The Ambassador in Peru (Dearing) to the Secretary of State

No. 2242

Sir: I have the honor to refer to the Embassy’s telegrams No. 208 of October 10, 8 p.m. and No. 210 of October 11, 4 p.m.,2 and to report further on the frontier disorders which occurred on October [Page 352] 9th on the Zarumilla River, the boundary between the Peruvian department of Tumbes and the Ecuadorian province of El Oro.

The island called Pocitos on the Zarumilla River lies between an old river channel and the present channel, and is about eight miles long and eight miles wide on its longest dimensions. This island is claimed by both Peru and Ecuador, the Peruvians claiming that the old river channel is the dividing line while the Ecuadorians assert that the present river channel is the line.

This is a tobacco region and people from the Ecuadorian towns of Huaquillos and Chacras and from the Peruvian town of Zarumilla grow tobacco on Pocitos island. The Peruvian occupation has probably been more effective. The Ecuadorians ship their tobacco to Guayaquil and the Peruvians to Lima. In both cases the tobacco business furnishes a heavy item to the tax collectors.

During the past few months there has been talk of the passive Ecuadorian objection to Peruvian possession of Pocitos developing into concrete action. An Ecuadorian official commission visited the zone on July 21, 1932, with a view to preventing the events which occurred in October. The expedition was under Lieutenant Colonel Miguel Saona and is said to have arrested a group of Peruvians and taken them prisoners to Machala, Ecuador.

Both Ecuador and Peru maintain police and customs guards on this frontier. The present trouble seemed to have been precipitated on October 8th when an Ecuadorian telegraph operator named Manuel Muñoz, who was bathing in the river, was arrested by Peruvians. He was later released. It seems that a group of Ecuadorian police, customs guards, and civilians then went over into Pocitos and destroyed some of the Peruvian tobacco plants and tore down their fences. They were driven out by the Peruvian Civil Guard and retired to Chacras, where they were reorganized and an Ecuadorian force of about forty police and twenty customs guards returned and pushed the Peruvians back across the Zarumilla. One Peruvian farmer was killed. There are no reports available in Lima as to the number of wounded, if any. A number of shots were exchanged and for a time the situation was indeed serious. The Peruvians were led by the Prefect of Tumbes, who arrived during or after the skirmish, while Ecuador sent forty police and fifty armed volunteers from Machala under Acting Governor Jorge Barrezueta. It seems that the hostilities ceased through parleys between the Prefect and the Acting Governor. Peru has a censorship on news but it is believed that the Peruvians remained in possession of Pocitos, and it is certain that the frontier guards have been reinforced until Peru has at least three hundred men in the vicinity of Zarumilla.

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The Lima press has minimized the incident which it states was an unimportant clash between frontier customs guards. It is understood that the matter must be arranged by the Foreign Offices of the two countries and has been so announced by both Peru and Ecuador.

Commander Guzman Marquina, the chief confidant and reliance of Sanchez Cerro, was sent by plane to the Ecuadorian frontier on October 14th and is reported to have straightened out the confusion and placed the situation on a plane whereby peace would be assured pending a settlement by diplomatic means.

It is natural that the Peruvian and Ecuadorian accounts of the genesis of this incident should differ. I have talked to Dr. Solon Polo at the Foreign Office and to the Ecuadorian Minister, Señor Aguirre Aparicio. Oddly enough, there was a similar incident at Zarumilla and Pocitos in 1907, at which time Dr. Polo was the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Peru and Señor Aguirre was Ecuadorian Minister in Lima. A number of notes were exchanged after that incident and Peru seems to have had somewhat the better of these exchanges as they published them in a book, and also retained all or most of Pocitos island. At any rate, Polo and Aguirre have been experts on Pocitos for twenty-five years.

Doctor Polo stated that just prior to the 1907 incident, President Pardo of Peru, in order definitely to proclaim Peruvian ownership of the island, made a trip there and while physically standing on the disputed ground, sent a telegram to the President of Ecuador, with his greeting from Pocitos. The President of Ecuador accepted the situation and replied cordially.

Doctor Polo gave me a reference in the Boletín of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Año 5 No. XXII, beginning on page 2523 with a full discussion of the Zarumilla boundary arrangement. There was a map in the Boletín showing how the Zarumilla river had divided into two channels, an old one and a new one. The old channel or that to the north is, according to Doctor Polo, the real boundary and has been so accepted by Ecuador. Thus, the territory between the two channels, or Pocitos island, is Peruvian territory. The note from Doctor Polo to Señor Aguirre, dated October 28, 1907, enumerates many reasons why Pocitos should be considered as Peruvian and closes by saying (translated);

“Apart from the fact that the old channel is not completely closed up because in times of heavy rains there is a considerable quantity of water, the principles which rule international accession and which I do not repeat in order not to offend the well known erudition of Your Excellency, give to Peru unquestionable sovereignty over the lands comprised between the two channels of the river”.

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Doctor Polo now tells me that Peru has had the most friendly response from the Ecuadorian Government and its officials in the present incident, and that even the Ecuadorian Government officials along the border itself have been quick to cooperate in the suppression of trouble and to say that they have no ulterior intentions or motives. Doctor Polo thought the incident would not be magnified and gave me to understand that Peru certainly did not wish any difficulties or unfortunate developments in that quarter. He further stated that he was not yet very accurately informed and that while the news despatches had stated that the incident would be handled by the respective foreign offices, this did not indicate any particular gravity and that he was confident that the matter, which was unimportant, would soon blow over.

I was not able to see the Ecuadorian Minister until yesterday. Señor Aguirre gives an entirely different account from that furnished by Doctor Polo. He manifested that all Peruvian pretensions to Pocitos island are false and absurd; that the Zarumilla is the boundary and that the old channel is dried up and has had no water for two hundred years. As confirming this fact, eight of the oldest inhabitants of the region, four Peruvians and four Ecuadorians, were recently brought to the river and questioned regarding the old boundary. All of them made affidavits to the effect that they had never known the old bed of the river to be considered as the boundary.

Señor Aguirre states that the land in dispute is unquestionably Ecuadorian and that the situation contains serious possibilities; while Ecuador wants to be left alone, it will not stand for nonsense in this matter. Señor Aguirre stated that he has consistently warned the Foreign Office that it was in the wrong, and has promised to keep me informed of future developments.

A feature of this situation which is not being stressed in the Lima press is the likelihood that the Ecuadorians will be encouraged and incited by the numerous Aprista deportees now living in Ecuador. These include some of the most brilliant men of Peru and probably none of them will hesitate at any means to injure Sanchez Cerro.

While the attitude of the Peruvian public is apathetic toward this incident, it seems that there is considerably more interest in Ecuador. Peruvian censorship does not allow publication of any reports of the Ecuadorian reaction.

The interesting angle is, of course, the rapprochement between Ecuador and Colombia and the further isolation of Sanchez Cerro. Ecuadorian assistance would be tremendously useful to Colombia in the event of war with Peru, and the Leticia dispute and whatever [Page 355] comes from it will doubtless give Ecuador the best opportunity it has ever had to recover its former boundaries to the East.

The following is an extract translation from a featured article in El Telegrafo of Guayaquil, Ecuador, of October 11, 1932:

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Respectfully yours,

For the Ambassador:
William C. Burdett

First Secretary of Embassy
  1. Neither printed.