What is the Leticia Incident?

Introduction

The Leticia Incident, also called the Leticia War or the Colombia-Peru War (01 September 1932 to 24 May 1933), was a short-lived armed conflict between Colombia and Peru over territory in the Amazon rainforest.

In the end, they reached an agreement to divide the disputed area between them.

Background

Civilian Takeover

The Colombia-Peru War was the result of dissatisfaction with the Salomón-Lozano Treaty and the imposition of heavy tariffs on sugar. The war started with an internal insurrection in Peru and a civilian takeover of the city of Iquitos.

On 01 September 1932, President Luis Miguel Sánchez dispatched two regiments of the Peruvian Army to Leticia and Tarapacá; both settlements were in the Amazonas Department, now in southern Colombia. Those actions were then mostly ignored by the Colombian government.

Colombian Patriotism

It was not until 17 September that the Colombian government took notice. The Peruvian forces, which were encamped on the banks of the Putumayo River, stopped several large trade ships from traveling to Leticia.

The result was an explosion of Colombian patriotism. Laureano Gómez, the head of the Senate minority, proclaimed, “Peace, peace, peace in inner Colombia; war, war, war on the border against our despicable enemy.”

On 19 September, El Tiempo reported that it had received over 10,000 letters calling for war and control of Leticia. The same day, thousands of Colombian students marched through the streets of Bogotá chanting, “Sánchez Cerro will die and Colombia will defy!” Vásquez Cobo was declared the general of the Colombian Amazonian Navy, and 10 million dollars were approved by the Senate to fund his venture. Over 400 kg of gold were donated by the Colombian cities as a symbol of gratitude to the Huilan engineer César García Álvarez.

Hostilities

Sánchez believed that Colombia had no chance of defending itself since it lacked roads and a proper navy, and the Amazon region had no Colombian military presence. It was not until December 1932 that General Alfredo Vásquez Cobo reached the mouth of the Amazon River with a fleet of old ships that he acquired in Europe. Within 90 days, Colombia organised a respectable military response to the Peruvian invasion. Herbert Boy and other German Aviators of SCADTA, which later became Avianca, fitted their commercial planes for war as a temporary Colombian Air Force.

The first attack by the Colombian Navy was on Tarapacá. The city was chosen because Leticia was on the border with Brazil, and the Colombian Forces preferred to attack a softer target rather than the well-defended Peruvian positions in and around the city. The retaking of Tarapacá was bloodless since no Peruvian troops were present.

On 14 February 1933, the Peruvian Air Force had attempted to bomb the Colombian Fleet, but most bombs had missed their targets.

The Peruvian forces in Leticia could not be forced to withdraw, but the events in Lima and the assassination of the Peruvian president changed the situation. The new Peruvian president ordered the undefeated Peruvian troops to leave Leticia. Part of Peru’s Pacific fleet came through the Amazon River to engage in combat.

Rio de Janeiro Protocol

On the same day, Colombian President Enrique Olaya broke off all relations with Peru because of the aerial attack. He ordered an attack on Leticia, but it was repelled by Peruvian troops.

On 30 April 1933, Peruvian President Sánchez was shot dead; 15 days later, his successor, Óscar Benavides, met with the head of the Colombian Liberal Party, Alfonso López Pumarejo, to secure an agreement to turn Leticia over to a League of Nations commission.

Colombia and Peru met in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to sign a peace treaty. In the Rio de Janeiro Protocol, Peru stated, “We sincerely deplore the events that occurred starting September 1932. Specifically those that damaged our relationship with Colombia.” The Salomón-Lozano Treaty was also reaffirmed by the treaty.

Resolved by the League of Nations, which upheld the Salomón–Lozano Treaty, and the Rio de Janeiro Protocol, which was signed by Colombia and Peru and reinstated the status quo ante bellum.

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