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Bolivia: The Legacy of the Chaco War
Country Study > Chapter 5 > National Security > Evolution of the Military Role in Society and Government > The Legacy of the Chaco War


From the outset of the Chaco War (1932-1935), Bolivia's Aviation Corps -- with forty-nine aircraft, including twenty-eight combat aircraft -- established aerial superiority, flying frequent tactical support and bombing missions. Its transport element also was active in supplying the troops in the combat zone. Once mobilized, Bolivia's army consisted of nine divisions and more than 12,000 troops, a number that later rose to 25,000. However, in addition to being ill equipped, poorly supplied, and disastrously led, the army consisted largely of homesick, bewildered highland Indians (indios) from the Altiplano (highland plateau) who had been conscripted or impressed into service. They fought stubbornly and stoically, but the more resourceful, better-led, and determined Paraguayans, with a mobilized force of 24,000, gradually pushed them back.

Throughout the Chaco War, Bolivia's army Staff (Estado Mayor -- EM) feuded with the civilian leadership. The civil-military relationship deteriorated, creating a legacy of bitterness that continued into the postwar period. The war was a humiliating defeat for Bolivia, as well as for its German-trained army. Of a total of 250,000 Bolivian troops mobilized, as many as 65,000 were killed. Moreover, Bolivia not only had to give up most of the Chaco territory but also spent the equivalent of some US$200 million in its war effort, nearly bankrupting the already impoverished nation.

As a consequence of the debacle in the Chaco, Bolivia's army became more politically aware and ready to act as an institution in pursuit of its own political goals. It began by deposing Daniel Salamanca Urey (1931-34), the elitist president who had led the country into its disastrous foreign war. For the first time since 1880, the army returned to power. Although both Bolivia and Paraguay were required by the terms of the armistice to reduce their armies to 5,000 men, Bolivia circumvented the restriction by creating a military police "legion" as an unofficial extension of the army.

After the restrictions of the armistice lapsed with the signing by both countries of a peace treaty in 1938, Bolivia built up its battered army. The army retained its basic prewar organization, although units formerly assigned to the Chaco were necessarily relocated. In an effort to professionalize the military, the regime of Colonel David Toro Ruilova (1936-37) invited an Italian military mission to establish two military academies in Bolivia: the Superior War School (Escuela Superior de Guerra -- ESG), the former CEM in La Paz for EMG officers; and the "Marshal José Ballivián" School of Arms (Escuela de Aplicación de Armas "Mariscal José Ballivián" -- EAA) in Cochabamba, primarily for junior officers. The new schools provided instruction for the first time in such subjects as sociology and political science. Nevertheless, the Italian missions, along with other military missions from Spain and Czechoslovakia in the 1920s and 1930s, had little impact on Bolivia's Armed Forces (Fuerzas Armadas -- FF.AA.).

During this period, Bolivia and the United States also established close military cooperation for the first time. Beginning in 1941 and 1942, United States aviation and military missions were active in Bolivia, and the country began receiving limited military aid under the wartime Lend-Lease Agreement. The United States air mission reorganized the Aviation Corps into the Bolivian Air Force (Fuerza de Aviación Boliviana -- FAB), which remained subordinate to the army.

Despite gradual improvements in professional standards, the military remained a traditional institution for decades after the Chaco War. The officer corps -- divided and fractionalized by interservice rivalry, personal ambitions, differing ideological and geographical perspectives, and generational differences -- was alternately dominated by reformists and conservatives. The reformist military regimes of three colonels -- Toro, Germán Busch Becerra (1937-39), and Gualberto Villarroel López (1943-46) -- all contributed to the polarization of the officer corps along generational and ideological lines. The conservative business leaders who took power in 1946 attempted to reverse the trend of military control of government by having military courts try more than 100 field-grade and junior officers for political activities proscribed by the constitution of 1947; many were convicted and discharged from the army.

Data as of December 1989

Last Updated: December 1989

Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Bolivia was first published in 1989. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on

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