Chile-Peru border dispute: back on

Chile's President Sebstián Piñera filed an official complaint Feb. 12 laying claim to 3.7 hectares (nine acres) of desert on the border with Peru—re-opening the border conflict between the two nations after a January ruling at The Hague had resolved a long-standing dispute on the maritime boundary. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled that Chile could maintain its sovereignty of fishing waters near the coast but granted Peru control of deeper waters to the southwest. After the ruling, Peru's government released a map designating the contested land triangle as its own—which was immediately rejected by Santiago, citing a 1929 treaty. Piñera's formal assertion of sovereignty over the contested strip follows friction with Peru's President Ollanta Humala at Pacific Alliance summit in Colombia earlier in the week. Following the meeting, Piñera publicly broached withdrawing from the Pact of Bogotá, the regional treaty granting the ICJ jurisdiction in international disputes.

The future of the dispute will fall to Chile's president-elect Michelle Bachelet, who takes office on March 11. José Antonio García, one of the Peruvian representatives during the ICJ case, charged that Piñera's move was a play to nationalism to boost his ratings in the final weeks of his term. "He wants to leave office throwing a tantrum, as this grand defender of his nation," he told Lima's La República.

The new dispute is rooted in the geographical details of the ruling. The ICJ found that the maritime boundary is to follow a parallel out from "border marker number one," located about 320 meters inland. From this point, a line was drawn straight out to sea for 80 nautical miles. However, the land border slopes to the southwest from border marker number one, ending at the Punto Concordia—according to Peru. Because the terrestrial border is not parallel to the new maritime border, a triangle of land under Peru's control is now claimed by Chile.

If the land does belong to Peru, it is now a "dry coast"—bordering sea waters under another nation's sovereignty. But Peru's chief negotiator in the ICJ case, Allan Wagner, said: "The court ruling was over the maritime border and not over the land border. There is no way the two can be tied." (Santiago Times, Feb. 13; WSJ, Jan. 29; Peru This Week, Jan. 28)

Despite recent tensions between Peru and Bolivia, the two nations continue to make common cause against mutual rival Chile. President Humala and his Bolivian counterpart Evo Morales are to meet in Lima later this month to discuss the potential use of Peru's southern ports for Bolivia’s export and import trade. Morales, who will arrive in Lima on Feb. 27, said that the talks are "well advanced." The Lima meeting wil focus on construction of a new "mega-port" at Ilo, in Peru's Moquegua region. (Peru This Week, Feb. 15)

Moquegua lies just outside the area traditionally contested between Peru and Chile. The dispute goes back to the War of the Pacific (1879-1883), a conflict over control of the nitrate industry in the Atacama desert, in which Chile defeated Peru and Bolivia, annexing Bolivia’s coastal territory of Antafogasta and the Peruvian regions of Tacna, Arica and Tarapacá. Chile was supposed to hold a plebiscite after 10 years in which the populations of Tacna and Arica would decide which country they wanted to belong to. It failed to do this; US mediation in 1929 awarded Tacna to Peru and Arica to Chile, and fixed the land boundary between the two countries. In the 1980s Peru’s diplomats began to argue that while the land border was settled, the maritime boundary wasn’t. In 2008, Peru brought its case to the ICJ—with the support of Bolivia, which is considering its own suit against Chile. (The Economist, Jan. 28)

A new inter-oceanic highway linking Brazil and Peru through Bolivia is currently under construction, potentially making the territory fought over in the War of the Pacific a strategic hub for the boosted global trade foreseen in the pending Trans-Pacific Partnership.

  1. Bolivia demands return of Chile coastline

    Bolivian President Evo Morales on April 15 filed a lawsuit in the International Court of Justice laying claim to a 240-mile area in Chile that provides access to the Pacific Ocean. (Jurist, April 16)