that in a press interview before they announced it in Washington. So I was dinged for that. I had thought that it was public information. I had cables showing that the decision’s been made. I misread the situation back in Washington.
“And I was thinking this is the end of my career, because they’re going to put the nail in the coffin, I’m done. The report was one of the most glowing reports on an embassy and an ambassador that had been written in an inspection.”
“Spot Inspecting” the Embassy: About a month later, I get a call from a senior inspector by the name of Bill Farrand, Senior Foreign Officer. He had just finished an inspection of our embassy in Bolivia and he said that he was coming to Ecuador to do a “spot inspection,” in other words it wasn’t your typical every four year inspection, this was being called for specifically by the front office in Washington to inspect my post because, as Farrand said, “You know why I’m coming.” And I said, “I don’t have a clue as to why you’re coming. Nobody’s told me anything. This is the first telephone call I’ve ever gotten in this connection. And he said, “Well, they think you’ve gone over to the other side.” In other words, “They think you’ve become pro-Ecuadorian, lost your focus.” There is nothing more lethal than to have an accusation that you have lost perspective and that you’ve gone over to the Ecuadorian side, or the Soviet side or whatever it is. That is an accusation that is absolutely lethal for a U.S. diplomat.
Q: Called “localitis.”
ROMERO: I was taken aback by it. I lost a lot of sleep over it, what else could I have done, that kind of thing. Bill Farrand and his team of about seven or eight inspectors get to post. He reiterates what he told me about being prompted to do this by Alec Watson and the front office, none of whom ever called me about this, told me it was coming, or even expressed any concern. And I said to him, “Look, I’m not prepared for you. We usually have months to prepare for an inspection. We’ve done some minimal preparations, but I want you to look at everything, I want you to talk to everybody here and I want you to look at our reporting.” He stayed for two weeks, the whole team, they looked at absolutely everything, they looked at our reporting, they talked to everybody, they talked to people on the Ecuadorian government side and they wrote up their report. And I was thinking this is the end of my career, because they’re going to put the nail in the coffin, I’m done.
The report was one of the most glowing reports on an embassy and an ambassador that had been written in an inspection. They call them IERs, an Inspector Evaluation Report. It said I ran a really good embassy. Their only criticism was that I didn’t get out as much as I should. He said to me, “Your people love you, they want to see you more and that’s my criticism, you don’t get out enough to see your people. But as far as what you’re doing, it’s superlative. In fact, I’ve looked at Embassy Lima’s reporting on the war and I see their reporting is much more tilted than yours. And not only is yours, I think, excellent reporting from a neutral perspective on the war itself, but you’ve made several recommendations in your reporting that have either been accepted by Washington or should be accepted by Washington, in our view and we think you’re doing an excellent job.”
I have to say that for the rest of my life I will be beholden to Bill Farrand for having taken this strong stand, not being influenced by people back in Washington, being willing to look at the situation objectively. Not only did he give me a clean bill of health, I got calls from people all over Washington in the management bureau who had access to Farrand’s inspection report who said, “We’ve never seen a report like this before on a principal officer.”
Q: To put it in perspective, when you get sort of a spot inspection like this, it’s usually initiated by somebody above your pay grade who’s saying, “Get rid of this guy” or something. In other words, it seems usually these reports are almost done deals before—
In this case, this guy, Bill Farrand, was an old school, curmudgeon type guy, nobody was going to tell him what to do, he was going to look at the facts. And I have to tell you, he saved my career. The report went to the then Under Secretary for Management, a guy by the name of Moose, who offered me all kinds of jobs in M and embassies after that. I took a job that I got on my own in the front office of WHA as the principal deputy assistant secretary, but it just turned my personal situation around. Alec Watson went into retirement after that. I got a clean bill of health and was kind of reestablished on a pretty solid career track.
Q: How did this impact on your work and the situation in Ecuador-Peru?
ROMERO: The front office was much more careful about what they did and said. I was able to get back the policy back to neutrality. I was able to work to get the four guarantors to send military forces into the region to separate the two sides, the Peruvian and Ecuadorian militaries, to be inserted in there, to be a peacekeeping force and oh, by the way, the Peruvians and the Ecuadorians paid for the peacekeeping force. And that’s the way, pretty much, I left it, when I left and went back to Washington to be the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary in the ARA bureau front office.
“So it was tough to be down there, but at the end of the day, when I came back to Washington and there was wholesale house cleaning, basically that tilt towards Peru ended and I think we were much more even-handed and because of that we were able to push for a definitive resolution of the conflict, successfully.”
Negotiating a Final Solution: When I got back, after a couple of years, the inserted peacekeeping forces, the three “friends” and us, were doing an excellent job, they were deploying in the area, had a small base in Ecuador and they had succeeded in keeping the two sides apart. But what had happened at the time, after I was back in Washington, was that the Peruvians were starting to move in the direction of where the Ecuadorian troops were and there was every reason to believe that the fighting would start all over again, notwithstanding the U.S. and other friends’ military forces as peacekeepers. I went down to Quito with a guy who we had chosen as a special envoy for the Peruvian-Ecuador dispute at the State Department, a person who was supposed to try to help overcome the conflict in a lasting way, not just separating forces but figure out where the border was and do offer remediation. Anyway, we were down there at the request of then-President Mahuad and we were in Quito, at the foreign ministry and I remember Mahuad saying, “I’ve done everything that I can and it seems like we’re going back to war. The Peruvian troops had moved into the disputed area that they’re supposed to stay out of, as we’re supposed to stay out of and their troops are moving as we speak and there doesn’t seem to be anything that I can do to stop it.”
And I said “Well, did you call Fujimori?” “Yes, I’ve called Fujimori, but he’s on the campaign trail and he won’t take my calls.” I said, “Did you have the foreign minister call the Peruvian foreign minister?” And he said, “Yeah, he refuses to return his calls, too.” And I said, “Well, you have no choice but to get in touch with Fujimori.” And he said, “I’ve called him twice, he doesn’t take my calls.” I was grasping at straws at this point.
Then I said, “Look, one of the things about Fujimori that you need to understand, he’s a very lonely man. He’s kind of a virtual dictator, the way he runs Peru. He cuts nobody else in and he only trusts two people. One is his spy chief, Montesinos and the other is his brother. Other than that, nobody knows what the hell he’s doing.” And I spent, as PDAS, a lot of time in Lima and I got that whole picture of how he governs, in a very solitary way. I said, “If you picked up the phone and basically said, ‘Let’s meet’ and made it a friendly thing, that you’re really reaching out to be his friend and that kind of thing, I think you might get traction on it.”
Mahuad agreed to meet with him in two days. They met, and the Peruvians pulled back that column that was inching towards Ecuador and we were able to get delegations from both countries, including Fujimori and Mahuad, up to Washington, where we were able to work on a definitive resolution of the conflict. They spent time in Washington, they spent time in Boston. We had a gentleman by the name of Roger Fisher, who was famous for writing the book Getting to Yes and he’d been involved in lots of international negotiating situations in South Africa and elsewhere, a well renowned negotiator, probably the best known negotiator in the world at that time and we’re talking ’98.
And the Peruvians and Ecuadorians spent a lot of time with him and they came up with a solution whereby, and this is really unique, the Peruvians would get sovereignty over the disputed area, but the Ecuadorians would be able to lease that area indefinitely for a dollar a year and both countries would be able to fly their flags there and there would be an international part that would encompass the whole disputed area and if there was ever any mineral exploitation or any other form of commercial development in the disputed area, both sides would have to agree to it and both sides would enjoy the revenue from it. That was it, a very simple thing. There was some murmurings on the Ecuadorian side, “We’re losing sovereignty” and this and that, but at the end of the day both countries signed it and right now there’s practically no troops on the border between those two countries, saving millions, if not hundreds of millions, of dollars from having to deploy troops in a hot area.
Q: Was ARA betting too much on the Peruvians?
ROMERO: Well, by the time I had gotten back, Stu, what had happened was the front office was cleaned out. Alec Watson retired. Jeff Davidow, who was our ambassador in Venezuela, took over as the assistant secretary. He chose me as his principal deputy assistant secretary. He had no dog in that fight, the Peru-Ecuador fight, Jeff didn’t and so he was neutral on it and I became his principal deputy, the number two person in the bureau, much to the chagrin of the Peruvians, who thought that I would use that position to be very anti-Peru. Which I did not. I think in the end this delighted them. The office director and the other deputy assistant secretary responsible for South America also left at the same time.
Q: Why had there been this tilt towards Peru? At one point Peru was certainly on our blacklist, because we had a bunch of international corporations whose property in that country had been expropriated without compensation. This goes way back, but Peru was not particularly on our “really good friends” list.
ROMERO: In fact, if you go back to World War Two, they never declared their alliance with the Axis Powers, but, just like Argentina, they were pretty much on the Axis side and if you go to the border along the coast in Ecuador you’ll still see U.S. gun emplacements, still there and bases that we built to stop a Peruvian advance in the coastal plains and also a fairly significant U.S. presence on the Galapagos Islands, to include an officers club which is humongous, it’s got the longest bar I’ve ever seen, still there, built by U.S. forces that were stationed there for anti-submarine work during World War Two and to monitor Peruvian forces.
The argument that the Ecuadorians made was, “We’re your friends.” We had a little dustup in the Sixties, what they called the Tuna War, where there were continental shelf boundaries that we didn’t agree on, but other than that, our relationship has always been good. “We’re your buddies, we’re allies, we’re a democracy. Peru is an abbreviated democracy under Fujimori. We’ve thrown our lot in with the U.S. military. They train us. We buy equipment from them. And this is how you treat us! You cut us off!” So it was tough to be down there, but at the end of the day, when I came back to Washington and there was wholesale house cleaning, basically that tilt towards Peru ended and I think we were much more even-handed and because of that we were able to push for a definitive resolution of the conflict, successfully.