A Brief History of the Dirtiest, Most Destructive Wars in Latin America
The deadliest wars in Latin America have killed millions of people, leaving consequences that continue to shape the region’s history and current events.
Humanity has been involved in war throughout our existence. In most conflicts and wars, the majority of people affected are innocent civilians. In an attempt to exert dominance and power over nations, political parties, or ideologies, countries start wars, often overlooking the impact and consequences they will bring.
Reasons for Wars in Latin America
As technology and industrialization advances, war poses a destructive threat that brings instability and terrible economic, social, and political consequences.
Several scenarios may lead a nation or group to go to war:
A battle for resources and the desire to take over wealth is one of the main reasons wars in Latin America occur. Battles for gold, oil, or minerals have been and continue to be fought in many Spanish-speaking countries. As the population increases and resources become more scarce, wars for basic necessities like water and food are likely to happen.
A nation decides they need to control larger portions of land for industrialization, agriculture, connectivity to other countries, or other purposes like a threat of invasion.
Religion and Nationalism
This reason for conflict has deep roots and is mostly based on ideology. Among wars in Latin America, the conquista of indigenous territories and groups during Spanish colonization is a perfect example of religion used as an excuse for battle and genocide. Extremist ideologies lead to nationalism and feed the desire of a group to prove superiority over others with racism, xenophobia, and inequality.
Revenge and Defense
Some countries go to war as retaliation and punishment against those who’ve done them wrong. When it comes to defending territory and its citizens, on multiple occasions, nations prefer to attack before someone else strikes them first.
This happens when a part of society is unsatisfied with leadership and causes a revolt. Revolutions occur for different reasons and often transform into devastating civil wars.
Can Violence Solve Conflicts?
I honestly believe that this depends on what you consider a resolution. For me, violence is never an answer. However, some wars in Latin America taught us that after a long period of conflict, a time of peace and balance may follow.
Nevertheless, other wars in the region prove that if the main cause of conflict doesn’t go away, it may arise again more violently in the future. It could also compromise any chance for development and better living conditions for the population.
The way wars are fought continues to evolve, and face-to-face combat is no longer the main activity. Most nations try to avoid going to war and look to resolve conflicts peacefully.
Wars in Latin America have been destructive and damaging, and they’ve compromised human dignity in multiple ways. These conflicts endanger social progress and economic development and halt or reverse society’s growth. Today, the most affected areas are still plagued by an overwhelming and harsh reality.
The 4 Worst Wars in Latin America
Let’s take a look at a brief history of four of the dirtiest, most destructive wars in Latin America.
1. La guerra de la triple alianza (The Triple Alliance War)
La guerra de la triple alianza was the bloodiest conflict in South America. It started in 1864 as an armed conflict between Paraguay and Brazil. The following year, Argentina and Uruguay became allies of the Brazilians, hence the name triple alliance.
The conflict started due to military intervention in Uruguay from the Brazilian government. The Uruguayan president Atanasio Aguirre requested the support of Paraguayan forces and president Francisco Solano Lopez, which at the time made them allies against the Brazilian empire.
The forces of Paraguay retaliated against Brazil and took control of the major cities. Paraguay had no access to the ocean, so Uruguay allowed them to use their coast for trading and commerce.
The next year, Aguirre was replaced by Venancio Flores as the head of Uruguay. Flores was a longtime friend of Brazil, and this disrupted the initial collaboration between both countries.
Francisco Solano decided to attack Río Grande del Sur, Brazil , so he requested permission from Argentinian president Bartolome Mitre to pass Paraguayan forces within his territory. The request was denied, and the suspicion of an alliance between Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay grew stronger. Paraguay took a head start and declared war on Argentina.
This conflict arose in a period where South American borders were yet to be defined and independence from European countries was recent. It escalated quickly and became an ongoing battle that resulted in the invasion of Paraguay. This war was so vile because the triple alliance vowed to end the conflict until Solano Lopez was killed. The war lasted until 1870 when the Paraguayan president was killed in combat.
The triple alliance suffered close to 120,000 casualties. Paraguay, on the other hand, faced severe consequences and lost the war. Historians considered the massacres a genocide, as close to 280,000 people died—half of the country’s population at the time. The majority of Paraguayan victims were civilians, including thousands of child soldiers.
In the end, Paraguay lost territory to Brazil and Argentina. The Brazilians also demanded hefty compensation from the Paraguayan government and occupied the country for six years, delaying any sort of development or economic growth the country would have experienced on its own.
2. Revolución Mexicana (The Mexican Revolution)
The Mexican revolution started in 1910 and dates back to the military dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz, who stayed in command for 35 years. During his government, Mexico experienced notable economic growth, although at an extreme social cost.
Díaz’ government intimidated the population into supporting him, and they restricted the freedom of the press. His biggest injustice was land reforms that expropriated land from Mexican farmers and granted it to wealthy non-nationals. Revolutionaries led by Emiliano Zapata, Pancho Villa, and Francisco Madero were part of this long conflict, which led to Porfirio Diaz’ resignation in 1911.
Even though the subsequent government led by Francisco Madero promised to overturn these land reforms, efforts were unsuccessful and led to a violent execution. Madero was replaced by General Victoriano Huerta, who turned out to be worse than Díaz. To this day, he’s considered the most authoritarian leader in Mexican history. The opposition was so divided that ultimately revolutionaries turned against each other and nearly every revolutionary leader was assassinated.
The United States attempted to interfere multiple times in the conflict, as they believed it harmed American economic interests. US troops were briefly in Mexican territory to support General Huerta in the struggle again revolutionaries like Zapata.
Ultimately, Huerta was replaced by another dictator, Venustiano Carranza, in 1914. A democratic constitution was created during Carranza’s rule and several rebel demands were accepted in 1917, but fighting continued for almost 10 years and led to decades of Mexico being under the rule from the National Revolutionary Party (PRI).
To top it off, this violent period included an influenza pandemic that killed close to 500,000 people. The Revolución Mexicana is considered one of the most violent wars in Latin America, even though the numbers are not entirely accurate and no census was done, historians estimate that the casualties range from 1.9 to 3.5 million people.
3. Conflicto Armado Interno de Guatemala (Guatemalan Armed Conflict)
The Guatemalan civil war was fought from 1960 to 1996 between the Guatemalan military government and various leftist rebellious groups. A liberationist invasion in 1954, a coup by the military supported by the US government, and a battle for land between indigenous farmers and multinational agricultural corporations led to this 36-year long conflict that continues to shape Guatemala.
The government prosecuted citizens didn’t agree with their actions. Students, artists, missionaries, community leaders, and union workers were considered enemies of the state. The war was fought mostly in rural territories but also affected urban areas with forced disappearances, kidnappings, and bombings.
The most violent period of this war was during the 1980s when the military was under orders of now-convicted General Efraín Ríos Montt. During his ruling, he applied a policy of mass murder in Mayan communities who were thought to be allies of the guerrilla.
Appalling human rights violations took place, and innocent people were exterminated without cause. Guatemala’s armed conflict left more than 200,000 casualties and over 45,000 people missing, including 5,000 children. According to Guatemala’s Comisión de Esclarecimiento Histórico (Historical Clarification Commission), 626 massacres took place during the conflict—93% of these were attributed to the army.
Guatemala’s current poverty, malnutrition, inequality, and political instability are consequences of this long period of violence. Even though peace accords were signed in 1996 thanks to international mediation, the attempts of several sectors of society to deny this vile history continue to take place.
The prosecution or assassination of those who seek to uncover the truth like Monseñor Juan Gerardi is a reality. Thanks to efforts by the International Commission of Human Rights (CIDH), many of the perpetrators have been convicted of crimes against humanity and genocide. The Mayan population has a long road ahead for healing. The civil war destroyed Guatemala’s social construct and gave origin to the migration influx to the United States that continues to this day.
The effort to recover the historical memory and give voice to the survivors continues. You can learn more about Guatemala’s civil war in the book Guatemala Nunca Más (Guatemala Never Again) written by the Human Rights Office of the Archbishop of Guatemala (ODHAG).
4. Conflicto Armado Interno de Colombia (Colombia’s Armed Internal Conflict)
Colombia’s history is marked by 60 years of armed conflict. Initially, unequal distribution of land and lack of spaces for political participation gave rise to the use of violence and armed forces. This strategy only became stronger with the eruption of narco-terrorism, drug-trafficking, new political actors, and the Cold War.
This is one of the longest wars in Latin America, and its origins date back to 1960 to the assassination of Communist leader Jacobo Prías Álape. The war began officially in 1964 with the creation of two guerrillas: the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN).
During one period of the war, there were five active guerrilla groups. The Colombian government received assistance in logistics, strategy, and weaponry from the United States. Along with the army and guerrillas, other paramilitary-type structures supported by conservative actors were strong and responsible for intense human rights abuses across the country.
This conflict was a result of social and political crises, unequal distribution of wealth, and systematic political corruption. The military and political wanted to protect the status quo and targeted opposition parties, activists, and students.
This violent history is responsible for 7.7 million displaced Colombians. Afro-descendants and indigenous populations were heavily affected. Battles took place in the poorest rural areas in the Colombian rainforest. 81% of the casualties were civilians and were subject to torture, massacres, kidnappings, and extrajudicial executions.
Thanks to international mediation and efforts of then-president Juan Manuel Santos, a peace accord was signed in 2016 between the government and the FARC forces. However, the conflict has not been completely resolved.
As of 2020, Colombia is still plagued by heavy instability, poverty, and narcotrafico. According to Colombia’s Registro Unico de Victimas (Unique Victims Registry), 8,376,463 people have been affected by the war, with 983,033 of those murdered; 10,237 cases of torture; and 38,814 kidnappings.
Hopefully, Colombia isn’t doomed to continue this horrible conflict. Although the peace negotiations don’t represent an immediate ceasefire, they create room for reintegration and de-escalation of violence in isolated and remote parts of the country.
Were Any Lessons Learned?
I believe these devastating events and wars in Latin America left a valuable lesson to modern society. By honoring the victims and survivors, we’re able to preserve historic memory so these horrible atrocities won’t be committed again.
Was this information new to you? Can you name another conflict in Latin America I might’ve missed? I would love to hear your thoughts! Leave a comment, and let’s start a conversation about wars in Latin America.
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