Bits & Pieces

November 29, 2010

War With Costa Rica

On September 11, 1900, Emile Loubet, President of France, acting in the capacity of arbitrator for the 1896 treaty between Colombia and Costa Rica, rendered a decision establishing the common border between the two nations.  This border started at Punta Burica on the Pacific, splitting the point in two and moved north to what appears to be Cerro Pando.  Then it went west to Longitude 83 and then northeast to what appears to be Punta Mona.  The 1904 map available to me is not very clear.

Apparently neither Colombia nor Costa Rica were too pleased with the frontier and, when Panama gained its independence in 1903, it took over the controversy with Costa Rica.  The two countries were not able to settle the dispute and on March 17, 1910, the two parties agreed to submit to a decision by the Chief Justice of the United States.  On September 12, 1914, Chief Justice E. Douglas White rendered a decision granting the Coto district on the Pacific to Costa Rica and a small parcel on the Atlantic, in Bocas del Toro, to Panama.

Panama was not happy with the decision and refused to move out of the Coto district, an area west of the town of Progreso.  Things finally came to a head when Costa Rica move their troops into the contested area on February 21, 1921.  By February 26, Panama had put in motion a plan to push the Costa Ricans back and had raised 2000 men to add to their military forces.  However, the lack of weapons and ammunition allowed only some 200 to be sent to the contested areas.  Nevertheless, the Panamanians moved their military headquarters to Progreso, a town owned by the Panama Sugar Company, and which was connected by a narrow gauge railroad to the small port of Pedregal on the Pacific coast.


Costa Rican prisoners, with their officers in front, at Taboga island.
The old Aspinwall Hotel is on upper left hand corner, 1921.
Photo: Epocas, May 1997

From Progreso, the Panamanians advanced on the Costa Ricans in the Coto area capturing some 200 with their officers, which were then transported to the island of Taboga for internment until hostilities came to an end shortly afterwards.  But relations between Costa Rica and Panama remained cool until Dr. Arnulfo Arias was elected president in 1940.  One of the first problems President Arias resolved was the border dispute between Costa Rica and Panama establishing the frontier as it stands today.

The most unfortunate tragedy of the 1921 conflict was the narrow gauge railroad accident that took place on March 18, 1921, at the port of Pedregal near David.  On that day, the last wagon on the train broke loose from the column and, gaining much speed on its downhill run, plunged into the estuary.  The wagon was carrying passengers as well as a load of ammunition.  Four were killed and several injured.  Among the dead were Colonel Tomas Armuelles, Colonel Benjamin Zurita, Captain Arcadio Porto and Adjutant Francisco Duran, all drowned when pinned down by the ammunition crates.  The injured included Colonel A.R. Lamb and a Captain Yebras. Today, the important Port of Armuelles on Charco Azul Bay,  carries the name of the fallen Panamanian Colonel.


Isthmian Canal Commission Sanitarium, later the
Aspinwall Hotel, on Taboga Island. around 1915.
Photo source unknown.

Sources: Story compiled from Internet articles including the American Journal of International Law.

- Luis R. Celerier
Longview, Texas