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Colombia: The Leticia Conflict
Country Study > Chapter 5 > National Security > Background and Traditions of the Armed Forces > The Development of the Modern Armed Forces > The Establishment of United States Military Ties


During the early 1930s, the navy still lacked the ability to defend Colombia's coastal waters from external attack, but the preceding decades of domestic warfare had enabled the small force to build a substantial riverine fleet. These vessels proved important in helping Colombia hold its territory during a 1932 war with Peru. The conflict, which centered on control over the Colombian harbor town of Leticia on the Amazon, had its roots in a boundary dispute dating from the colonial era. The treaty, however, failed to specify with geographic precision the location of the colonial boundary. A second agreement, proposed in 1930, was considered favorable to Colombian interests but was never acknowledged by Peru.

Four subsequent treaties between Colombia and Peru -- signed in 1906, 1909, 1911, and 1922 -- also dealt with boundary claims and charges of Peruvian penetration into southern Colombia's Putumayo region. The 1906 treaty affirmed both countries' willingness to withdraw from the area while ownership of the disputed territory was settled by arbitration. Colombia revoked the treaty during the following year, however, and troops from both countries moved back into the region. The 1909 treaty attempted to end the continuing fighting among the settlers in the region as well as between the settlers and the region's Indian population. Although both countries agreed to work toward an arbitrated settlement, the issue was never submitted for arbitration.

In 1911 Peruvian troops attacked the Colombian garrison at the river town of Puerto Córdoba, giving rise to the July treaty in which both countries agreed to limit the number of troops in the area. The 1922 treaty recognized the legitimacy of Colombia's boundary on the Amazon River and provided for free navigation of the river by both countries. Because of continuing objections to the treaty's terms, however, Peru did not ratify the treaty until 1928. Upon Peru's ratification of the pact, it was widely believed that the Putumayo dispute had at last been resolved. Two years later, Colombia took possession of its territory in the region.

On September 1, 1932, over 300 armed Peruvian civilians seized the town of Leticia in a demonstration against the 1922 treaty. In response, the Colombian government announced plans to send a force of 1,500 soldiers to repel the invaders. Upon learning of Colombia's intent, the Peruvian government -- which had earlier criticized the invaders' action -- moved to support its nationals. The first skirmishes took place in early 1933, as the Colombian river fleet made its way up the Amazon to the site of the invasion. After months of diplomatic wrangling over the selection of a mutually acceptable forum for the peaceful resolution of the dispute, Colombia and Peru accepted mediation by the League of Nations. A provisional peace agreement, signed in May 1933, provided for the league to assume control of the disputed territory while bilateral negotiations proceeded.

In June 1934, following the signing in May of yet another bilateral treaty, Leticia was returned to Colombia. Under the terms of the May pact, Peruvian concessions included a formal apology for the 1932 invasion and a reaffirmation of Peru's acceptance of the 1922 agreement. The treaty also provided for demilitarization of the area around Leticia, free navigation on the Amazon and Río Putumayo, and a pledge of nonaggression. As a gesture of mutual goodwill in continuing bilateral cooperation, the settlement also provided for future negotiations on trade and tariff issues, riverine transport, population settlements in the region, and the joint policing of the common border. In September 1935, the instruments of ratification were exchanged.

Following the dispute's resolution, national attention was again directed to the strengthening of Colombia's military forces. Despite the role played by the riverine fleet, the invasion of Leticia exposed the military's overall lack of preparedness. During the mid-1930s, the legislature approved higher budget allocations for the armed forces. Recruitment efforts intensified. By the end of the decade, however, military spending again had declined. Comparable levels of military expenditures as a percentage of the national budget were not again achieved until 1949, when defense allocations represented approximately 17 percent of central government expenditures.

Data as of December 1988

Last Updated: December 1988

Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Colombia was first published in 1988. 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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