The Chilean and Bolivian Border Committee gathered in late-July 2017 for the first time since 2011 in a critical step toward reducing tension
Before diving into the latest incidents on the border, it might be useful to bring background the poor bilateral relationship of Chile and Bolivia. The neighboring countries have not had full diplomatic relations since 1978 and disputes concerning territory date all the way back to the days of the Spanish Empire. Perhaps the deepest source of animosity links directly to the War of the Pacific.
Having signed the Treaty of Ancón to end the war in 1883, Bolivia relinquished a total of 46,000 square miles of territory to Chile, including 240 miles of coastline. From that day forward Bolivia became a landlocked country and its citizens have watched Chile gain economic wealth from the copper riches of its former land. Considering the deep-rooted conflict and lack of diplomacy, coupled with a recent flare up involving the detention of one another’s other law enforcement officials, this particular meeting held more political significance than usual.
The latest quarrel began in March 2017, after Chilean authorities captured nine Bolivian customs officials near the border and accused them of using unauthorized crossings to steal trucks. Although the Bolivian government protested that their public servants were attempting to seize a truck suspected of smuggling, the government workers were not released. Tension built through bickering between Chilean and Bolivian authorities and the situation escalated drastically in May when Bolivian President Evo Morales ordered for the militarization of the border, ostensibly to combat illegal contraband.
In June, Morales threatened to report Chile to the Organization of American States for the violent detention and torture of the customs officials. Although relations continued to sour, Chilean authorities went ahead to charge and convict the Bolivian detainees with crimes including robbery and the illegal trafficking of arms before releasing them with a substantial fine on the 28th of June.
The storyline took a twist on July 7th when Bolivian authorities detained two Chilean police officers who had allegedly crossed over the border in pursuit of a reported stolen vehicle. While both countries braced for a lengthy continuation of the struggle and possible revenge, Morales opted to seek the moral high ground and allowed the Chilean officers to leave freely on the 9th. During a press conference, Morales explained that the immediate release would demonstrate a lesson on how tolerance succeeds over revenge and hatred.
The leaders of both countries promptly agreed to reinstate the Border Committee. The meeting on July 25th focused on cooperation and coordination on issues such as drug and human trafficking, smuggling and the synchronization of police forces, among others. The two countries pledged to hold talks on specific topics over the next couple months before the Border Committee convenes again at the end of October with the intention of approving protocol.
The incidents along the border over the last few months have put extra strain on an already weak bilateral relationship between both nations. A lack of border coordination and exchange of information is harmful for both countries and opens the door to further mishaps or serious conflicts. It also leaves openings for international criminal rings to operate, something neither the citizens of Chile or Bolivia deserve in their communities. The continuation of the Border Committee may not solve deep-rooted issues, but it is surely a positive step toward mending Chilean – Bolivian bilateral relations.
*Bolivia and Chile are currently awaiting a decision on the International Court of Justice (ICJ) the September 2015 announcement it would hear arguments from Bolivia over the border dispute. Bolivia is not seeking for Chile to return the lost coastline, but for Chile to be forced to negotiate a route to the ocean on peaceful term
Latin American Post | Eric Smoley
Copy edited by Susana Cicchetto