February 18, 2021
by François Bignon, Ph.D in history (Université de Rennes – Arènes UMR 6051) and Adjunct Faculty at the Université de Rennes 2. He was the coordinator of the Andes office of the Institut des Amériques in Lima from 2014 to 2017.
End of January 2021, the Americas director of Amnesty International condemned the militarization of the border between Peru and Ecuador. Following warning shots fired by the Peruvian army in the direction of groups of Venezuelan migrants, she called for "limiting the use of armed forces when dealing with migrations to avoid a tragedy".
While Peru, hit by a terrible second wave of the epidemic, had just declared a new border closure, the Peruvian army mobilized a large number of troops in the area, sending at least 1 200 soldiers and fifty armored vehicles to control several dozen illegal crossing points used by Venezuelans. Faced with rumors of an upcoming retreat, the commander-in-chief of the Peruvian armed forces was even saying that 3 000 soldiers were present in the region, while his services were posting a pugnacious video on social media to reassure Peruvians that the borders were controlled.
This border militarization that leans on the dual situation of a pandemic and the Venezuelan migration should be analyzed in light of a long conflictual history that could come back to the forefront. We often talk about the new vaccine geopolitics, but tensions relating to the pandemic are also reviving preexisting disputes.
Even though fighting against a virus at the national level is not always compatible with a virus that scorns borders, we know that the global pandemic has reinforced international borders worldwide, thus underlying the inherent weaknesses of their multilateral control. In the Americas, the pandemic has impacted previously opened borders, crossed by significant demographic and economic flows, such as the one between Canada and the United States and the one separating Argentina and Uruguay. In Europe as in the Americas, the reorganization of the international borders has less affected the elites, who can stay connected at home, than the new worlwide migrant poor people, condemned to try to cross borders that are now closed.
The situation between Peru and Ecuador is no exception. The Peruvian militarization is being carried out against the illegal crossing of Venezuelan migrants under the guise of fighting against Covid-19. This reinforced control is only done on a small portion of the 932 mile long land border between the two countries. Most of the border cuts accross the Amazon forest, where in fact the virus is hitting without mercy in the Andean-Amazon region, as in its Brazilian section. But, because of the intense flow of people, it's on the western side of this border that tensions are concentrated, where the winding Zarumilla river constitutes the international limit between the two countries. The corridor between Huaquillas (Ecuador) and Aguas Verdes (Peru) is therefore the main land crossing point between the two countries.
Yet, since the dawn of time, Zarumilla is far from having traced a consensual border. Quite the opposite, with the huge Amazonian territories, it has been at the center of a dispute that has often been considered the longest border disagreement of the continent and has led to several wars.
Boggled down in the process of getting their independence from Spain at the start of the 19th century, the disagreement between Lima and Quito about the common border has been complete for over two centuries. The Ecuadorians claimed all the lands up to the Tumbes river on the South of Zarumilla, while the Peruvians sometimes considered all of Ecuador's El Oro region as Peruvian. In the Amazon, the dispute was about the hundreds of thousands of square miles. The first war in 1829 (involving the Gran Columbia) was followed with those of 1858-1859, 1941, 1981, then finally 1995. The existence of the two Andean countries has therefore been deeply marred by this territorial rivalry. The regional integration process initiated in 1969 by the Andean Pact did not help finally settle the dispute. The two countries continued to turn their backs on each other by forming preferential business exchanges with the South for Peru and with the North for Ecuador, exhibiting cordial indifference rather than searching for co-development between two populations that yet share a lot culturally. In fact, the Andean Community of Nations is stagnant today.
The belligerent heritage of this relationship is still alive in today's regional landscape, through different commemorative monuments of the 1941 war during which the El Oro Ecuadorian province was occupied by the military, forcing thousands of people to leave the area, leaving behind persistent resentment. A historical propaganda movie celebrating the stunning Peruvian victory in fact has just been added to the country's cultural heritage. Also, in 1995, while clashes were taking place on the Amazon foothills of the Andes mountains, very far from the Zarumilla region, the residents of the region had strong feelings, convinced the Peruvians were getting ready to "invade" them.
The absurdity of the last war between the two Latin-American countries however brought a final agreement. In 1998, peace was finally signed in Brasilia, along with a set of border development projects that had limited success.
Since, the relationship between the two countries is in theory normalized, but on occasion disagreements on the management of the border can reappear on the landscape of this painful history. In 2017, the construction of a green space along the border river was interpreted by the Peruvian authorities as the building of a wall, violating the peace agreements. Following the Peruvian ambassador's admonition, the Ecuadorians stopped the project.
But whereas, specifically in this case, the challenge was to allow the legal free flow of goods and people, the global pandemic completely reversed the positions.
The rapid spread of the virus on the American continent, as well as Guayaquil's disastrous situation, located directly North of the border, quickly made president Martin Vizcarra's government decide to closely control the arrivals on its land. The situation was all the more critical that the illegal crossings had increased with the massive arrival of Venezuelan migrants.
Peru is actually the second country in number of exiled Venezuelans welcomed on their soil, housing one million of them. Warmly welcomed at first, the migrants have had to increasingly deal with economic problems and xenophobia. Since June 2019, the Peruvian authorities require them to have a visa in order to limit the arrivals.
In this context, the Zarumilla river has become the theater of most clandestin crossings. These happen in both directions: Venezuelans going from Ecuador to Peru, but also Peru to Ecuador when some of them, blocked in a Peru in full-blown pandemic, decide to go back home on foot. These crossings are often used by smuggling networks who are structurally implanted on the border of this uneven geography. Since the 19th century, smuggling regularly adds fire to the fuel between the two governments who blame the other for the illegal activities of the neighbor's citizens, while using the situation to legitimize the increase in police and military troops.
So it is based on a well established tradition that the Peruvian army decided to remilitarize the border to counter the illegal influxes and dismantle crossing points, taking the risk of reviving dormant tensions. Could then Covid-19 and the Venezuelan migration herald future conflicts around a historically litigious border?
Of note, contrary to what was happening 25 years ago, it seems, officially at least, that cooperation is overriding competition. The Ecuadorian army is thus exhibiting its cooperation with the Peruvian forces, like it is doing with the Colombian neighbor. The presence of armed forces on both sides does not have the same warring potential then when both countries clashed on the very definition of the border.
Furthermore, Peruvians and Ecuadorians are focused on the political and public health situation of their own country rather than on their common border. At the beginning of 2021, it is the electoral deadlines that are in the news. Ecuadorians were electing their new president during a very contested first round on February 7, while the Peruvian campaign was launched for the April elections, with in the background structural political instability and intense debates on the importance of vaccines and the use of specific medicine.
So the focus is not really on the border, and it is mainly the local populations who are suffering from the border check put in place by the military, ruining a fundamentally transnational local economy, even if food continues to cross the border. For Venezuelans stuck at the border who have no resources and nationals who must go work in the neighboring country, the tragedy is never far, as we saw in the case of a Peruvian woman who was wounded when she was shot by a Peruvian soldier while trying to come back into her own country near Huaquillas.
Faced with this kind of demonstration by the Peruvian forces, the Ecuadorians seem slow to react. The armed forces announced on February 1st that they were sending 200 soldiers and 20 vehicules on the border. The official reason was to cooperate with Peruvian forces, but one can presume to think that the Ecuadorian armies therefore hope to reaffirm their sovereignty by occupying the land. Also, a few days prior, the Ecuadorian Defense minister declared the need to reorganize border troops, perhaps a prelude to a bigger move.
"Nos dimos cuenta que hace falta reforzar con personal. Tenemos destacamentos permanentes fijos a lo largo de la línea de frontera, algunos fueron levantados y vamos a tener que volverlos a reactivar ".
Oswaldo Jarrín, Minister of Defense (Ecuador), January 28, 2021
["We realized we needed to increase our troops. We have permanent detachments all along the border, some were removed and we are going to have to reactivate them"].
Though the border rationale has changed, the lasting presence of militaries in the region could therefore provoke a renewal of tensions with the increase in incidents. The elections in both countries is also likely to reshuffle the deck, especially if the public health crisis continues. The new presidents, Ecuadorian and Peruvian, could be tempted to gain at low cost an increase in legitimacy by using a classic nationalistic rhetoric.
The militarization of the border between Peru and Ecuador could in this way reverse long term the openness which had prevailed since the 1998 peace. The consequences of this situation would mostly affect the local border populations who, today like in the past, are the first to be impacted by the cost of these clashes.
 Anne Marie Hocquenghem and Étienne Durt, "Integración y desarrollo de la región fronteriza peruano ecuatoriana: entre el discurso y la realidad, una visión local", Bulletin de l’Institut français d’études andines, April 2002, 31 (1), p. 39-99.
François Bignon holds a Ph.D in history (Université de Rennes – Arènes UMR 6051) and is Adjunct Faculty at the Université de Rennes 2. He was the coordinator of the Andes office of the Institut des Amériques in Lima from 2014 to 2017. His thesis focused on the process of building a border and national identities around the 1941 war between Peru and Ecuador.